LOS ANGELES — Inevitably, if you are fortunate enough to have a father you revere live long enough, there comes a time where you have to begin searching for reminders of the man you once knew.
They gradually become obscured by uncertainty, frailty and other diminishing curses of age that no amount of determination can seem to beat back.
Now imagine that you are not only this man’s son but his boss, too.
That is the circumstance USC coach Lane Kiffin is in right now, where the wrath for the preseason No. 1 Trojans’ collapse has found an inviting, and perhaps accurate, target: his 72-year-old defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
After Oregon ran roughshod over the Trojans on national television Saturday for 62 points and 730 yards, school records for futility that came on the heels of a late defensive collapse in a defeat at Arizona, the younger Kiffin is being besieged by calls to fire his father.
It’s one thing for people to suggest you take away the keys to your dad’s car. It’s another to demand that you take away the ones to his office.
The younger Kiffin says he will evaluate his father just as he does any other coach, an assertion that no matter how real will always be met with skepticism.
Asked if he was pleased with his dad’s work this season, Kiffin said: “Of course not. You can’t give up historic numbers, record-breaking numbers and be satisfied.”
“But,” he added, “as the head coach, it falls on me too. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Well, I’m in charge of the offense and we’re scoring (51 points).’ We’ll wait to see the whole thing. We’ve played 5 1/2 terrible quarters of defense. We’d played good defense most of the year. As frustrating as the end of the game was, and the game before, let’s see what happens this Saturday (against Arizona State).”
This is not what was expected four years ago, when Lane Kiffin, fresh off being fired by Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, landed the University of Tennessee job. One of the reasons he was hired was the promise that he could bring his father, one of the NFL’s most respected assistant coaches, with him — a move endorsed by Peyton Manning.
Father-son working relationships are hardly uncommon in football — Phillips (Bum, Wade), Ryan (Buddy, Rex, Rob), Shanahan (Mike, Kyle), Bowden (Bobby, Terry, Jeff) Paterno (Joe, Jay) and Schottenheimer (Marty, Brian) are among the fathers and sons who have worked together. But almost exclusively it is the father employing the son, able to shelter him while he gains experience — even if it means having to answer the uncomfortable, but reasonable, questions of nepotism.
That dynamic has been flipped with the Kiffins.
It seemed as if there would be a benefit in Kiffin working for his father, that he would have a mentor and someone who would be quick to recognize his mistakes.
Monte Kiffin is, in many respects, everything that his son is not. If Lane can be brash, immature and sometimes incapable of getting out of his own way (the tiff with Urban Meyer to banning a reporter from practice for reporting a player’s surgery), Monte goes about life with his head down, oblivious to the outside world — a quality that in a previous generation of football circles was admired.
“He’s all football, and he’s been all football forever,” Lane Kiffin said Wednesday. “He might not be able to tell you there was a presidential election yesterday. Really, he might not.”
Near the end of practice Wednesday, Monte Kiffin, wearing shorts, layered in T-shirts and with a baseball cap pulled down on leathered brow, meandered around the field. While other coaches sprinted or jogged with their players, Monte walked with a tilted gait, his shoulders rocking from side to side, breaking into a trot only to leave the field for a few minutes in the direction of the bathrooms.
But is the sort of symbolism that paints Kiffin as worn and over the hill fair?
As haggard as Monte Kiffin looked Saturday night, it was his schemes and players who throttled Oregon for three quarters in Eugene last season, a loss that knocked the Ducks out of the national championship chase and prompted Oregon coach Chip Kelly to seek out the elder Kiffin in the USC locker room afterward to congratulate him.
On Saturday, the Ducks adjusted. They ran three plays the Trojans had not seen on film and their line was the best USC coaches could remember. Lane Kiffin said the defensive coaches did not adjust well.
Asked if his father has slipped, Lane Kiffin said: “No. That’s part of what happens. They’re not asking about Bill Snyder’s age,” — the unbeaten Kansas State coach is 73 — “because they’re not turning the ball over and they’re playing really good. They ask about your age when you lose.”
Kiffin says that, as a son, the blame being directed at his father does not bother him. He suggests that his dad probably feels worse, since it is a father’s instinct — no matter at what stage in life — to want to protect his child, something Monte has done this week by eagerly owning the blame for the defense.
For his part, Monte Kiffin said he ignores all the noise, which for USC at the moment is not unlike every week for every losing team in the NFL. But even for someone who has spent four decades in the NFL, who has been fired and hired many times, this has to feel like something different.
After Arizona State on Saturday, there are still games against UCLA and Notre Dame, and perhaps another date with Oregon, opportunities for resurgence or further embarrassment.
It’s one thing to be asked to turn in your keys; it’s another to be asked by your son. And that’s something that, one way or another, is hard to imagine the father will let happen.