Expectations rising for Lane Kiffin

LOS ANGELES -- Year 1 was the getting-to-know-you period for USC athletic director Pat Haden and football coach Lane Kiffin. The stakes were low, kind of like a first date at a coffeehouse in the middle of the afternoon.

Haden learned how Kiffin coaches (which he later professed admiration for), and Kiffin learned how serious Haden is about cleaning up the mess around Heritage Hall before the NCAA does it for the Trojans (again).

Year 2, which starts bright and early Tuesday morning with the start of spring football, gets a bit more serious. It figures to start the evaluation period. With the NCAA investigators continuing to sniff around Kiffin's one whirlwind season at Tennessee, the last thing he can afford is another five-loss (or worse) season while coaching the Trojans.

After he disciplined USC basketball coach Kevin O'Neill, Haden said, "Winning any way other than the right way is not winning at all."

Of course, losing the right way isn't a whole lot more satisfying than winning the wrong way. Just ask the boosters if USC loses to Notre Dame again and stumbles through a third straight mediocre season. Kiffin has a knack for calling plays and he clearly can recruit, but the facts are these: In three head-coaching stints between the NFL and college, he has a combined record of 20-26.

On the cusp of his second season at his "dream job," Kiffin said he wasn't feeling any more pressure than he was 14 months ago, when he started.

"Our fans have extremely high standards just like we do," Kiffin said. "None of us was pleased with [last year], not the fans or the coaching staff. We've just got to get better and improve next year, learn from our mistakes. Three games came down to one play."

The coaches have a few things going for them that they didn't have 12 months ago. They know their returning players and the players know them. The coaching staff experienced less turnover than in recent seasons, with the exception of a new receivers coach and the loss of tight ends assistant Keary Colbert.

Kiffin and his staff now know the lay of the land in the Pac-12, which was more of a backdrop to USC glory when Kiffin last was in town, but has become a rough neighborhood. They also have a highly ranked recruiting class coming in, though most of those players won't be practicing until August.

Yet Kiffin sounded far from confident that 2011 will be better than 2010 when I caught up with him Monday. For one thing, he's staring at a schedule with road games at Oregon, Arizona State, Cal, Notre Dame and Colorado (in November), a schedule that doesn't have a single game against a non-BCS school.

Kiffin swallows and calls it an "exciting schedule."

For another thing, he's looking at an injury list that takes him five minutes to read out loud. The Trojans have 20 players, including some of their best and most experienced, who either won't practice this spring or will get a late start. The list includes linebackers Chris Galippo, Devon Kennard and Shane Horton and one of the few returning offensive linemen, Khaled Holmes. At this point, Kiffin thinks most of the injuries will be healed by fall camp, but the many absences could make spring practices virtually useless.

"It'd be real tough to say this team is better than last year with all the questions at linebacker and offensive line," Kiffin said.

If Kiffin can't promise progress at this point, what is there to look forward to for USC fans? He said he hasn't heard a peep from the NCAA appeals committee, which the Trojans asked to drop the second year of a bowl ban and rescind some scholarship penalties.

Obviously, these are trying times for USC football and they're also trial days for Kiffin's hopes of one day rebuilding the dynasty.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter: @markasaxon