Garrett puts himself on line with Kiffin

1/14/2010 - USC Trojans

The day this past November that Steven B. Sample announced his retirement as USC president, a school spokesman simply picked up the phone and called the Los Angeles Times. He thought about having a news conference but then imagined the scene that might unfold.

"I didn't want to have a president sitting there with nobody in the room," spokesman James Grant said.

Fast forward two months to Monday, when Pete Carroll stood at a campus podium and talked about his departure to the Seattle Seahawks. More than 100 media members crammed into a tiny, windowless room that quickly grew humid because of body heat.

Two days later, when Carroll's successor, Lane Kiffin, entered the same room to scattered cheers and a cacophony of snapping camera shutters, the body count had grown to fire-hazard levels. Dozens of fans, mostly USC students, jammed one of the building's exits, straining to get their phones in place to take photos.

You think USC is a football school?

It's time for a little perspective. USC is where George Olah did the research that earned him the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but millions relive Carroll's national titles. Campus doctors are using new technology to save lives, but recruiting has entire Web sites devoted to it.

What does all this have to do with AD Mike Garrett? More than you'd think. Just as Kiffin answers to the athletic director, Garrett will have to answer to Sample's successor. A committee already has begun the search for a new president, who could be in place by May.

There are factions at universities that don't measure success by bowl victories. It's not only the lab geeks or chain-smoking poetry professors we're talking about. Some of them have real power, and their patience for embarrassing headlines out of the athletic department has its limits.

Garrett already had to self-apply handcuffs when he imposed severe penalties on the Trojans' basketball team for the O.J. Mayo mess a couple of years ago. Now, he's stretching his neck out as far as it has ever been stretched by hiring Kiffin to coach a football team that already is under investigation by the NCAA.

Way before reporters lobbed any uncomfortable questions at him -- and make no mistake, they did -- Kiffin beat them to it at his initial news conference Wednesday. He apparently wanted to soothe some jittery nerves among USC fans worried about a ruling from the NCAA that could come down any month now.

Kiffin has been called "Lane Violation" for all the secondary NCAA infractions he piled up at Tennessee, six in all.

"Our No. 1 thing that we're going to do is have a dedication to running an extremely clean, disciplined program," Kiffin said. "That will start today, and we'll continue that through the whole time that we're here."

Whew, that's settled. Now, maybe we can move on to weightier matters, such as how he's going to land a top-ranked class of freshmen. He even promised not to try to woo any of Tennessee's recruits, a practice that isn't technically against the rules but is frowned upon in coaching circles.

It's fair to say the topic of the NCAA's gaze arose when Garrett interviewed Kiffin about the job. It's Kiffin's reputation that's at stake, but it's Garrett's job that could be on the line. Garrett acknowledged as much.

"The reality is he's had his issues with compliance and we certainly have ours," Garrett said. "Compliance is at the top of the ladder right now. We're going to address those, because we know how to win, we know how to recruit, we know how to do everything else and we know how to graduate kids. That is the primary concern, and we addressed it and we went on."

If Garrett is worried about job security, he's not letting on.

I asked him whether he felt his future will depend on Kiffin's. It's not only whether Kiffin wins, but whether he can do it while coloring inside the lines.

"People can say that and the press has been saying that, but it's more important to me to put my student athletes in the best position they can be in," Garrett said. "They only have four years in school. I played here when we had great coaches and when we had some coaches that were not so good, and I don't want a student athlete to come here and waste any of their years."

Of course, there is the flip side of the same conversation.

Kiffin left one of the top 15 college jobs in the nation to go to a school that will send a representative to meet with the NCAA infractions committee next month. He said he expected no major penalties to come down, which leads you to believe someone at USC left him with that impression.

Where does USC get all this confidence that it will escape heavy sanctions? The Trojans have been saying it for years now, Carroll included. I asked Garrett, who admitted that, where the NCAA is concerned, you never know. But it seems as if he has more than a hunch.

"We don't know, but we feel very confident in what we did and what we did not do," Garrett said.

Would a man with any less confidence have hired Kiffin?

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