Kiffin and USC strive for drama-free 2013 season

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 13, 2013 at 11:17 am •  Published: May 13, 2013
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lane Kiffin has an idea.

He's not serious about it. Not really. There is, however, just a hint in his voice that suggests he's not totally joking, either.

"I did think the other day what it would be like to be a high school head coach or to be at a small school," Kiffin said. "I thought about it the other day. The first time. I wonder if there's something to that peace of mind. Maybe it's something I can go back and do when I get older. I'm going to go coach high school.

"It's just the game. It's the game in its realest sense and it's fun. Working with the kids and not all this other stuff. You go back and have fun."

If Kiffin's Trojans have another season like last year, he may not have to wait long to give high school a try.

Nonetheless, on this day, with spring practice fading in the rearview mirror, it'd be hard to find a guy on the USC campus in a better mood than the Trojans' football coach.

As he relaxes on the big, white, leather sectional couch in his office, sunshine spilling through the sliding glass doors that lead out to a small patio, Kiffin seems at ease as he considers the future of a coaching career spent mostly in the brightest of spotlights.

NFL head coach at 31. SEC head coach at 33. Head coach of USC at 34. When it comes to acronyms, the 37-year-old Kiffin's resume has some of the best in sports on it.

But it's been a bumpy ride for the boy wonder, bouncing from one volatile situation to another. When it comes to turmoil, Kiffin seems to either walk into it or create it. It's a talent that has made him maybe the most vilified man in college football today.

It's part of what prompts the inevitable question, but suggest to Kiffin that he's coaching for his job this season and he answers, "I always feel like that's the case."

Kiffin's boss, USC athletic director Pat Haden, brushes off that idea as well.

"I'm not going to start getting into those things," he said. "I'm not going to make any pronouncements. Let's just enjoy the season."

There's definitely a no-drama vibe emanating from USC these days. The Trojans are still dealing with NCAA sanctions handed down in 2010 for the Reggie Bush scandal, but they will be neither bowl-banned nor No. 1 going into the 2013 season.

After USC went 7-6 last season, Kiffin replaced about half his assistants, including his father, the longtime and well-respected NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and preached to his staff that he wanted to recreate the passion and energy of his first season in this, his fourth with the Trojans.

He said others have told him he seems more relaxed this spring, and his boss is fine with the team flying under the radar.

"Let's just earn it on the field," Haden said. "Let's play as hard as we can. Let's have no off-the-field distractions. Let's play the game with a sense of purpose and fun and with a little more physical nature than we did last year."

Last year was anything but fun.

The Trojans became the first team to start the season No. 1 in the AP poll and finish it unranked since Mississippi in 1964, when the rankings only went 10 deep. They lost five of their last six games, including a downright depressing 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

They couldn't run the ball. The defense fell apart. Star quarterback Matt Barkley was inconsistent, and finished the year injured. For the first time since 1995, USC lost to both UCLA and Notre Dame.

"The way that I think of it in a positive way is we're going to learn from it," Kiffin said. "That can't happen again. But we're not going to change everything because prior to that game (a 39-36 loss at Arizona on Oct. 27) we had won 17 of the previous 20 games. We were 17-3 in the middle of sanctions, probation, reduced roster. All those things going on, we're winning 17 of 20 games. We're doing something right."

But during those last two months of last season, "Everything that could go wrong went wrong," he adds.

And with the losses, came drama. That always seems to be the case with Kiffin.

His 20-game run in the NFL ended with then-Raiders owner Al Davis calling him a liar and firing him with cause. While Kiffin clearly wasn't the solution, a decades' worth of futility in Oakland suggests he was far from the only problem with the Raiders.

A couple of months later, Kiffin landed at Tennessee, a fading program in the midst of an awkward breakup with longtime coach Phillip Fulmer.

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