Senior Writer

Kiffin puts positive spin on tough situation


PASADENA, Calif. -- At least there's the Rose Bowl for USC.

Not the Rose Bowl game, not until at least January 2013 because of those uranium-grade NCAA penalties.

Kiffin and the Trojans won't be playing for the Leishman Trophy -- the Rose Bowl award -- anytime soon. (US Presswire)  
Kiffin and the Trojans won't be playing for the Leishman Trophy -- the Rose Bowl award -- anytime soon. (US Presswire)  
You might have heard.

Ah, but there's always Rose Bowl, The Stadium, as Lane Kiffin reminded us at Pac-10 media days.

Because you want to celebrate a December road game against UCLA as some sort of "reward" after having your program gutted.

The man could convince us a grease fire was balsamic vinaigrette left in the sun too long.

Hey, but that's his job, or at least more of his job after the program formerly known as USC retrenches. Defending champion Oregon lost its starting quarterback (for good) and its best runner (for a game) during an offseason of what can politely be termed offseason turmoil. Washington has what we're being brainwashed to believe is the NFL's top draft pick next season (Jake Locker). Heck, the conference had just rented a couple of G4s and flew the coaches to New York for a media schmooze this week.

The story remained USC. On the floor of that Rose Bowl with complimentary Pac-10 sun screen and equally complimentary misting tents, Kiffin began to lay out his plan for survival at the conference's media day. His and the program's.

The weather wasn't the only thing that was sunny.

"This is the exact job I signed up for," Captain Confidence said. "I didn't come here for bowl games. I didn't come here for scholarships. I came here because it's the best job in America ...

"... and we get to live right here too."

So suck it America. You too Tennessee.

If the USC football franchise doesn't burn to the ground in the next few years, you have to believe -- in several things. You have to believe that Kiffin is on notice from the new administration. Suddenly, he has to win with one arm tied behind his back, one that could usually offer 25 scholarships a year. You have to believe that administration won't treat a six-pack of secondary of violations (see Tennessee) as Lane being Lane.

You also have to believe there are more like Matt Barkley who believe playing for an NFL preparatory college is more important than chasing bowls, conference titles or national championships these next two seasons.

"I figured signing with USC would give me the best chance of going to the league," said the sophomore quarterback explaining why he committed then and isn't transferring now.

By the time USC can next go to a bowl in 2012, Barkley could be in the NFL. But that was kind of the point of signing with USC in the first place. Three and out.

"You're announcing you're staying for your senior year?" Kiffin asked.

"Yeah, we'll see," Barkley said nervously, "Hopefully."

That's a huge reason to believe. With an all-star staff, players can still commit to USC knowing they will be trained for the NFL and be seen by the NFL.

"I don't know how much two [bowl] games will do in evaluating how good a quarterback I am," Barkley said. "I'm sure we'll have played in enough big games to decide that."

Winning? Hold on there, hoss. No one really knows the long-term effects of losing 30 scholarships over the next three years. Oklahoma won a national championship 11 years after the NCAA lit it up in 1989 -- and it wasn't pretty. Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake nearly crashed OU into a cornfield before Bob Stoops came along.

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Following crippling NCAA penalties in 2002, Alabama went through coaches like they were wet naps at a rib joint for a time before finally hitting on Nick Saban. For $4 million per, the Big Pimp delivered.

Only the top programs, it seems, have a chance of getting through this crap. If they're lucky and they do it right. Kiffin says he has a plan. Kids will always want to come to USC. That helps. He'll get quarterbacks. Book it. He can fill in with jucos, but not too many. There can be absolutely no mistakes on the 15 guys he can offer the next three years.

He has to hope that no one else, at least no one of substance, transfers. Five have left, but USC types characterized them as guys who wouldn't have played anyway and are missing out on a USC degree.

Left unsaid: They're warm bodies. Guys who could hit and practice and fill out a roster. They could keep someone else from getting injured.

"We created free agency in college football," Kiffin said. "We've dealt with free agency there is no salary cap on. Our players can leave anytime to go anywhere and they don't have to sit out."

And bravo to the NCAA for that. It developed legislation that allows rising juniors and seniors at schools with major sanctions to transfer without sitting out.

Meanwhile back in South Central, you first have to believe USC can win this season with 71 scholarship players. You have to believe no one will ever get injured, miss a class, become ineligible -- or transfer. Most schools don't carry the 85 max in scholarships. Washington, for example, will go into the season with 76. But no, schools don't have to worry about USC's shrinkage over the next three seasons.

Walk-ons aren't much of an option at USC. There are few kids smart enough, rich enough and talented enough to stick at USC without a scholarship. That argument ends with the cost of tuition, room and board each year at the school -- more than $50,000. You have to hope USC doesn't become Kansas State of the 1980s. The program had so mismanaged itself with losing and transfers and injuries and everything that it was down to 50-something scholarships when Bill Snyder took over in 1989.

"They have what?" Arizona coach Mike Stoops asked, referring to USC. "They're down 14 scholarships [from 85]? ... That's significant. The problems that will occur are with the depth of your football team. If you make a mistake [in recruiting] that multiplies the problem tenfold."

That's Mike Stoops who was with Snyder as an assistant from 1992-1998. In his third season, Snyder posted a winning record. By 1998, he was a game away from playing for the first BCS national championship.

And that was with the program SI once called the worst in the country. Recovery can be achieved but there are different levels. K-State was chasing relevance; USC is used to chasing titles.

"They'll recruit really well," said one Pac-10 coach who didn't want to be named. "He's assembled a good staff. It's going to be hard. The real reason is perception of the other schools has changed. They're [USC] not invincible. When they were rolling the games were over before they started. Now, guys believe this: We're going to beat them."

The contrition has started. New AD Pat Haden is the absolute right choice. Sending back the Heisman was a symbolic, but also a brave act. The BCS looks like it is going to vacate the 2004 title as soon as the NCAA appeal is over.

It is a diminished USC, but one that will be back at some point. In the mind of Tommy Trojan, no amount of Heisman removal or tearing down banners can change what those teams accomplished.

"I don't think, in my humble opinion, what Reggie did [had] an effect in the way we played," said Washington's Steve Sarkisian who coached at USC with Kiffin. "We practiced our asses off ... We practiced better than anybody, we played better than anybody."

That's ultimately what USC has to believe: That another Reggie Bush, a clean one, will someday come along.

Because it's USC.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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