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With new USC regime in place, Kiffin needs to watch his step

The memo from USC president-elect C.L. Max Nikias read like the athletic department version of the baptism scene in The Godfather. Michael Corleone erased Phillip Tattaglia, Emilio Barzini, Salvatore Tessio and Moe Greene in one fell swoop. In one missive Tuesday, Nikias wiped out athletic director Mike Garrett, a department culture that got the Trojans blasted by the NCAA and the tainted memory of Reggie Bush.

Pat Haden -- quarterback, Rhodes Scholar, private equity firm partner and overall great American success story -- will succeed Garrett as athletic director. Attorney David Roberts will become the nation's highest ranking compliance officer; he'll be the university's vice president for athletic compliance, and he'll report not to Haden, but to a senior VP on the university side. Bush's Heisman, won in 2005 while he was on the payroll of a wannabe marketer, will be returned to the Heisman Trust. His jersey will be unretired, and all traces of Bush and former Trojans basketball player O.J. Mayo will be removed.

The changes should please the NCAA, which has yet to hear USC's appeal in the Bush case and could still soften the penalties the football program faces. No matter their opinion of Garrett, who was alternately a hero and goat in his 17-year tenure, the USC faithful will rally around Haden, who, like Garrett, is one of their own. But what about the man who holds the most visible post inside Heritage Hall? How should football coach Lane Kiffin feel about the wholesale changes?

He should watch his back.

Haden, then a trustee, played a key role in bringing Kiffin back to USC in January after Pete Carroll bolted for the NFL. So there should be no initial culture clash. Even if Haden never thought he'd be Kiffin's boss, he was comfortable enough with him to allow him to be the program's steward.

But now that Haden occupies the big chair of a program in the NCAA's doghouse, the dynamic has changed. He is charged by his president with running a clean athletic department that also routinely wins championships. "We want to compete ferociously and win in every sport," Haden told reporters Tuesday. "But we want to do it ethically and within the rules. That's No. 1."

So Haden inherits a coach who, during his lone season at Tennessee, treated the NCAA rulebook as more of a loose set of guidelines. That doesn't exactly square with job No. 1. And with the increased scrutiny of probation, USC can't afford more missteps.

Haden will have eyes on Kiffin at all times, but they won't always be Haden's eyes. He will install J.K. McKay, his favorite receiver and the son of Trojans coaching legend John McKay, as associate athletic director for football. "He's been bossing me around my entire life," McKay joked to the Los Angeles Daily News. "At least now I get paid for it."

These changes don't seem cosmetic. Nikias and his new regime seem determined to make meaningful fixes in the culture of the athletic department. If the past week has taught us anything, it's that agent issues aren't limited to USC. The difference in the NCAA's eyes is in how the other programs react to such issues. When presented with accusations that their players might have had unsavory dealings with agents or financial advisors, the compliance departments at South Carolina, Alabama and Florida sprung into action. USC's department buried its head in the sand during the Bush era. The changes Nikias outlined Tuesday suggest that will never happen again.

Kiffin and his lead recruiter, Ed Orgeron, are vestiges of the old regime. Kiffin was on Carroll's staff in 2005. Kiffin's issues at Tennessee were well-documented. The night Kiffin took the USC job, Orgeron made calls attempting to poach Tennessee recruits who were set to attend their first classes in Knoxville the next day. That isn't against NCAA rules, but the coaching community considers it a serious ethical breach. (And, in light of a recent court decision involving Marist basketball, it apparently could have made USC the target of a lawsuit had Orgeron succeeded.) Then, the day after the NCAA's committee on infractions hammered USC's football program, someone inside the program leaked to ESPN that five schools had been accused of illegally contacting super-freshman Dillon Baxter. Those accusations were patently false, and Garrett had to send a letter of apology to each school. If the gambit seemed familiar, remember that it was Kiffin who, while at Tennessee, publicly accused Florida coach Urban Meyer of breaking a non-existent NCAA recruiting rule.

For his part, Haden believes Kiffin can succeed under the new regime. "He is my coach, and I love my coach," Haden told USCFootball.com. "I think he's going to be successful here. I think Lane's going to do fine. I don't think we're going to have a problem with compliance with Lane. I've already talked to him about that. I know Mike Garrett talked to him about that. I know [outgoing president] Steve Sample talked to him about it, and president-elect Nikias has talked to him about it. He knows where we're coming from."

But can Kiffin walk the line as defined by Nikias and Haden? Thanks to a two-year bowl ban that already has prompted transfers and 30 lost scholarships over a three-year period, USC football is bound to hit a rough patch in the next few years. While the program should recover relatively quickly thanks to its proximity to elite recruits and its reputation for putting players in the NFL, the Trojans could struggle mightily for a season or two once the current crop of upperclassmen leaves.

If that happens, Kiffin would have a built-in excuse. The sanctions hamstrung him. But if Kiffin and Haden have butted heads, Haden and Nikias could use any football nadir as their own built-in excuse to blow up the program and remake it in whatever way they choose. So Kiffin should tread carefully, lest he become another victim of the athletic department makeover.

Nikias, USC's new don, has settled all family business for the moment. But if, in a year or two, someone in the administration offers to take Kiffin fishing on Lake Tahoe, he would be wise to decline.

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