Kiffin spent years gearing up to coach, but he's still not equipped
USC coach Lane Kiffin appeared seemingly innocuous at Pac-10's Media Day
But his previous actions show otherwise, and he's yet to understand his public role
The strangest part of the Kiffin-hate phenomenon: He hasn't won anything yet
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 Lane Kiffin, dating to his days as a young USC assistant, the Most Hated Man in Sports -- as recently dubbed by Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Mark Bradley -- has been nothing but cordial, professional and a generally insightful source on topics like recruiting and quarterback development. By no means is he a media darling -- you have to lean in closely just to hear him -- but nor is he condescending or hotheaded like so many others in his profession.
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, Kennedy Pola, on the eve of training camp. The story broke while Kiffin was in mid-flight to the East Coast.
"[Washington coach Steve] Sarkisian sent me a picture of Times Square, where it's going across the ticker," he said. "That's what I landed to."
Kiffin, not surprisingly, seemed baffled by the extent of the Titans' backlash, which began with coach Jeff Fisher -- a USC alum -- blasting the Trojans' coach for neglecting to give him the customary heads-up before contacting Pola (who, like Kiffin, was a former Pete Carroll assistant at USC). "This hiring was done no differently than any hiring we did [in the past] at USC or at Tennessee," said Kiffin. "I didn't anticipate this. No one would have."
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 Todd McNair, who was implicated in its recent NCAA sanctions, when his contract expired on July 1.) And most would agree that the Titans' lawsuit is, at best, a p.r. stunt.
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 LeBron James and John Calipari.) Surely he's noticed by now that even the slightest hint of mischief on his part is going to offend someone -- which in turn offends the entire country.
"[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 Mike Slive and Florida coach Urban Meyer, knowingly incurred numerous secondary NCAA violations and, after all that, ditched Tennessee after just one season, inciting a near-riot. The stately Slive even gave him a thinly veiled "good riddance" at last week's SEC Media Day.
Slive's Pac-10 counterpart, Larry Scott, has spent the bulk of his first year in office fixated on enhancing the conference's "brand." The former Women's Tennis Association CEO doesn't view Kiffin's presence as a possible detriment.
"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 Ed Orgeron, crouched behind Matt Barkley on the practice field or sitting in a recruit's living room, he's probably at total ease. But as anyone who's watched one of his press conferences or television interviews can attest, Kiffin looks perpetually uncomfortable in front of a crowd or a camera.