Kiffin focused on making progress, not headlines in first spring at USC
Lane Kiffin opened up his first spring practice as head coach at USC on Tuesday
Kiffin isn't showing any sign of worry over possible NCAA sanctions for the Trojans
The staff's priority is changing attitudes after USC's run of BCS bowls ended in '09
LOS ANGELES -- By the time he opened his first -- and only -- spring practice at Tennessee, Lane Kiffin had launched 1,000 headlines. He had made himself Public Enemy No. 1 at the other 11 SEC schools, and he had made the Volunteers the story in college football without ever setting foot on the practice field.
Tuesday, Kiffin opened his first spring practice at USC. As has been the case since he took the job in January, he said nothing outrageous. They won't be plastering his post-practice comments on the bulletin board in Eugene or Berkeley or Palo Alto. In fact, he pretty much just ran down the injury report and said he needed to watch the film.
So what happened to the Lane Kiffin who made my job so easy in the early months of 2009? He took another job, and with it came different priorities.
"There's a specific plan for whatever job you take," Kiffin said Tuesday. "You don't treat them all the same. Like I said when I got here, there's a specific plan for here. That's to coach football and recruit players. We don't really need to do anything else. ... We have a high level of interest from recruits around the country. We don't need to go out and gather that attention to help us in recruiting."
Certainly, the looming specter of NCAA sanctions has something to do with Kiffin's reticence. With the Committee on Infractions deliberating the USC athletic program's punishment for the Reggie Bush/O.J. Mayo scandals, it's best to maintain a low profile. But if Kiffin truly suffered from diarrhea of the mouth -- as some said he did at Tennessee -- he couldn't help the occasional controversial tongue-slip. His silence these past few months suggests his act at Tennessee was at least somewhat calculated, which is what Kiffin claimed all along.
If Kiffin is worried about an NCAA hammer smashing his program, it didn't show Tuesday. And let's be honest: the NCAA doesn't have much in its toolbox to do serious damage to a program. The worst it can do is ban the Trojans from postseason play for a season or two. Even significant scholarship cuts would hurt less at USC, which still would have its pick of recruits and would remain extremely competitive provided coaches chose wisely when doling out their limited grants-in-aid. More than likely, the committee will make USC vacate a bunch of wins, which means nothing to the guy who must coach the Trojans going forward. It's a toothless punishment. Last year, the NCAA made Alabama vacate some wins from the 2005 season. After the penalty was announced, I checked YouTube, and Tyrone Prothro still caught that ball to beat Southern Miss that year.
In fact, the only nod to the NCAA Tuesday was a stricter set of guidelines for gaining entry into the Howard Jones practice fields. Visitors had to be cleared in advance, and they had to sign in at a table by the front gate. "I don't think it's a whole lot different than what was here before," Kiffin said. "I know it was assumed that our practices were opened before. It wasn't open where anybody could just walk in. We just changed the way we monitor a little bit, tightened it up. We're making sure that we're really on top of who is coming in and out of here -- obviously for compliance reasons."
What was different? The attitude, according to the players. Kiffin, defensive coordinator dad Monte, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron and the rest of the USC staff aped former coach Pete Carroll's intense practice style, but they added some twists. All lines had to be touched on sprints. All snaps had to be perfect. Fumbles were punished immediately.
"The attitude has changed," quarterback Matt Barkley said. "I've said it before. It's just a little more -- not dedication -- but being on task. It's more disciplined now. It starts with the coaching staff. The tempo starts with them."
Tailback Allen Bradford went a step further. "I'm not saying we got out of hand with coach Carroll, but a lot of guys were doing their own individual thing," Bradford said. "Kiffin's trying to get us in the mindset that it's going to take a team to win."
Make no mistake, Kiffin and company were thrilled to be back on the field at the program they wanted to lead all along. Kiffin admitted it had been a long time since New Year's Eve, when he last actually coached. Orgeron, who has been the head coach at Ole Miss and an assistant under Kiffin at Tennessee since leaving USC, relished booming instructions across a practice field his Cajun accent filled years earlier. "It was great," Orgeron said. "It was special."
The coaches know they must change the attitude that crept into the Trojans' collective psyche last year. After seven consecutive BCS bowls, the Trojans lost four games and played in the Emerald Bowl last season. On the practice field, USC passes the same eyeball test as Alabama or Texas, but it's tough to forget that this team got creamed by Stanford and Oregon last season. For USC to climb back atop the Pac-10, that new attitude will have to stick.
And, Kiffin said, the Trojans might have to take it a tiny bit easier on one another in practice, especially when they aren't wearing pads. So eager were USC players to impress a coach who has said every job is open that they finished nearly every play on the ground. The hustle was fantastic, but the coaches cringed as all those former five-star recruits did their best impression of a pile-up on the Santa Monica Freeway. "I liked their energy. We've got to practice a little smarter," Kiffin said. "There were too many guys on the ground. Everybody was trying to be Troy Polamalu today because it's Day 1. ... But it's a lot better to have to slow them down than speed them up."
And, as if to emphasize how far he believes the Trojans have to go, Kiffin was quick to answer when someone asked if he saw any budding Polamalus on Tuesday. "I didn't see any yet," he said.
They were out there, though. And Kiffin knows it. He also knows there are more who still want to come to USC -- NCAA sanctions or not. So for now, he'll keep his mouth shut and coach.
"We don't need a lot of attention right now," Kiffin said. "We need to get better on the field."
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