Why Recent Controversies in the USC Football Program Matter

Original Post:  November 11, 2012

When you hear the name Lane Kiffin, what’s the mental picture that you see?

Is it of the coach whose USC football team still has a chance to win the PAC-12 title after overcoming five turnovers to beat Arizona State Saturday night?

Is it a positive image that comes to your mind?

If the answer is “No” or “Not really”, it’s likely not due to his coaching record or for any one regrettable incident, but instead because of a series of controversial decisions Kiffin has made that collectively have impacted his reputation.

A Fast Rise Up the Coaching Ranks

In 2007, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis hired Kiffin away from the University of Southern California, where Kiffin had excelled as Offensive Coordinator, following Norm Chow.

At the age of 31, Kiffin became the youngest head coach in NFL history.

With a 5-15 record in late September of the following year, Kiffin was fired. At a news conference, Davis said the firing was “for cause” meaning they would terminate his contract immediately without paying the $2.6 Million remaining on his contract. Davis called Kiffin “a flat-out liar” accusing him of “bringing disgrace to the organization”.

Kiffin claimed the firing was without merit, but an arbitrator ruled that Davis did have cause to fire Kiffin.

Two months later, Kiffin was hired as head coach at the University of Tennessee. During that winter, Kiffin revved-up the Vols fans. He guaranteed a win over Florida and took verbal shots at at the South Carolina and Alabama programs.

And then at a February breakfast, Kiffin accused Florida coach Urban Meyer of violating NCAA rules by calling eventual Tennessee signee Nu’Keese Richardson while Richardson was on his official visit to Tennessee.

The Tennessee fans loved it. Here was a coach willing to go toe-to-toe with the Vol’s biggest SEC rival.

But, within hours, Kiffin was the one on the hot seat. His accusation was erroneous. Meyer had not broken an NCAA rule in texting a recruit while on a visit to another school. Kiffin was publicly reprimanded by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, while Florida AD Jeremy Foley called out Kiffin and demanded an apology.

Kiffen did issue a written statement the next day stating: “In my enthusiasm for our recruiting class, I made some statements that were meant solely to excite those at the breakfast. If I offended anyone at the University of Florida, including Mr. Foley and Urban Meyer, I sincerely apologize. That was not my intention.”

But, Kiffin continued his brash, us-against-the-world rhetoric, telling members of the Big Orange Tipoff Club, “There’s nobody outside the Tennessee fans. There’s nobody outside the Tennessee family, and there’s nobody outside this group of players that will ever help us win a football game. So we really don’t care if we offend some people on the way to getting there.”

We’ve seen such bravado before from coaches. It plays well with the fan base.

However, Kiffin clearly crossed the line at the end of the recruiting process that spring with wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, who chose to attend South Carolina.

Kiffin reportedly told Jeffrey “that if he chose the Gamecocks, he would wind-up pumping gas for the rest of his life”.

It’s hard to view that comment as anything but classless.

As for following the rules, Kiffin hasn’t appeared to be setting the bar very high there, either.

A little more than a week after wrongly accusing Urban Meyer of cheating, Kiffin was admonished by his own school for committing a secondary rules violation. Kiffin had commented about an un-signed recruit while on a radio show, despite being reminded by the host that the coach was limited in what he could about recruiting.

The incident was self-reported by Tennessee. And while it was a minor infraction, it was the third time in a month that the school had to report a rules violation by their new head coach.

In the first season of his 6-year deal, the Volunteers improved from 5-7 to 7-6. While the Vols did beat South Carolina and Georgia, the “guaranteed” win over Florida didn’t happen and other losses included Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss. The season ended with a 23-point loss to Virginia Tech in the “Chick-Fil-A” Bowl.

Two weeks later, Kiffin was gone. Pete Carroll had moved on from USC to coach the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Kiffin was offered the chance to replace Carroll and quickly accepted.

He left behind hard feelings in Knoxville and months later his job at USC became much tougher when the NCAA announced harsh sanctions against the football program, stemming from improper benefits found to have been given to former Trojans running back Reggie Bush by two sports agents, while Bush was at USC.

Kiffin faced a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. Additionally, the NCAA allowed juniors and seniors in the USC program to leave, if they wanted to, without having to sit out a season.

To his credit, Kiffin guided the Trojans to an 8-5 season in year one and a 10-2 record in year two.

It couldn’t have been easy navigating through those sanctions and keeping the focus on the field.

This season, despite a disappointing 7-3 record with three conference losses, the Trojans still can win the Pac-12 and earn a berth in the Rose Bowl.

But on the flip side, Lane Kiffin has made statements that have been less than truthful and pushed ethical boundaries to the point where many are questioning whether Kiffin is representing USC in the right way. He’s been at the center of controversy and distractions that are in conflict with the efforts of USC Athletic Director Pat Haden to restore the reputation of USC football.

A Coach’s Reputation

Lane Kiffin began the season as a voter in the USA Today College Football To-25 Coach’s Poll. And, when told that Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez had voted the Trojan’s # 1 in the preseason poll, Kiffin said to reporters “I would not vote USC # 1, I can tell you that much.”

USA Today refuted that claim, reporting that Kiffin, had indeed, voted his own team # 1.

The coach issued a statement saying “I apologize if somehow anybody thought I was misleading them. By far, I had no intent of misleading anybody. I was simply answering a question that one of you guys asked me in reference to if I was that person. I apologize if somebody took that the wrong way. I didn’t mean to go that way.”

Kiffin later contended that he was trying to speak from the perspective of opposing coaches like Rodriguez.

Blatant lie or lack of candor —- take your pick. It certainly did not reflect well on Kiffin or the USC program he represents.

Then there have been multiple incidents involving Kiffin and the media that have resulted in negative publicity for the program.

There also was the decision to deny access to the L.A. Coliseum for Friday walk-throughs by visiting teams. Kiffin said the policy change was “solely based” on preserving the field but some wondered if the decision was influenced by USC’s first game opponent —- Hawaii, coached by Norm Chow, USC’s former Offensive Coordinator.

The policy has since been superseded by a new PAC-12 Conference policy permitting visiting football teams to conduct a 60-minute walkthrough at the game facility on the day prior to a game.

Think what you will about those situations.

The jersey-changing controversy in the October 23rd game against Colorado clearly was a decision that unnecessarily put the program in a negative light. It was a clear case of Kiffin attempting to break the spirit of an NCAA rule, if not violate the rule as written.

In am obvious effort to trick the opponent, Kiffin had back-up quarterback, Cody Kessler, switch jerseys numbers with Punter Kyle Negrete for the first half of the game. Kessler wore Negrete’s usual # 35 jersey, Negrete wore Kessler’s usual # 6. Kessler then entered the game as the holder when the Trojans lined up for an extra point try. The Trojans faked the kick and ran a 2-point play. It worked. Kessler scored on the play, but the conversion was nullified by a penalty. The Trojans then kicked the extra point.

Kiffin later claimed that because the jersey change was made before the game, no NCAA rule was broken. He added: “We change jerseys all the time. We’ll change some more this week. Everything is within college rules.”

Kiffin’s explanation was disingenuous. The jersey change clearly was designed to deceive the opponent. The two players reportedly switched back their numbers for the 2nd Half.

The NCAA rulebook says that jersey numbers “shall not be changed during the game to deceive opponents.” A team caught doing so will be assessed a 15-yard penalty and “flagrant offenders shall be disqualified.”

It seems to me to be a clear violation of the rule, but regardless, Lane Kiffin’s decision is indefensible.

I mean, really, USC needs to resort to deceiving an opponent like this. And versus Colorado?

It’s dishonorable, unethical and just plain wrong.

The fact that a coaching staff would think about using such a tactic is embarrassing.


And then we come to the most recent “shake your head” moment with USC football.

The Pac-12 Conference fined USC $25,000 and issued a reprimand stemming from an incident in last weekend’s game against Oregon.

Game officials found that the Trojans had used footballs that were inflated below NCAA-regulated levels.

And it was no accident.

The school announced that a student manager admitted to intentionally deflating some of the footballs. A slightly under-inflated ball helps a quarterback to better grip the football and gives receivers an easier ball to catch. The school said its investigation found that the student manager had, without the knowledge of or instruction from any USC athlete, coach, staff member or administrators, taken it upon himself to alter the balls after they had been tested and approved before the game.

Officials discovered the under-inflated balls and re-inflated three of them before the game, and two more at halftime. All of the balls were at the prescribed inflation level for the second half.

USC said the student manager had been dismissed from the team.

Athletic Director Pat Haden declined our ESPN Radio request for an interview Thursday, but released a written statement that day that read “We regret this incident occurred.” “It was unacceptable and we apologize for it. I can assure you this will not happen again.”

So what are we to make of all this?

Lane Kiffin was asked if this latest incident reflects a culture within the program. He responded saying “I think that’s a fair question, but I don’t believe that at all. I believe this is an isolated incident that had nothing to do with the coaches or players on this team.”

The problem for Kiffin is that his past behavior works against him.

Garry Paskwietz, founder of “WeAreUSC.com”, put it well in a blog for ESPN.com last Thursday:

“Because of his history, Kiffin has lost the benefit of the doubt in these situations. Kiffin may very well have had nothing to do with the balls getting deflated, but that’s not the way it’s being viewed by the public. The national media is filled with questions about Kiffin’s ethics, and every single person I’ve talked to today said their reaction to hearing about the story was ‘that sounds like something Kiffin would do.'”

A Rouge Manager?

I put it to you.

Do you think the student manager came up with idea on his own?

Neither do I.

A student manager is not about to tamper with the inflation of the footballs his quarterback is throwing and his wide receivers are catching, without input from anyone else.

I don’t know who put the idea in his head, but it defies logic to think it originated with him.

“Gamesmanship” or Cheating?

When it comes to “minor” rules violations in sports; when teams or players bend the rules to gain an advantage or violate rules because they can get away with it, I always hear the same defense.

“It’s just gamesmanship.”

“Everybody looks for an edge”

“This has been going on for years. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

And that is the problem.

The fact that cheating has occurred in sports for a long time should not make it more acceptable.

And when it comes to cheating in order to gain a competitive advantage, nothing is really minor. You either are following the rules and, most importantly, the intent and spirit of the rules, or you are not.

Tactics designed to circumvent rules in order to gain an advantage over an opponent are simply wrong. If you condone “minor” forms of cheating in competitive sports by calling it “gamesmanship”, you are saying it’s O.K. depending on degree.

The emphasis has to be on competing fairly and honorably, with both teams playing under the same rules and conditions.

It’s More Than About Winning Games

I still find it hard to understand why Lane Kiffin doesn’t appear to place much value in winning with integrity. He’s obviously a bright guy and no doubt has worked hard to move-up the coaching ranks to such high-profile positions.

And he now holds a special job —- head coach at the University of Southern California, a program rich in tradition and with a history of football excellence.

But, it’s also a program damaged by recruiting violations and NCAA sanctions.

He’s working for an Athletic Director in Pat Haden, who has a deep love for his school, and is working to restore honor and pride to USC Football.

Given all that, you would think that Lane Kiffin would want to embrace that effort and do everything possible to set an example that reflects those goals.

Sadly, that hasn’t happened.

USC deserves better.

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