Kiffin knows how to play the part
If this were a presidential race, Lane Kiffin would be the clear-cut candidate for the party. He has the looks, the charisma, the attractive wife, the adorable kids and almost assuredly a white picket fence around whatever house he's living in for the moment. Whatever he lacks in experience he certainly makes up in enthusiasm and charm.
Everyone, however, knows that his far more experienced (albeit not as young or attractive) staff will be the ones calling the shots and pulling the strings once he gets into office. While Kiffin, who at 34 is the youngest head coach in the FBS, tried to sidestep difficult questions about secondary violations at Tennessee and possibly luring Tennessee recruits to USC, his father, Monte Kiffin, and assistant coach Ed Orgeron -- who have more than 70 years of coaching experience between them -- whispered to each another as they looked on to his left.
It was like watching George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney huddling on the side of a George W. Bush news conference when the younger Bush was president.
Kiffin might have been the one elected, but there is no question who is running the ship. That much was evident Wednesday night as Orgeron was at Heritage Hall watching film and reportedly calling Tennessee recruits and giving them their options, which included leaving Tennessee and taking a scholarship at USC instead. This apparently was news to Kiffin when he arrived on campus at about 5:45 p.m. for his news conference, which was originally scheduled to begin at 4 p.m.
"I don't know if that's accurate," Kiffin said about Orgeron's contacting Tennessee recruits. "I got off a plane and I sprinted here, but from the information that I have, that's inaccurate."
The problem is those reports were accurate. Orgeron admittedly did, in fact, contact Tennessee recruits, and he did offer them an opportunity to play at USC. Not only have many Tennessee recruits said as much, but Orgeron told a group of reporters he had made contact while tersely refusing to answer how many recruits he called or if he called them without them contacting him first. "There were families that called me that had questions and I answered those questions," Orgeron said after Kiffin's news conference. "Yes, I did call recruits to give them suggestions on the questions the parents had for me. That's all I'm saying about that."
It was an odd way of starting a program Kiffin said would be run "clean and disciplined starting today." Maybe Kiffin intentionally added the "today" part after he seemed to ignore the actions of his staff Tuesday.
"I told [Tennessee athletic director] Mike Hamilton that I'm not going to recruit any of the players that are committed there unless they decide they don't want to go there anymore and they call us," Kiffin said. "If they call us, we'll look into it, but I will not be calling them." Well, maybe he won't, but someone on his staff might possibly call them without his knowledge. That's what happens when you're a 34-year-old head coach and surround yourself with noted assistants who have been coaching football for as long as you've been alive.
When Kiffin's father, Monte, was asked about Kiffin's brashness and penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth at Tennessee, he smiled and gave a very fatherly answer.
"He's not an arrogant guy," Monte Kiffin said. "If he was, I'd slap him upside the head. He's the head coach, so I call him 'Coach' because I'm an assistant. As long as he calls me 'Dad' we'll get along just fine."
So Kiffin calls one assistant "Dad" and apparently doesn't know what the other one is doing with his program while he's away. Well, that's a decent start.
The drama surrounding Kiffin's "dream team" staff could get more interesting this week as USC is still in negotiations to bring in former USC and current UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who has nearly 40 years of coaching experience and is credited with the development of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC. If Chow comes to USC, chances are it will be for a seven-figure deal that will give him control of the offense. You wouldn't pay that kind of money to someone to babysit your quarterbacks.
"The staff that we're putting together will be the best staff in America," Kiffin said. "I know when it's done, the Trojan family will be extremely pleased." Before the news conference, athletic director Mike Garrett confirmed USC had reached out to Chow and was hopeful he'd agree to return. "I said if we get Lane hopefully his dad will come and Orgeron will come, and when we started talking it unfolded," Garrett said. "And I said, 'Why not bring the whole group back and make a run at it?' and that became the natural extension of our talks." If this were like the band getting back together again, Lane Kiffin could play the role of John Paul Jones trying to headline a Led Zeppelin reunion. His name could be on the marquee, but everyone would really be excited to see Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
With Monte Kiffin running the defense, Orgeron handling recruiting and Chow possibly running the offense, Lane Kiffin is essentially the faux celebrity chef shaking hands with patrons while his staff in the back does the real work. As long as he doesn't go back there and try to mess things up, the ship he's supposedly sailing should be fine. "My job must be really easy if they can do it all," Kiffin said. "It shows the commitment by the university in making sure they give us the resources to put together a great staff so we can operate on a championship level like what's been done here before."Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.