Lane Kiffin connects with Trojans

LOS ANGELES -- For the past two years, Lane Kiffin has said as little as possible. His wave-making days seemingly were over, left behind in Oakland and Tennessee, where the ocean's so far away, sometimes you have to create your own waves to get anyone to notice you.

At USC, "the greatest job in America" as Kiffin likes to say, the talent and tradition are such that you can go surfing every morning. There's always buzz here. Always attention. And it will find you, not the other way around.

So Kiffin had been quiet. Boring, even. His daily news conferences were about as exciting as watching someone eat a bran muffin.

All that stuff about Kiffin being arrogant and loud and petulant during his one season in Tennessee felt like a hundred years ago. He seemed like an entirely different guy.

The Kiffin we'd come to know at USC let his players be the story. His focus was on the team and making sure the NCAA sanctions leveled against the program became a historical footnote, not a historical era.

In his first two seasons, Kiffin was extraordinarily good at it. So much so that even the most skeptical observer had to consider the idea that this was the real Kiffin. The person he has always wanted to be but had to sublimate because he formerly coached in places where he needed to be somebody else.

The thought didn't last long, however.

While Kiffin may not have been seeking the attention this time around, it found him again and put him back in an unflattering light.

It started with the seemingly trivial story before the season opener against Hawaii that Kiffin was closing the Coliseum for visiting teams to do walk-throughs. It continued two weeks ago when a reporter was banned from practice after reporting on an injury that occurred in a game. USC's new injury policy forbids reporters who attend practice from reporting on injuries or strategy observed during practice. The reporter was later reinstated.

Then came the devastating 21-14 loss to No. 21 Stanford on Sept. 15, which may have dashed the Trojans' national championship hopes.

Then came the video seen round the world last week of Kiffin abruptly ending a media session after 30 seconds and running away when a reporter asked about a formerly injured player returning to practice.

All of a sudden Kiffin was the story again. His actions, his reactions. Whether he was coming from a good place on it all -- trying to protect his players by not giving away information about their health that opponents might use against them -- he'd gone about it the wrong way.

"I don't think he plans that stuff," his father and USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said recently. "Sometimes it just happens. He's a real competitor. He can be a little bit short sometimes.

"But he's a good guy. Sometimes that competitive edge just comes out in him sometimes. He's got to control it sometimes. But he doesn't intentionally do it."

Intentional or not, you can't ignore it. And now, you can't help but rethink all of his good behavior over the past two years and wonder again who the real Lane Kiffin is.

Is he the blowhard who stirred the pot at Tennessee? Is he the precocious star the late Raiders' owner Al Davis took a liking to before their inevitable fallout? Is he the focused, savvy coach who helped lead USC out of its darkest hour these past two years?

Saturday night, after USC pulled out an uneven 27-9 victory over California, it appeared Kiffin was back on message. Quiet, boring, letting his team be the story. Stepping as far out of the spotlight as possible.

"After last week, none of us were happy about that," Kiffin said after the win over Cal. "And throughout the week, a lot of people tried to get in and tear [the team] apart.

"I thought they did a great job of preparing, staying focused and coming out really hard. It wasn't perfect; we screwed some things up on offense. But I thought our guys played really hard, really physical. That very easily could've been a hangover game, which you've seen around the country."

It was a good, simple answer that revealed very little. I didn't think much of it until a few minutes later when senior safety T.J. McDonald spoke.

"We didn't stray apart as a team," McDonald said. "We stayed together even though people were trying to pull us apart."

It could have been a coincidence that Kiffin and McDonald used similar language to describe the week. But it probably wasn't. No, something else was going on. Lane Kiffin's players were listening to him. Taking in what he was saying, swallowing it whole, then adopting it as their own.

Lane Kiffin was getting through.

True, the Trojans' offense wasn't clicking. And there won't be too many highlight tapes cut with footage from Saturday's game. But if there was something the Trojans could feel good about at the end of the night, it's that they all seemed to be of the same mind and matter.

"Just stick together," Kiffin said, when asked what his message to the team has been this week. "Everybody gets knocked down. … It's how you respond from that. Do you go back to work and do you practice really well?"

He was speaking to his team, but he may as well have been giving himself an affirmation. It had been a rough week. The way Kiffin responded was just as important and revealing as the way his players did.

"It was hard for everybody," Monte Kiffin said. "The expectations were so high. We had to put a lot of it on ourselves."

The jury is still out on Lane Kiffin. Who is he? Who should he be?

This week we did learn a little something. Lane Kiffin may not want to say much to the public, but what he's saying to his team is getting through.

What kind of guy is he? What kind of coach is he?

This week at least, he's the coach who got his team ready to play.