LOS ANGELES -- Lane Kiffin finds himself in another can't-win situation.
Sitting in his palatial office suite at USC's new John McKay Center -- which someone intentionally decorated with a Hollywood theme to impress recruits (one mural includes shots of Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds) -- Kiffin told a story recently about the perils of fashion choices. When the Trojans played at Oregon in November 2011, Kiffin, who openly detests cold weather, wore a white beanie to stay warm. After USC pulled off the upset, there was a run on beanies at the school bookstore.
Now fast forward 13 months to last season's Sun Bowl. As USC was getting embarrased by 6-7 Georgia Tech, Kiffin was getting blasted on Twitter for donning a hood and dark sunglasses. "He wasn't focused, he didn't care, he checked out, because we lost the game" said Kiffin of his perception. "If we won the game, no one would have noticed.
"And if we lose the game at Oregon, [the perception] would be, 'What kind of head coach wears a beanie?'"
Heading into the 2013 campaign, the Trojans' embattled fourth-year coach faces a different "damned if you do" conundrum. And after reviewing last year's 7-6 debacle, it was abundantly clear one change he needed to make.
"The first thing we'll definitely change is going back to the way we used to practice," he said. Dating back to Pete Carroll's tenure, during which Kiffin was an assistant, "SC has always been known for really physical practices, whether it's scouts or visiting coaches coming in. They'd be shocked at how physical it is with pads on, even late in the year."
Kiffin got away from that philosophy last season due to concerns over his team's NCAA-minimized depth. Sure, the Trojans had stars like quarterback Matt Barkley, receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and safety T.J. McDonald. But the rest of the roster was thin. "There was such a dropoff from our top-line guys to the next guys, that we made a decision -- we can't tackle, we can't have physical practices," said Kiffin. "We didn't have two-a-days. We probably treated them too much like a veteran NFL team, with the walkthroughs, with extra film sessions, instead of more physical practices.
"Obviously, we didn't win enough games, that was the wrong decision. At the end of the day, we were not a physical football team the entire year. We did not run the ball physically, and we did not stop the run. You can't be at USC and give up more yards rushing than you run for. There's no excuse for that, so that falls on coaching."
This spring, the Trojans returned to their former no-holds-barred ways, installing workouts chock full of live hitting. At a recent practice at the Coliseum, coaches broke out the famed Oklahoma drill -- two players, one-on-one, inside a tunnel of their teammates, first one to tackle the other wins -- for the first time in three years.
And just as Kiffin feared, the injuries are piling up. More than 20 players were sidelined for at least one practice last week, and starters Lee, running back Silas Redd and tight end Xavier Grimble have missed extended time. Receiver George Farmer, who had been a standout all spring, tore his ACL and MCL last week and will miss the season. Freshman defensive back Su'a Cravens, an early enrollee who was pushing to start from day one, tore his meniscus and will be out four to six weeks.
Within a week of his comments about more physical practices, Kiffin sounded ready to reverse course. "I don't see any way we could practice like this in the fall," he told reporters. "We wouldn't be able to play a game. ... We will start fall camp practicing this way, but I don't think we will end fall camp this way."
As Kiffin prepares for what many consider his make-or-break season, USC's controversial coach is dealing with two significant challenges. For one, he continues to navigate through some of the harshest NCAA sanctions in recent memory. This marks the second of three seasons that USC is limited to 15 initial scholarships (it signed just 12 prospects in its 2013 class) and 75 total scholarships. While the Trojans' current injury toll is temporary (nearly all of the banged-up players should be ready by fall), their lack of quality depth could become a concern if more starters go down.
Then there's the issue of whether Kiffin is cut out for the job. After a promising 10-2 campaign in 2011, USC's last with a bowl ban, the Barkley-led Trojans entered 2012 with lofty expectations, including a preseason No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll. It only made their subsequent descent to 7-6 all the more chastening. A season full of Kiffin's mini-soap operas -- deflated footballs, an in-game jersey number swap, kicking a reporter out of practice -- didn't help matters.
Privately, Kiffin knew USC wasn't truly back -- there were deficiencies at certain positions (offensive and defensive lines) and a general lack of depth all around -- but he decided not to shy away from media-fueled expectations.
"I felt if I was to talk that way to [the media] ... I would be giving our players an excuse to lose," said Kiffin. "That's why I didn't temper expectations outside even though I knew where we had some issues and weren't as good as people thought we were."
"I had us pegged for two losses myself," said AD Pat Haden. "You don't want to discourage your kids by saying you're not that good, but we knew."
Added Kiffin: "We have a lot better personnel than 7-6, and that falls on the head coach, no doubt. Did we have the 70 best players in the country to be the No. 1 team in the country? No. But we definitely had better players than 7-6. So that's obviously the first thing you do, you look at yourself."
Kiffin has made several important changes this offseason, most notably replacing his father, Monte, who resigned after the season, with former Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "We've played against him. We've seen what he's done in this conference," said Kiffin, noting Pendergast's 3-0 record against the "coordinator across town," UCLA's Noel Mazzone. Pendergast's system employs more blitzes and varied looks up front, which suits the Trojans' strong front seven (led by defensive end Morgan Breslin and linebackers Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard) but puts pressure on an inexperienced secondary that will be asked to play more man coverage. The cornerbacks, in particular, have struggled in live action this spring.
Offensively, sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler have impressed in their bids to replace Barkley, and sophomore Nelson Agholor is poised to emerge as the next star USC receiver. But an offensive line that struggled to open holes for the running backs in 2012 must improve considerably.
"We just want to move on," said expected starting center Marcus Martin. "The coaches told us, we don't want to reflect and punish you for past mistakes. We want to see guys grow and develop. That's what everyone intends on doing."
It all begs the question: What is a realistic goal for the 2013 Trojans? With the return of Biletnikoff-winner Lee (2,683 all-purpose yards), career 2,583-yard rusher Redd, potential All-America Breslin (13 sacks last season) and Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year Leonard Williams (13.5 tackles for loss), USC once again boasts the type of top-flight talent that will seduce preseason pollsters. But there's no question these Trojans are still a far cry from the Carroll era.
Regardless of the circumstances, disgruntled USC fans just want to know how Haden will evaluate his coach's performance.
"Should Lane Kiffin be graded on a curve? I guess that's the question, and I guess I kind of have," said Haden. "I think he does a lot of things extraordinarily well. Did he have some missteps last year? Yes. Should we have played better at times? Yes. But I'm still very supportive of Lane.
"... It has not been easy. Maybe people get tired of talking about it, but it's going to be 10 to 11 years from start to finish, from when the Reggie Bush [scandal] broke to when we finally get back to 85 [scholarships], and I think the toughest years are coming up."
It's hard to imagine a tougher season for Kiffin than 2012, but at least now the expectation level is lower. An eight- or nine-win season will be viewed, at least by some, as progress.
Now it's just a matter of staving off more injuries -- and choosing the right game-day attire.