Commentary

Kiffin, Trojans stay positive

Originally Published: June 10, 2010
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Lane Kiffin told a little joke and grinned as he made the walk into the USC football offices at Heritage Hall a few minutes after 7 a.m. PT Thursday. A day earlier, Kiffin had learned about the punishing blow the NCAA delivered to the perennial powerhouse program. The haymaker from the half-decade-long investigation was much more devastating than Kiffin or his staff had anticipated. He also was well aware that the day ahead of him might be even more challenging.

Coping with the impending announcement of the NCAA's findings, Kiffin had to put a favorable spin on the impact the sanctions would have -- internally as much as externally. That meant explaining the details not only to the Trojans' recent crop of recruits and recruiting targets for the Class of 2011, but also to the current players in their program, many of whom could decide to transfer to a different school.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Reed SaxonLane Kiffin held his second unique team meeting in 2010 on Thursday.

Over the course of the morning, more and more media assembled inside Heritage Hall, waiting for the NCAA's announcement and looking to get reactions from players. A trio of TV trucks and reporters set up outside to do live shots. Meanwhile, fans wandered around the lobby of the building, which serves as the Trojans' showplace for their impressive stash of hardware that dates back almost a half-century. Some visitors stopped by to examine USC's 2004 BCS championship crystal football, which is prominently displayed in the center of the room. Some looked at Reggie Bush's 2005 Heisman Trophy. Others broke out cell phone cameras to take pictures of the awards that the NCAA report had thrown into doubt. One USC student approached the Bush Heisman, crossed his two index fingers and walked away shaking his head.

A few minutes later, a couple of tour groups of teenagers entered Heritage. "And we just won national championships in water polo and men's tennis …" one of the group leaders explained, beaming.

It was a very surreal scene for such a proud program.

Several Trojans players were open to speaking with reporters. They weren't somber and didn't sound devastated. One talked about how disappointed he was because of what he had heard about the NCAA's penalties. The player also said that he and his teammates had talked about what a challenge this was now for them. He was quick to point out what a great day of conditioning the team had. "We will fight through this," he said, nodding repeatedly.

Around 10 a.m., embattled USC athletic director Mike Garrett came down the stairs from his office. Three reporters followed close behind.

"Mike, got a quick second?" one asked.

Garrett turned around. "No," he responded. "Have a nice day, though."

It wasn't a big departure from how Garrett has dealt with the media through much of his tenure at USC, but it was different from the vibe that came from the rest of the program.

At around 12:45 p.m., Kiffin held a team meeting. It would be the second of two very unique meetings that the coach has held with his players this year. In January, there was his hastily organized, emotion-packed meeting in Knoxville to tell his Tennessee team he was bolting for USC. This session wouldn't last much longer or be as intense, but it would certainly be different from any other time the young coach had addressed a team.

By 2 p.m., a bigger crowd of media members had packed the lobby of Heritage Hall in the hopes Kiffin would make a statement. When USC men's basketball coach Kevin O'Neill appeared, the media throng rushed over to him. Then at 2:38 p.m., Kiffin, a USC spokesman and quarterback Matt Barkley came down the stairs from the football office to address the media.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
AP Photo/Reed SaxonUSC quarterback Matt Barkley tried to take a positive approach.

"As you guys heard from our university earlier today, we are in the process of appealing the decisions made by the NCAA," Kiffin began. "With that, I cannot say very many things about the investigation or the decisions. But I can say this: In our mind, our fans and everyone involved in the USC program, that USC is an extremely powerful place. It's an extremely powerful university. It's an extremely powerful football program. USC has gone through a lot before. As we looked over the history of things that have happened before. If you go back to 1980, USC over a four-year span had a three-year postseason ban. After that, the next season, USC went on to win the Pac-10, went on to win the Rose Bowl, and in four of the next six years went to the Rose Bowl. So USC's been through a lot before. We will continue to play championship football. We will continue to recruit the best players in America to come here."

Kiffin was asked about how the NCAA sanctions would impact recruiting, whether he was concerned some of his players might leave the program and what he told the team, among other things.

"I told the team, and I made sure they understood, that this is something happening to them that's adversity. Football, we talk about all the time, is about adversity, as is life. Our older players have played in a lot of bowl games. Our fifth-year seniors, a number of them have won a number of bowl games already, have played in three Rose Bowl championships. Don't worry about what they can't control. And in the meantime, we'll appeal this."

As Kiffin fielded questions from the three dozen media members circled around him, Barkley, the blond-haired sophomore quarterback, stood a few feet away, listening intently and preparing for his turn. Barkley echoed Kiffin's comments, remaining positive with each question.

"I'm not disappointed," Barkley replied. "You can't look at it from that perspective. It's just pointless. Coach Kiffin mentioned this earlier and brought it up in a couple instances in the team meeting, about players and people dealing with this type of adversity. I was talking to a friend last night about this. He was asking me what's going to happen. I said, I don't know, I just saw ESPN and all that stuff. He was just giving me encouragement, saying it was going to be all right, you were put in this situation on purpose for a reason. And after I hung up the phone, I was kind of thinking about what this kid was saying. It was Jake Olson [a young Trojans fan who lost his eyesight to cancer] that I was talking to. Just thinking that this kid, 13 years old, is never going to be able to see again. To put things in perspective, I'm not disappointed at all.

"I still get to play football. It's a privilege to be able to play here at USC, however many games we get. Thinking about Jake, how much perseverance he had with the adversity he had, it's just really humbling. So I'm looking forward to every game we get."

Throughout the rest of the day more Trojans staffers and players filtered in and out of Heritage Hall. They talked about how well the team was holding up and how well recruits were taking the news. One Trojan said he felt like it's "USC against the world." Kiffin, though, was on the move again. He had a 4:40 flight to catch to San Francisco as part of the USC Coaches Tour. The day was far from over.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine and writes a blog for ESPN.com.