- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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Lane Kiffin knows what you're thinking, and he totally understands.
You're wondering how a 35-year-old gets three high-profile head-coaching jobs in four years, how a guy with a 12-21 career record lands his dream job as the head man at the University of Southern California.
"I know I haven't done anything yet," Kiffin said. "I get it. I don't think you've done something by getting a job. I think you've done something by proving you can succeed at that job. Anybody can get a job, but what do you do when you have it?"
Kiffin didn't do much in either of his past two jobs, first as head coach of the Oakland Raiders and then as head coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers. Al Davis notoriously fired Kiffin and called him insubordinate in the first case, and Kiffin left Knoxville with jilted fans calling for his head in the other.
A recent ESPN The Magazine poll in which Pac-10 players listed him as the coach they would least like to play for indicates that Kiffin's reputation precedes him. Yet he continues to get elite coaching opportunities, and at USC he has been able to assemble one of the best coaching staffs in the country and secure one of the nation's best recruiting classes as well.
How does he do it? What is his appeal?
"He genuinely loves coaching."
Monte Kiffin has heard all the questions about his son. He knows what his reputation is around the country, and it still amazes him.
"I know him pretty well," Monte said. "I've known him since the day he was born 35 years ago. If he was a jerk or a cheater, I don't think all these great coaches and players would come with him. I'm not saying my son is perfect, but he's a good guy."
Monte, who at 70 serves as his son's assistant coach, believes that Lane was born to coach and says his innate love for the game comes through whenever he "talks ball" with a recruit or a coach.
When Kiffin was 11 years old, he would stay up past his bedtime almost every Monday night in the fall with Monte, who was then the linebackers coach of the Minnesota Vikings. If the Vikings weren't playing on Monday, Monte would be sure to be home. "He would be making notes while he was watching the game," Monte said. "His mother would let him stay up late at night and watch the Monday night game, and he'd always turn to me and ask why did the coach do this here, and why did he do that there."
Lane often would work as a ball boy at his Vikings home games, too, straining to hear coaches talking to players on the sideline. "Coaching was always intriguing to me as a kid," he said. "Watching 'Monday Night Football' with my dad and hearing him talk through the game management and watching the Tom Landrys and Don Shulas on the sideline was more intriguing to me than watching Troy Aikman or Dan Marino throw the ball."
Although Monte, 70, has spent more than 40 years coaching defense, Lane was always more intrigued by the offensive side of the ball. He loved devising offensive plays when he was in high school and incorporating some of them while he was the quarterback at Bloomington (Minn.) Jefferson High, where he would often call his own plays.
"I didn't even have to teach him, he just wanted to learn on his own," Monte said. "He genuinely loves coaching. He always watched the coaches and liked to be around them and was always into strategy. You could tell when he was in high school that he would be a coach someday."
"He knows who he is and knows who he is not,
and who he is not he doesn't pretend to be."
John Baxter first met Kiffin in 1997, when Kiffin decided to give up his final year of playing eligibility at Fresno State University to join the coaching staff as a student assistant. Kiffin was a seldom-used backup quarterback who was stuck behind future NFL quarterbacks David Carr and Billy Volek on the depth chart when then FSU offensive coordinator (and current Cal coach) Jeff Tedford asked him to help coach the offense.
"He was always in the coaches' office," said Baxter, who coached Fresno State's special-teams coach until March of this year, when Kiffin recruited him to join his coaching staff at USC. "He was behind two really good quarterbacks, and there's one reason why you go to college, and that's to prepare yourself for a career. So at a certain point he made a career choice, and it worked out for him."
Kiffin's time at Fresno State as a quarterback and assistant opened his eyes to a new way of coaching. If Tom Landry and Don Shula lectured, Bulldogs coaches collaborated, gathering in coaches meetings run like think tank sessions. After participating in such a free flow of ideas, Kiffin decided if he ever became a head coach he would surround himself with the best assistants coaches he could find. He wanted his assistants to bring a wide range of skills and experience to the table. What Kiffin himself lacked in experience and expertise he would make up for by bringing together a formidable collective.
"I have no fear of egos. I have no fear of guys being older than me or getting more credit than me," Kiffin said. "If you're a quarterback, what do you want to have? You want to have great receivers, great running backs, great tight ends and great linemen. Well, I look at it the same way as a coach. The quarterback may be leading the team, but he's only as good as the people he surrounds himself with. So I'm only as good as the assistants I surround myself with."
Kiffin sells his assistants as much as he sells himself during recruiting pitches and job interviews. If you're a defensive player, he goes down the list of players Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron have coached; if you're a receiver, he goes down the list of players he and John Morton have taught; if you're a running back, he goes down the names of all the running backs he's helped in the NFL. He isn't just selling himself; he's selling his entire staff.
"One of the things about Lane that is his absolute strength is he knows who he is and knows who he is not, and who he is not he doesn't pretend to be," Baxter said. "There are a lot of head coaches with a lot more years of experience who aren't that savvy. They can't relinquish control of certain things, but he's completely comfortable in doing so. He's hired people that he knows and knows will fix it. An Audi is a fun car to drive, but if you don't have a mechanic who can fix it, when it breaks it's no good."
"He's relentless. 'No' is not in his vocabulary.'"
Chris Kiffin, Lane's 28-year-old brother who is a defensive assistant at USC, smiles when he hears about Kiffin's ability to recruit. He's seen it his whole life.
"Well, have you heard the story of how he got his wife?" Chris asked. "Layla was working for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and my dad went and introduced him to her, and as he was walking down the hall, he turned around and Lane wasn't with him anymore. He was still in the office talking to her. He kept asking her out until she finally said yes, and three months later they were engaged, and now they have three kids."
"He's a real intriguing guy," said USC linebackers coach Joe Barry, who coached the Buccaneers under Monte. "He's relentless. 'No' is not in his vocabulary. He just has that type of personality where he's not going to quit on you. He's a bulldog. He's not going to let you not come with him."
Stories of Kiffin's powers of persuasion ring throughout Heritage Hall on the campus at USC. One of the best is the tale of Kyrah McCowan.
McCowan, 28, whose official title is executive assistant to the head coach, lived in Tennessee her whole life. Suddenly she finds herself thousands of miles from home.
Kiffin first mentioned to McCowan, a Tennessee alumna, that he wanted her to come out to USC and work with his staff the night he left for Los Angeles. She politely declined the invitation from the coach who had became the most hated man in the state, saying she would stay home with her friends and family.
A week later, Kiffin called McCowan again and asked her to join him at USC as his executive assistant. She again declined. But before Kiffin hung up, he said he had someone that he wanted her to talk to.
"Now, I had seen him in recruiting mode at Tennessee, pass the phone around to different coaches on the staff while recruiting players, but I had never been on the receiving end of the conversation," McCowan said. "He then put [strength and conditioning coach] Aaron Ausmus, [offensive line coach] James Cregg, [secondary coach] Willie Mack Garza, [defensive assistant] Tyrone Pettaway and [director of player personnel] Scott Thompson on the phone, all of whom I had worked with the previous year at Tennessee, to convince me of how much I was wanted at USC and what an awesome opportunity it would be to move to sunny California, work with them again and win football games."
Before McCowan went to bed that night, she got another call from Monte, who told her how much she was needed and finished by saying, "If you don't come out here you wouldn't just be disappointing Lane, you'd be disappointing me, too."
"He pretty much sealed the deal for me with one sentence," McCowan said.
"He has a plan, and he sells that plan and makes you believe in that plan."
Ed Orgeron has been recruiting players for the better part of 25 years. He should be immune to the tricks of the recruiting trade at this point, but he still smiles and shakes his head when he thinks back to how Kiffin (who once upon a time he trained as a recruiter in Lane's first stint at USC) recruited him to come to Tennessee more than a year ago.
At the time, Orgeron, 49, was planning to stay in his home state of Louisiana either as the defensive line coach of the New Orleans Saints or of LSU. Orgeron turned down Kiffin's initial overtures. Undaunted, Kiffin began recruiting Orgeron's wife, Kelly, and his three sons, sending them text messages and Tennessee hats and T-shirts. All Orgeron could do was look on in amazement as his pupil was now using the same tricks he had taught him on his own family.
"You always recruit the person who's going to help make the decision, and that's what he was doing," Orgeron said. "But he was doing it to me."
Orgeron took his family to a beach house in Destin, Fla., to get away from everything so he could make a decision. By this point, Kiffin had already won over Orgeron's family, so the day before he was supposed to make his decision, Lane and Monte flew up to the beach house and surprised Orgeron at his door.
"It was a close call. I was going to decide on a Thursday, and he flew down on a Wednesday and surprised me," Orgeron said. "He started recruiting my wife and my kids and stuff like that, and we had a family vote, and everyone voted Tennessee."
Kiffin went after coaches like Orgeron with the same intensity that he went after his players. In addition to Orgeron, he spent nearly two months persuading Baxter to leave Fresno State to join him at USC and recently (and somewhat notoriously) pried USC alum Kennedy Pola away from the Tennessee Titans.
"He has a plan, and he sells that plan and makes you believe in that plan," Orgeron said. "He has a vision, and he makes you see that vision."
When Kiffin sits with recruits in his office, he makes them see that vision by showing them how he sees them becoming a big-time player on his team. He'll show them former players he's coached who they remind him of and show them his track record of playing freshmen and giving them the best opportunity to not only play early but also get drafted early when they leave school.
The vision was just a pipe dream when Kiffin was a 26-year-old tight ends coach at USC, coming off a 6-6 season and a Las Vegas Bowl loss to Utah in 2001, but Kiffin was still able to go out-of-state and make players buy what he was selling.
"He's a young guy who knows how to recruit," said former USC wide receiver Mike Williams, who left his Tampa, Fla., home to come to Los Angeles after Kiffin recruited him in 2001. "He got me to come there from Florida, Keith Rivers to come from Florida, Dwayne Jarrett to come from New Jersey, LenDale White to come from Colorado, Patrick Turner to come from Tennessee, and the list goes on. From a recruiting standpoint, he's certified. He's a big reason why USC did so well recruiting nationally."
"I know it's going to be a great story."
As Kiffin sits in his office with the curtains closed, a half-eaten sandwich on his desk beside a bottle of A.1 sauce and the big flat-screen television in front of him turned off, he folds his arms and leans back against his chair and thinks back on the past three years away from USC.
He'll be the first to admit he wishes he could have done a few things differently during his time in Oakland and Tennessee, but he doesn't spend much time dwelling on how people who've never met him view him, he says.
"I always try to find better ways to do things," Kiffin said. "Whether it's a game plan, a practice, a meeting, an interview, whatever it is. I'm going to find a way to find a way to analyze it and find a better way to do it. That's my mindset. I've never been satisfied with anything. That's just my mindset. I'm always trying to find a better way to do things. I could write a book of things I would do differently. Everyday there's stuff I look back at and try to grow from and improve on."
There are still many who would suggest that if Kiffin were to indeed write a book of everything he should have done differently in Oakland and Tennessee, it would be enough to fill a phone book. But as he gets up to go to one of his last practices before the season opener, he seems confident the final chapter of his unpredictable book will have a happy ending.
"I know it's going to be a great story," he said. "We came here not knowing what the sanctions were going to be. No one thought they were going to be this severe. I certainly never thought they were going to be this severe. But if we can fight through this thing and get back on top, it's a great story. It's an even better story than if I had come here and just been asked to continue Coach Carroll's run and just keep doing what he had been doing. Now I'm coming back here and trying to get the program back. If we can do that, it'll be an amazing story."
It sounds like an optimistic ending for a story that begins with a two-year bowl ban, a four-year probation and 30 lost scholarships. Yet, as he perks up and leans forward in his chair and starts listing the players he has recruited in the past, the coaches he has hired and how they are eventually going to win again at USC, it begins to make some sense for some reason.
Maybe you're buying into some false sense of hope. Maybe you just believe the guy will actually stick around long enough this time to see his plan through. Whatever it is, the energetic and inspired person talking to you in the privacy of his office isn't the person you thought you'd meet and certainly isn't the same subdued guy addressing the media after USC practices.
"I get that all the time," Kiffin said. "I get that every day when I meet people."
Few outside Heritage Hall expect Kiffin to restore USC to its former prominence. He's already on the hot seat before he coaches his first game for the Trojans. But if the guy who was turned down by Layla Reaves 10 years ago is given enough time, he just might win, and win over his detractors.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ArashMarkazi.
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