Commentary

USC shows little fear by hiring Kiffin

Updated: January 13, 2010, 1:41 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

If USC is living in fear of the other shoe dropping, it responded by landing the first kick. Hiring Lane Kiffin to replace Pete Carroll while under the NCAA's microscope appears to be either suicidal recklessness or confident defiance.

It's being cornered by a bear and poking it with a stick. And the beauty of it all is this: We could have an idea how the NCAA feels about getting jabbed in a matter of weeks.

Of course, would you expect any other move from USC athletic director Mike Garrett, particularly after his first three choices reportedly turned him down? Garrett doesn't strike me as the type to curl into a fetal position during these moments of stress. He strikes me as the small guy who throws the first punch just so the big guy doesn't throw the last one. It was a quick jab, no doubt. He didn't officially begin his search until Monday and, by Tuesday evening, he had his man.

Garrett knows Kiffin, which might be the key. He often steers his designer shoes from his office at Heritage Hall to the Trojans' practice field across the street during the fall months. As he watched practice a few years ago, he apparently had his eyes on Kiffin while he worked.

Back then, Kiffin was a bright-eyed, eager young coach with good bloodlines and a tendency to rankle his peers. He came in as the receivers coach, then worked (or wormed, depending on whom you believe) his way up to be offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

"What I saw was a bright, creative young coach who I thought would make an excellent head coach here if the opportunity ever arose," Garrett said.

Great, but here are the stakes: The month before members of the Trojans' athletic department is scheduled to visit with the NCAA Infractions Committee in Tempe, Ariz., USC brings back the whiz kid coach known for playing it fast and loose on the recruiting trail.

From here, it certainly looks as if USC is telling the NCAA, "Bring it on."

That phrase, by the way, sounds like something Kiffin would say in a pregame handshake. It sounds like something he implied when he arrived at Tennessee and accused Florida coach Urban Meyer of recruiting violations. He turned out to be wrong about Meyer, by the way.

If Kiffin commits a couple of secondary recruiting violations early on -- and he had two within his first three months at Tennessee -- the Trojans' file sitting on a desk somewhere in Indianapolis could grow fat enough to hurt somebody.

Kiffin strikes you as the kind of guy who doesn't particularly care who he ticks off. He could have picked on one of the low-level coaches in the SEC, but he challenged the king of Dixie, Meyer. Maybe that's why Garrett likes him so much. They're a fearless duo.

Kiffin wasn't unanimously popular at USC when he arrived and started stepping on toes in 2001. Norm Chow certainly wasn't a fan. After a brief, bad psychedelic experience known as coaching the Raiders, Kiffin started talking again in the SEC to louder headlines.

None of the above is to imply that hiring Kiffin is a lousy move. It's just a risky one. Make that a RISKY ONE!

The advantages are subtle but crucial. He's a Carroll protégé who runs a similar, if not identical, system. The majority of recruits should be thrilled. Kiffin might even bring a few with him by the Feb. 3 signing day. Quarterback Matt Barkley, who would have had to slog through a whole new play book, probably can learn Kiffin's during spring ball and be ready to rip by the opening game in Hawaii.

Kiffin is the front man of this deal but don't neglect the fine print. Kiffin's dad, Monte, will become the Trojans' defensive coordinator. If you watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the year they won the Super Bowl, you get a pretty good idea he knows a thing or two about prying footballs from an opponent.

And Ed Orgeron returns as assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator. Since Orgeron left USC, plenty of observers have complained that the defenses just looked soft. They didn't have that blue-collar intensity he exuded. Orgeron's fiery, southern parables seem to have worked for him in the recruiting wars, too. I don't know the guy, but he sounds like a drill sergeant with a lovable side.

You can forget about Kiffin's previous stops. He went 5-15 with the Raiders, but he was being given orders by a man, Al Davis, who lives in his silver-and-black pajamas and apparently thinks 1984 never ended. He went 7-6 at Tennessee, but there was a reason the Volunteers ran steady Phillip Fulmer out of town and brought in the brash young kid. Knoxville needed a breath of fresh air, and Kiffin was on his way toward airing it out.

Wherever Kiffin goes, the whirlwind follows. Just brace yourselves, Trojans fans.

Mark Saxon is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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