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
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,
Kiffin, not surprisingly, seemed baffled by the extent of the Titans' backlash, which began with coach
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
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
"[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
Slive's Pac-10 counterpart,
"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
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,
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,
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
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.
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
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.