Commentary

Lane Kiffin: Rude or real?

Updated: August 1, 2010, 6:51 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Lane KiffinAP Photo/Damian DovarganesLane Kiffin wears sunglasses during interviews. He says some stupid things. And he's not too popular in the state of Tennessee. But is he really that different from you and me?

Evel Knievel tried to jump the Snake River Canyon. David Copperfield tried to make 747s disappear. I'm going to try to defend Lane Kiffin.

To read the columnists, Kiffin, USC's new head football coach, apparently eats poached children for breakfast, sticks sharp things in the eyes of the elderly and drowns kittens for laughs.

Kiffin is the most hated man in football right now, by a par 5. If he met Tony Hayward right now, Hayward would go, "Come on, man! Have you seen what they're writing about you?"

Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Mark Bradley has called him a "brat" and a "jerk." ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski called him a fraud, an egomaniac and a two-faced weasel. Former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto says "you would Wite-Out Pol Pot's name to hate [Kiffin]." (Ratto prefers the guy who murdered around 2 million Cambodians.)

So when you meet him, you expect to at least see a "666" shaved in his hairline. Instead, what you get is a tall, slender, friendly 35-year-old with the very odd combination of baby fat in his cheeks and gray hair on the sides of his head. "Got that in Oakland/Alameda," he says, reminding you he once worked for Al Davis, who called him a "liar" who was "bringing disgrace to the organization." When you're accused of disgracing the graceless Raiders, you've done something.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesWhen Al Davis fired Lane Kiffin in 2008, he said he "picked the wrong guy." Among other things.

ARE you reading what they're writing about you?

"Sure," he says. "I have to, just to see what's coming next. But it doesn't bother me."

Psychotherapy?

"Nope."

So what makes Kiffin the worst human being since Judas? Let us count the ways:

1. They say he has the manners of a hungover raccoon.


He stands accused of not calling Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher for permission to talk to Titans running backs coach Kennedy Pola (Troy Polamalu's uncle). Pola took the job, causing Fisher to blow a gungalator, and call out Kiffin as "less than professional." Then the Titans sued Kiffin and USC for "unlawfully" trying to lure Pola away.

Sued!

The lawsuit is phonier than Tori Spelling, of course. Pola, who played at USC and has a son who's going to walk on there, was the only one legally obligated to ask permission, not Kiffin. It would've been nice for Kiffin to do it, "but not everybody asks the head coach first when they're looking for an assistant," Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh said Thursday.

USC says that Kiffin called Pola first and said, "Let me know if you're interested and I'll call Coach Fisher and let him know we're talking to you." But Pola got wrapped up in the decision, according to USC: Stayed up all that Friday night and didn't call Kiffin back until he'd already talked to Fisher on Saturday. By then it was too late.

OK, slightly poor form by Kiffin. Big whoop. Happens every day in football. The suit is just a ticket ploy. After all, what better way to sell Titans seats than letting everybody in Tennessee know how much the Titans hate Kiffin, like everybody else in the state? Kiffin bolted the head-coaching job at the University of Tennessee to come to USC in the first place. Maybe the ad slogan will be: "Come to the games and we can all hate him together!"

But if you think the state of Tennessee is ever going to sit a jury and hold a trial on this one, then Scopes is a monkey. When I asked Kiffin if he'd patched it up with Fisher, he said, "Yeah, I think he has a better understanding of what happened."

So why doesn't he drop the suit?

"Because he's not suing me. The Titans are. And it's not really about Jeff and I."

What's it about?

"It's about where the lawsuit is located."

Exactly.

2. They say he's disloyal.


He stiffed Tennessee after only one 7-6 season. He told Rocky Top he'd be with them through thick and thin. Even middle-named his son "Knox," short for Knoxville. But Kiffin coached six seasons at USC as an assistant and considered the head-coaching gig his dream job. So when Pete Carroll suddenly bolted USC (Hey, anybody naming a sewage treatment plant in L.A. after Carroll?), he jumped at it.

What better way to sell Titans seats than letting everybody in Tennessee know how much the Titans hate Kiffin, like everybody else in the state?

Who would leave a fairly new job to take a much better job and better pay at the place you love more than any place in the world? You, me and everybody we know. That's who.

And don't forget, Kiffin knew USC was about to be hit with some whopper sanctions by the NCAA over the Reggie Bush case, sanctions he had no hand in creating. He came anyway. And now that the sanctions are twice as bad as he thought they'd be, is he leaving? Is he complaining? No, he's trying to make filet mignon out of horse meat. He's stuck with 71 players when every other team will have 85. He's stuck with trying to sell kids on a school that will have no bowl games for two years and a Swiss-cheese roster. Is that disloyalty to Tennessee or loyalty to USC?

3. They say he's arrogant.


He showed a silo full of it in his 14 months at Tennessee. He said more stupid stuff there than a high school freshman on his first night out drinking. He went all WWE and tried to draw attention away from Florida and Alabama, except he screwed it up royally. He wrongly accused Gators coach Urban Meyer of violating a rule (turns out he himself was the one in violation), wrongly accused a prominent high school of cheating (he promised to apologize) and allegedly told a recruit who ended up at South Carolina that he'd spend "the rest of his life pumping gas." (He denies it.)

At USC, he has seemed like the good twin. In 199 days on the job so far, his quotes could cure insomnia. "At Tennessee, because Meyer and [Alabama coach Nick] Saban were signing anybody they wanted to, we had to shake things up, get our name out there. We weren't left with much talent after Coach Fulmer left, but USC is different. The perception about USC in America is already extremely powerful."

Then again, of the 10 Pac-10 head coaches who took the podium Thursday at the Rose Bowl for media day, Kiffin was the only one who did it with his sunglasses on. Sometimes, it's the little things that tick people off.

Kiffin is a sports writer's dream. He says he's not going to talk about a thing and then he eventually does, usually in some cliffside way that leaves his PR guy holding his breath. There's a reason he writes more apology letters than Amtrak.

The Titans lawsuit is a perfect example. I asked him about it a couple of ways and he begged off, but when I asked him a third time, with a lunch table full of writers around, he burst. The man bursts a lot and it usually ends up getting him cooked.

"Ahhh," he scoffs. "In the end, we're either going to win and everybody's going to forget about all this, or we're going to lose and everybody's going to say, 'Told you so.'"

I don't know. USC has a new no-bull president (Max Nikias), who didn't hire him, and a new no-bull AD (Pat Haden), who didn't hire him. And they both want to keep the NCAA as far from campus as possible.

I just wouldn't go naming my next son Troy quite yet.


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