In Kiffin-Chow reunion, past pain forgotten -- mostly

by | CBSSports.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The old saying is time heals all wounds.

That doesn't really apply to college football. There will always be pain over wounds that don't quite heal with the passing of time.

Alabama fans can win another national championship this year, but it won't completely erase the stinging memory of last season's Iron Bowl. It took Mack Brown months to get over Texas' loss in the national title game and a good number of insiders would say he still hasn't. Don't bring up the Bush Push to Charlie Weis or Sirr Parker's slant route to a Kansas State fan either.

No matter how hard players, fans and coaches try to forget, it still remains in some form or fashion. It will come up when the networks reach into the archives for footage or a coach takes another job. It's there.

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There can be some, though certainly not all, healing with time. Saturday in Los Angeles, there will be some more for two coaches. Not over a play or a game, a push or a fumble, a yard or a score. It appears there will be healing over an inner-office squabble.

Coaching politics might not be a painful loss on the record, but it certainly can linger. For two in particular, time seems have allowed them to move on from a turbulent period.

Utah's Norm Chow is familiar with the slow jog down the L.A. Coliseum's tunnel from his days as offensive coordinator at USC. During the glory years from 2001 to 2004, he was grooming Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart and mixing trick plays into the high-flying offenses. Lane Kiffin was a young (well, even younger) tight ends coach before ultimately succeeding Chow as coordinator with Steve Sarkisian.

"All of us got along," said Kennedy Polamalu, who served as running backs coach at the time. "Pete Carroll had a good continuity of staff and we worked together well. From Tim [Davis] to Norm to Lane to Sark, Pete provided an environment for all of us to have ownership in the offense."

"I was fortunate to have played for Norm [at BYU] as well as worked for him, so I've got to see both sides of it," Sarkisian said. "I think he's a very innovative play-caller that kind of set the standard for guys to throw the football and call trick plays at not the most normal times. I think people followed that trend in a sense."

But Carroll, sensing Chow was getting too much credit outside of the program for the team's success, wanted to find a way to keep his rising assistants in the fold.

"I don't need to get into the personal side of it," Sarkisian said. "From the business side, Coach Carroll wanted to bring us back. Norm had an opportunity to go to the Tennessee Titans."

By most accounts, it was contentious. While it took a few weeks to play out following the Trojans' romp over Oklahoma to win the BCS championship, Carroll made it clear Chow would have less of a role in the offense. When USC alum Jeff Fisher offered Chow a lifeline to coach in the NFL, Carroll didn't try very hard to keep him. Just like the Trojans backfield, it was on to the next one. Kiffin in particular.

"People make such a deal of that, but we're fine. It was fun, really. I think that [the bad blood] is totally exaggerated," Chow recently told ESPN..

One source with knowledge of the situation said feelings were definitely frayed from the whole ordeal, centering mostly on Carroll's preference for his eager young assistants. Some have suggested Kiffin helped show his mentor the door and was hardly broken up to see him leave.

"I wouldn't say that everybody didn't like [how it ended]," Kiffin said. "That would make it sound like the guy wasn't doing a very good job. He left here to become a coordinator in the NFL and made, I think, a million dollars a year.

"I think he was happy with the decision and making the next step. He had done so many things in college."

Revisionist history on everyone's part? It may be a little. Without question though, everyone seems to have mostly moved on -- and up -- from a turbulent time at Heritage Hall.

Sarkisian is now the head coach at Washington. Kiffin jumped from the Oakland Raiders to Tennessee and then back to USC. Each has plenty of challenges of their own, pushing their hairlines back little by little.

"With Lane and I, it was a great working relationship," Sarkisian said of the time following Chow's departure. "For the first time for us to really be in charge of an offense, I think it was good that there were two of us doing it. We could learn from one another and, at the end of the day, I think it helped us both get to where we are now."

Chow meanwhile jumped up a level and then back and across town, to UCLA. Things didn't exactly go well; the Bruins never quite had the players he was used to running his system with. The team struggled in the passing game after Rick Neuheisel brought the 65-year-old on board and the strained marriage in Westwood ultimately led Neuheisel, just like Carroll, to have no problem allowing Chow to go elsewhere.

As if by fate, he landed at Utah, his alma mater. There was talk he would head back to USC once Kiffin was hired, but that was driven by eager boosters trying to "get the band back together" at Troy more than anything else. Instead, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called Chow to ask about another former assistant, Tim Davis, whom he was considering hiring during the offseason. Instead of one, he got both.

"Tim brings a lot to the table just like Norm does," Whittingham said. "He's as passionate as any coach as I've ever been around. He's been great in that respect and he worked with Norm at SC when they won those national championships so they work well together. We think we have a good setup on the offensive side of the ball, he's a big contributor."

It's been a roller-coaster ride for both Kiffin and Chow to get to this point nearly seven years later, but here they are together again and on opposite sidelines.

This will be the fourth time Chow has faced USC since leaving and the fourth time he will have taken on his former protege. The two have played each other once in the NFL, once while Kiffin was at Tennessee and yet again last year at the Rose Bowl while both coached at the two L.A. schools. Chow has the edge 2-1 and seems intent on keeping it that way.

"He has been one of the most intense guys this week," Utah offensive lineman John Cullen told the Salt Lake Tribune. "He is fired up. No one is joking around with Coach Chow this week; he is fired up for this game."

Fired up may be too strong of an adjective for a normally dreary Kiffin, but he is excited at seeing a familiar face -- mostly because he knows what's coming and doesn't have to worry about facing an exotic offense or defense. "I like it better, there's not as many unknowns," he said. "You know how they think, you know what they're going to do. Some people don't like it but I do. I like going against Washington's defense for example.

"It doesn't mean we're going to be more successful this week, it just means it will be easier because we're used to playing against it. It is nicer from a coaching standpoint not having as many unknowns."

Time, it seems, has turned friction into worries of fullback placement. Issues mostly behind them, Kiffin and Chow will be focused on each other's team much more than the individual behind it.

Depending on the outcome however, there could be a few fresh wounds for one of the two.

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