Commentary

Lane Kiffin, USC face many challenges

Originally Published: August 23, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- You could measure the depth of the ditch in which USC athletics finds itself by the NCAA sanctions that are the Trojans' new book of etiquette.

You could measure the depth of the ditch by the lack of depth on football coach Lane Kiffin's roster. There are so many vacancies in the Trojans' locker room that it looks like a Las Vegas subdivision, post-foreclosure.

[+] EnlargePat Haden
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesUSC put its program in the hands of former Trojan star Pat Haden.

Or you could measure it by the small cluster of people who stood in the corner of McAlister Field last Friday, watching the Trojans' women's soccer team play USC's first athletic contest of the season.

There stood Pat Haden, wearing a dress shirt, tie, dark slacks and a cardinal USC cap. In the utility cart next to him sat his wife Cindy, holding Luke, one of their five grandsons. The oldest grandson, Ben, also sat on the cart. Luke's mother, Kelly Haden Paulus, stood nearby, as did J.K. McKay, Haden's best friend for more than 40 years.

"The last women's soccer game I went to," McKay said, his left hand waist-high, palm down, "the women were this tall."

Before new USC president Max Nikias took office Aug. 1, he asked Haden to be his athletic director. You want to know how deep the Trojans' ditch is? Haden, a wealthy businessman, TV analyst and grandfather (No. 5 arrived this month), said yes.

"The university took a chance on me," Haden said. "But I fully believe I can do it."

As a quarterback, Haden, with McKay as his go-to wide receiver, led the Trojans to the 1974 national championship. As a student, Haden won a Rhodes scholarship. As a businessman, Haden has been a partner in a private equity firm in Los Angeles for 25 years. As an alumnus, Haden served on the USC board of trustees from 1991 until he resigned to become athletic director. That's 19 years, one-third of his 57-year-old life.

Haden turned down Nikias twice. He agreed to take the job only if he could bring McKay, a Los Angeles attorney, with him.

"Pat calls me, and I said, 'You're going to do what? Are you crazy?'" McKay said. "Within an hour, I'm telling the guys in my law firm that I'm leaving."

The new senior associate athletic director for football -- a position that Haden created -- is USC royalty. His father, John, coached the Trojans to four national championships from 1960-75.

His son, 4 years old, is named Haden.

[+] EnlargeJohn McKay
Darryl Norenberg/US PRresswireThe new athletic department leadership at USC has ties to legendary coach John McKay.

Haden and J.K. McKay started together for two years. In the final game of their collegiate career, the 1975 Rose Bowl, Haden threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to McKay with 2:03 to play. With a two-point conversion, USC beat Ohio State 18-17 and finished No. 1 in the 1974 UPI coaches' poll. Haden and McKay shared the Most Valuable Player Award for the Rose Bowl.

The stature of Haden, the bloodline of McKay and their history together have proved to be just the salve to apply to the bruised egos and raw nerves of Trojans fans. It felt pretty good for the head coach, too. When former USC athletic director Mike Garrett contacted Kiffin to see if he would be interested in replacing Pete Carroll -- who won two national championships and seven Pacific-10 conference titles in nine seasons -- Kiffin couldn't say yes fast enough. He had been at Tennessee, a coveted job in his line of work, for only one season. Kiffin didn't care.

Five months later, USC forced Garrett to retire.

"I didn't need to leave there [Tennessee]," Kiffin said. "I wasn't looking for a job. I wasn't on the street or at a small school. I had a great job. If you had told me that the guy who hired you is going to be gone before you ever play your first game, I would have been really nervous about that.

"Normally, an athletic director is hired," Kiffin said. "He's coming from another university. They come in wanting to change it like the university they were at. A lot of times, they already have in the back of their mind a head coach that maybe they'll interview at some point. And the new athletic director comes into a place not really knowing much about it."

None of that profile fits Haden. Kiffin, who worked for Carroll for five seasons, already had a relationship with Haden thanks to his ties to the USC program. Kiffin described a "very smooth" transition into working with McKay. Haden and McKay both marvel at how the Kiffin they know is nothing like the guy who is to controversy what a starlet is to paparazzi.

"He's made some mistakes in how he has dealt with things in the past," McKay said. "We're completely on the same page in how we want to proceed. We laugh about it all the time. We just need to keep him off 'SportsCenter.' That's the key."

"How'd it go last night?" McKay will ask.

"Wasn't on 'SportsCenter,'" Kiffin will reply.

The last thing that Kiffin needs is to appear on "SportsCenter" for any action that doesn't involve lifting a trophy. But here's the thing: Given all that USC must overcome, it is difficult to imagine Kiffin raising a trophy anytime soon.

The NCAA has docked the Trojans 10 scholarships a season for three seasons, beginning in 2011. USC cannot go to a bowl game until 2012. Those are blows that even the strongest of programs would have difficulty withstanding. USC is not the strongest of programs. The Trojans went 9-4 last season, splitting their last six games.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesLane Kiffin will instruct a limited roster in 2010.

USC heads into its scholarship deductions already suffering an acute shortage of players. In a sport with a limit of 85 players on scholarship, the Trojans have, as of last Thursday, 67. How USC arrived at such a low number is a combination of poor planning, bad luck and the impending arrival of the penalties.

"There's a lot that went into those numbers," Kiffin said.

Three very good players -- defensive end Everson Griffen, tailback Joe McKnight and wide receiver Damian Williams -- left early for the 2010 NFL draft.

Since the NCAA announced its penalties in June, four upperclassmen left to play at other schools without having to redshirt. That luxury is offered to those players who will run out of eligibility before an NCAA-imposed bowl ban expires. None of them came off the top line of the depth chart. But they helped provide depth.

Carroll did his protégé and successor no favors. USC hasn't signed more than 18 players in three of the past four seasons. Among the 34 players signed in the two Februarys are only four offensive linemen. One of them, Seantrel Henderson, the top recruit in the nation in 2010, is at the University of Miami. Kiffin released him from his commitment after the NCAA announced the penalties.

"There was some under-signing that went on here the last couple of years," Kiffin said.

And there was some bad luck. Two of the 17 signees in 2009, linebackers Frankie Telfort and Jarvis Jones, already have been declared unfit to play because of congenital medical problems.

"We're not talking about guys who are redshirting and aren't even available to play," Kiffin said. "We're redshirting another 10 guys or so. There's 57. All of a sudden, you get those three or four season-ending injuries, unfortunately, you're at 53. Well, there's your NFL roster: 53."

Looking at a de facto NFL-sized roster, Kiffin took a big risk. The Trojans are training like an NFL team. They hit in practice, but they don't go to the ground. They keep scrimmaging to a minimum.

"What we don't know is how our guys are going to play in the most game-like conditions," Kiffin said. We've got, outside of Shareece [Wright], an all-brand-new secondary. We don't really know what's going to happen when they have to make these tackles in the open field. We're going to play a bunch of freshmen who have never played a college football game before.

"Hopefully, they know what's going to happen," Kiffin said. "That's the tradeoff. Are those running backs going to hold onto the ball when they're taking big hits for four quarters of a game? They've hardly been hit at all."

That's not an issue on an NFL roster.

"Most of those 53 know what they're doing," Kiffin said. "I doubt Bill Belichick was real worried about whether Tedy Bruschi was going to tackle in the season opener."

Fans of "SportsCenter" Kiffin may be disappointed that the 35-year-old coach made such a calculated decision to limit contact in practices. It could be, at long last, a sign of maturity.

"I don't think I would have made that decision a few years ago, or even last year," Kiffin said. "I think I would have said: 'You know what? We're going to establish toughness no matter what. No matter how many people are injured or in the training room, if we have to practice with 22 guys, we're going to do it.' That's probably what I would have done before."

Kiffin made the first of several concessions he will make over the next few years. Some concessions will be a direct result of the NCAA violations. Others will be indirect, the result of USC's newly expanded compliance program. It is an idea jointly conceived by Nikias and Haden. They have tripled the size of USC's compliance staff, to 15 people.

"Winning any way other than the right way," Haden was quoted as saying shortly after his hiring, "is not winning at all."

The NCAA Manual sits on the corner of McKay's desk. The NCAA Committee on Infractions report that blasted USC this summer sits on Haden's desk.

[+] EnlargeJK McKay
Kirby Lee/US PresswireFormer USC WR J.K. McKay will keep his eyes on the Trojan football program.

Under Carroll, the noise level and number of people on the sideline at a USC football practice resembled a cocktail party. As part of USC's penalties, the NCAA demanded that the university limit attendance to media, the players' immediate family and other pre-approved guests.

They are serious about the prior approval. When McKay took his son Haden to practice last week, the compliance official at practice told McKay that the 4-year-old couldn't stay. If it makes Haden McKay feel any better, his namesake has only been to one practice.

"This job is one meeting after another," Haden said. "So far I've felt quite unproductive in my first three weeks. I really haven't been able to do what I feel like I need to do. Usually, as soon as I walk in here, someone says, 'Can I have 30 seconds?' Twenty minutes later, they leave. Some of it is my learning curve. Some of it is self-imposed, but the job is a lot of meetings."

It is possible that USC will suffer no significant injuries this season. It is possible that Kiffin will find a top prospect to fill every one of the 10 spots open for high school seniors who can graduate this December. The NCAA doesn't take away scholarships until February.

It is possible that none of the 15 signees in each of the next three seasons will have a congenital issue that will force him to stop playing, or suffer a career-ending injury, or just turn out to be not good enough to meet the standards of the past decade, standards that Kiffin helped set and is now trying to match. It is possible that the new, stricter compliance standards imposed by Nikias and endorsed by Haden will not stand in the way of the Trojans' return to greatness.

It's even possible that the appeal filed by USC earlier this month will convince the NCAA to reduce the penalties.

The cover of the USC football media guide this season features Kiffin, hands on hips, turned left, perhaps staring into the future. He may have wanted his appearance to be stern or serious or coachly intimidating.

Mostly, Kiffin looks as if he's trying to figure out exactly what it is he is looking at.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com