To say that Lane Kiffin’s reputation preceded him when he left the University of Tennessee in 2010 to become the head coach at Southern Cal would be quite the understatement.
When Kiffin ditched the Vols one 7-6 football season, after Al Davis and the Raiders unceremoniously booted him out of Oakland following a 5-15 stint in the NFL, he did so in a blaze of indignity, scurrying out of the riot he sparked in Knoxville — no, really — a traitor who was considered to be as inept as he was insufferable.
Whether Kiffin was trotting out Sebastian Janikowski for 76-yard field goals tries, dissing entire communities in Columbia, S.C., or Pahokee, Fla., accusing fellow college coaches of recruiting violations that weren’t really violations or committing senseless violations of his own, Kiffin made a habit of leaving everyone around him scratching their heads and clenching their fists.
So that’s why it was so utterly weird when Kiffin, in his return to the USC program where he first made his name as an offensive coordinator, emerged as a man who couldn’t have been more different from the insufferable jackass he was advertised to be.
All of a sudden, the loud-mouthed, name-calling Kiffin had been replaced by a guy who seemed far more mature, and the air of self-righteousness that was once Kiffin’s trademark seemed to have all but evaporated. This new Kiffin had given up his reputation for controversy for one of harmony; his move back to the Pacific Coast had made him more, well, pacific.
Or so we thought.
But after the past 10 days, the thought that the old version of Kiffin had been left somewhere along Interstate 40 in Tennessee has been called into serious question, and it’s looking more and more as though today’s Lane is the same Lane he always has been, just with a shinier varnish that’s now starting to crack.
It all started last week, when word got out that USC had banned Los Angeles Daily News reporter Scott Wolf from two weeks of practices. The team also revoked Wolf’s credential for the Trojans’ next home game, this Saturday against Cal.
Wolf’s crime? He simply did his job, reporting that USC kicker Andre Heidari had undergone knee surgery and would be sidelined for three weeks.
Kiffin had instituted a rule that journalists could not "report on strategy or injuries that are observed during the course of watching that practice or result from that practice." Although Wolf’s report didn’t seem to be in violation of that rule, it was still determined that he had done enough to necessitate the suspension.
The team later lifted the ban on Wolf after a meeting with USC athletic director Pat Haden, but the fresh glue on Kiffin’s pieced-together aura barely had time to take hold before Kiffin forced himself to call in for more damage control.
On Wednesday, when Kiffin met with the media in Los Angeles, a reporter opened the questioning by asking about an injured player’s participation in practice.
Kiffin responded with a sharp, “I don’t know,” before letting out a loud sigh. After a brief pause, a different reporter started to ask a question, but Kiffin interrupted, said, “I’ve got to go,” and walked off, splitting the sea of gathered reporters.
And just like that, after 29 seconds, the press conference was done.
It’s tough to say whether Kiffin’s outburst was a result of frustration and pressure he’s feeling after last week’s loss to Stanford on FOX, or whether it was strictly a response to a question that was in violation of the silly rule he, himself, instituted.
But either way, it doesn’t matter. That’s not how a grown man in his position — or any position — should act.
On Thursday, of course, Kiffin was back to normal — or, rather, the new normal. He reportedly opened his press scrum with a quip about hoping to “make it to a minute” and ended up talking for a full seven, answering every question that was asked.
But the fact that Wednesday’s tantrum — or Wolf’s ban — even happened at all shows us that Kiffin isn’t as grown up as we thought he was.
It’s becoming clear that the tactful, grounded incarnation of the USC coach is just a façade, and underneath it all, Kiffin is still the old, haughty, unbearable jerk we all used to know and hate.