By Stewart Mandel
July 29, 2010

On Tuesday, I sat down with the Most Hated Man In Sports, and our conversation was ... pleasant.

In fact, in every chat I've ever had with Lane Kiffin, dating to his days as a young USC assistant, the Most Hated Man in Sports -- as recently dubbed by Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Mark Bradley -- has been nothing but cordial, professional and a generally insightful source on topics like recruiting and quarterback development. By no means is he a media darling -- you have to lean in closely just to hear him -- but nor is he condescending or hotheaded like so many others in his profession.

And yet, in less than two years, the man has, quite justifiably, developed into a near-universally despised figure -- and I can't for the life of me figure out whether it's intentional or accidental, whether he's genuinely affected or apathetic about the venom directed toward him. Is he a chronic manipulator who will step on however many toes it takes to succeed, or is he a football-centric savant that never developed basic social cues for appropriateness?

The night before our conversation at Tuesday's Pac-10 Media Day in New York, Kiffin learned of the latest headline he'd either intentionally or inadvertently created (he'd say the latter): The Tennessee Titans were suing him for stealing away their running backs coach, Kennedy Pola, on the eve of training camp. The story broke while Kiffin was in mid-flight to the East Coast.

"[Washington coach Steve] Sarkisian sent me a picture of Times Square, where it's going across the ticker," he said. "That's what I landed to."

Kiffin, not surprisingly, seemed baffled by the extent of the Titans' backlash, which began with coach Jeff Fisher -- a USC alum -- blasting the Trojans' coach for neglecting to give him the customary heads-up before contacting Pola (who, like Kiffin, was a former Pete Carroll assistant at USC). "This hiring was done no differently than any hiring we did [in the past] at USC or at Tennessee," said Kiffin. "I didn't anticipate this. No one would have."

In Kiffin's defense, schools and coaches routinely breach contracts during coaching changes, albeit not usually so close to a season. (USC let go former running backs coach Todd McNair, who was implicated in its recent NCAA sanctions, when his contract expired on July 1.) And most would agree that the Titans' lawsuit is, at best, a p.r. stunt.

But it still seems incomprehensible that Kiffin wouldn't anticipate some serious backlash when he hired away a coach from Tennessee -- the one state that currently despises him more than the other 49 combined. He even admitted in a statement released prior to the lawsuit that he contacted Pola to gauge his interest, then contacted Fisher -- and this, mind you, was his defense.

If some other coach pulled the same move, the news likely would have come and gone without a second notice -- but not if you're Lane Kiffin, the Most Hated Man In College Football*. (* -- I've reduced his title in deference to LeBronJames and John Calipari.) Surely he's noticed by now that even the slightest hint of mischief on his part is going to offend someone -- which in turn offends the entire country.

"[I] don't like it, that's for sure," said Kiffin. "Some things I've done before obviously have made for a situation so that anything I do becomes a headline."

The "things he's done before" occurred primarily during his now-infamous 14-month stint in the SEC, where he took pot-shots at commissioner Mike Slive and Florida coach Urban Meyer, knowingly incurred numerous secondary NCAA violations and, after all that, ditched Tennessee after just one season, inciting a near-riot. The stately Slive even gave him a thinly veiled "good riddance" at last week's SEC Media Day.

Slive's Pac-10 counterpart, Larry Scott, has spent the bulk of his first year in office fixated on enhancing the conference's "brand." The former Women's Tennis Association CEO doesn't view Kiffin's presence as a possible detriment.

"I come from an individual sport where you've got a lot of stars that are lightning rods and attract this, that or the other," said Scott. "So I think it comes with the territory, with celebrity -- there's going to come controversy, and people taking shots."

But therein lies Kiffin's biggest problem. The prodigal coach's son set his sights on becoming a head football coach from the youngest possible age, yet he's not necessarily suited for the highly public role that comes with it. Inside a meeting room watching tape with Ed Orgeron, crouched behind Matt Barkley on the practice field or sitting in a recruit's living room, he's probably at total ease. But as anyone who's watched one of his press conferences or television interviews can attest, Kiffin looks perpetually uncomfortable in front of a crowd or a camera.

Simply put, he's not a natural-made celebrity.

On Tuesday, Kiffin repeated the mantra he has had since returning to USC: That his actions at Tennessee were all part of a master plan to get the downtrodden program's name back in the minds of recruits, and that, if you'll notice, he's stopped with the name-calling since returning to Troy.

"People that have watched my career at both places, I would hope notice an obvious difference since I've been at S.C.," he said. "There has been a constant effort on my behalf to focus on recruiting and coaching our team and not doing anything else, because S.C. sells itself. We don't need to go out and grab more attention."

That's all well and good, but fans and media don't wipe a public figure's slate clean just because he changed jobs. The perception just keeps building until the person gives reason to change it.

As Bradley points out, the strangest part of the Kiffin-hate phenomena is that, unlike traditional sports villains, Kiffin hasn't even won anything yet. He's the most talked about 7-6 coach (12-21 if you include his forgettable stint with the Oakland Raiders) in history. But perhaps that's part of his master plan, too.

It's not impossible to shake an unfavorable reputation. Three years ago, NickSaban was the Most Hated Man in College Football, primarily for his infamous "I'm not going to be Alabama's coach" line. The difference, however, was Saban was already a national championship head coach, and, having now won another, he's re-earned respect, even by those that don't necessarily like him.

Kiffin's lack of any such accolades to date open him up that much more to ridicule, especially for the many who feel he has his far more revered father, Monte, to thank for landing three such high-profile jobs by the age of 35. And if all that's not enough, The Most Hated Man in College Football is now taking over the Most Hated Program in College Football.

For four-plus years, envious fans around the country waited with anticipation for the NCAA to drop the hammer on USC's dynasty, which it did, and now they're presumably waiting with giddy anticipation for the expected on-field aftermath. That Kiffin could be steering the ship when the Trojans sink to mediocrity surely brings smiles to a lot of faces from Westwood to Austin, Gainesville and, of course, Knoxville.

No program that's undergone sanctions as severe as USC's (which include a two-year bowl ban and 30 docked scholarships over the next three years) has avoided an accompanying downfall. Yet, I don't remember a many people rooting for that to happen when Butch Davis took over at Miami or Mike Shula at Alabama.

On Tuesday, a fellow reporter suggested to Kiffin that he's "been set up to fail." No, the coach did not snarl at him and unfurl some snarky comment. He didn't make some boastful claim about S.C.'s future. He very politely, very methodically discussed the challenges facing the program (mainly a lack of depth) and laid out specific plans to address them (evaluating recruits more carefully, redshirting fewer freshmen, lightening practices to cut down on injuries, etc.).

"I think it's a great challenge," Kiffin said. "If we can continue to play at a championship level like we did before with these penalties, it will say a lot about these players and this staff."

"It doesn't take 85 players to win a national championship," he said. "The last time we were here and won national championships, we were never at 85. You've just to get the right guys. We're very fortunate to have a great quarterback [Barkley]. As you guys know, you'd trade the bottom 20 to 25 guys on your roster to have a great quarterback."

I was at Kiffin's table when he said those words about Barkley. I didn't take it as much more than a compliment about his quarterback.

On Wednesday, however, a friend from SEC country who'd seen the quote elsewhere hit me up on Instant Messenger.

You see Kifffin's QB quote? Real good way to unite a team. He'll never get it, will he?

While I doubt the "bottom 20 to 25 guys" on USC's roster are going to lose much sleep over Kiffin's quote, it's true that a more polished head coach like Mack Brown or Jim Tressel would never go there. And even if they did, no one would notice.

This is the microscope Kiffin has created for himself.

"I think Lane is a very talented football coach," said his former USC buddy Sarkisian. "Like all of us as young coaches, we're learning our ways, we're trying to find our niche and our way to do things to keep our tams motivated and competitive. I don't think anyone in the profession is perfect. You try to learn from it and move forward."

Maybe that's it. Maybe one day, after he's led the Trojans to multiple 11-win seasons, we'll look back at Kiffin's early missteps as merely youthful exuberance. As of today, however, he still seems like a guy who was at his best behind Carroll's curtain, when his primary communications took place over a headset. If USC implodes under his watch, he will quickly go from lightning rod to laughingstock.

Either that, or this is all part of his master plan.

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