National Columnist

Sorry to disappoint, but Lane Kiffin is not the jerk you think he is

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Despite NCAA sanctions and scholarship restrictions, Lane Kiffin has the Trojans on the rise. (Getty Images)  
Despite NCAA sanctions and scholarship restrictions, Lane Kiffin has the Trojans on the rise. (Getty Images)  

LOS ANGELES -- This story starts with an idiot called Lane Kiffin, and with the person calling him an idiot. That person is Lane Kiffin. He does it over and over, calling himself an idiot so many times that at first I'm giggling, but soon I'm wincing. He's remorseless, more than I ever was, and over the years I was thoroughly remorseless.

So I guess that's really where this story starts. It starts with me walking into Kiffin's office at Southern California this week, shaking his hand, accepting a bottle of water from the USC football coach, then blurting out:

"Do you have any idea what I've written about you?"

Kiffin doesn't blink. He's not much for blinking, really. He looks at you and just kind of ... looks. He doesn't smile much, either. He's bigger than he seems on TV, standing a shade over 6-feet-3, and thick enough to lift four or five reps of 275 pounds on the bench press. That's where he had been, actually, right before I showed up to his office. He had been working out, and his shirt is wet from sweat.

Kiffin doesn't show a lot of emotion, rarely does from what I can tell, but when I smile stupidly and ask him if he knows just how vicious I've been to him over the years -- that's what we in the journalism business call "an icebreaker" -- he shrugs.

"Probably the same stuff everyone else wrote," he says. Now he's leaning back in his chair. He sighs.

"Well, listen," he says. "You were right."

I was ... what?

  

Really, this story starts in 2009. That's when the world got to know Lane Kiffin. Before that he had been an assistant for six years at USC, and we didn't know him. We knew Pete Carroll. Then he was the head coach for 20 games at Oakland, but we didn't know him. We knew Al Davis.

In 2009 he became the head coach at Tennessee, and we finally came to know Lane Kiffin -- and nobody liked him, nobody but Tennessee fans, and they turned on him as soon as he bolted for USC after that one season. So that's where this story begins, in 2009. When we decided we didn't like Lane Kiffin.

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It begins with a voice mail, with the idiot trying to reach the cheater. Well, that's what Kiffin called Urban Meyer in 2009 -- a cheater -- when they were in the SEC, Meyer as the resident monster at Florida, Kiffin as the new kid at Tennessee. Kiffin was feeling good about his recruiting class that spring, and he crowed to a bunch of Vols fans about the one he pilfered from Florida, Nu'Keese Richardson, who switched to Tennessee even though, Kiffin told the crowd, "Urban [tried] to cheat and still didn't get him."

Turns out, Kiffin was wrong. Meyer was no cheater. The violation Kiffin thought Meyer had committed? Calling Richardson's cell phone when Richardson was on an official visit to Tennessee? That wasn't a violation. So Kiffin tried to reach Meyer to apologize. Tried two or three times, left voice messages, never got a return call. That was 2009.

Meyer took the job at Ohio State this past November, and Kiffin tried to call again. Tennessee was long gone -- he had been at Southern California for two years -- but Kiffin tried again. He wanted to make it right. He called Meyer's cell phone and left another message.

Hey, it's Lane Kiffin. I was an idiot a few years back, but I'm happy for you. Congratulations.

This time, Meyer called him back.

"He was very understanding," Kiffin says. "I think we're good now."

Take it from Urban Meyer if you won't take it from me: It's not easy staying angry with Lane Kiffin.

  

"We're all actors," Kiffin tells me. "Another head coach told me that once. I had a conversation with him back when I was an assistant here -- I won't name him -- and he was very different than what I'd seen. He said, 'Lane, so much of coaching is acting. Whether you're motivating players, putting your spin on bad news, whatever the case may be.' We're all actors."

That's what Kiffin says he was doing at Tennessee. He told me it was an act, all of it. I made a face. Kiffin kept talking.

"I know what you're thinking: 'He's an idiot, he's covering himself,'" Kiffin says. "And look, on part of that you're right. Not everything was intentional -- the Urban thing, a couple other stuff I'm sure. But for the most part, I was doing what I thought was best for the program.

"I had lots of time to think and prepare for that [job] interview, and the Tennessee people liked my plan. Look, you better do something unique, or these kids ain't coming. It's not like Lane Kiffin was a household name. I'd been a head coach one year, won something like six games in Oakland. But we got some great players, I don't believe those things would have happened if I'm a quiet coach."

And yet, he is a quiet coach. Or he had always been a quiet coach. When he was an assistant at USC, he was nondescript off the field. Nobody knew who Lane Kiffin was. He recruited, he studied film. Who knew Lane Kiffin? Well, the people at USC knew Lane Kiffin -- and they didn't know the guy at Tennessee.

USC sports information director Tim Tessalone remembers thinking, as the Summer of Lane echoed around the country in 2009, "Who is that guy?"

"That wasn't the Lane Kiffin any of us knew," Tessalone said. "Around here, he was quiet, to himself."

For the most part, Kiffin is that guy again. His press conferences are no longer a blooper reel. They are no longer must-see TV. At USC, Kiffin is again quiet. He is again himself. He recruits like nobody's business, signing incredible classes under any circumstances -- much less for a team that was banned from the past two postseasons and is in the middle of a 30-scholarship reduction over three years -- but that recruiting dynamo is the Lane Kiffin the players see. It's not the Lane Kiffin we see.

"The press conferences now, are they exactly me? No, but it's close," Kiffin says. "I like to joke a little bit more, but I think that got beaten out of me a little bit by [SEC commissioner Mike] Slive."

Kiffin tried a joke last season after the Stanford game, when officials screwed up the spot after walking off a 10-yard holding penalty. He told a joke where the punch line was his 2-year-old son knowing 10 yards was actually 10 yards.

"I got fined $10,000 for that," Kiffin says, "so now I just tell my staff those jokes."

At Tennessee he told jokes and talked smack. He taunted Florida, Georgia, South Carolina. He says he was going for buzz, firing up the fan base, inspiring the players, attracting the attention of recruits. And all of that is true. But what's also true is this:

He was ticking off the rest of us.

Kiffin sees that now. He didn't see it then.

"As I look back -- and you're not going to agree, but hang on -- I was being un-selfish," Kiffin says. "Everything I was doing, I felt it was all about the program, all about the team. All I was concerned with were three groups: the administration, the fans and the players. And as far as I know, at the time, those groups loved it.

"But I didn't look at the big picture, at what this was doing to my image. If I'm an athletics director or a general manager [in 2009], I'm thinking, 'What is that idiot doing?' I wouldn't want anything to do with that guy. And I never thought about that."

He thinks about it now, and knows it's too late. There are people who will never like him after the way he acted at Tennessee.

"I was an idiot," he says.

Hard to disagree -- but it's also hard to keep hating a guy so willing to take the blame. Urban Meyer couldn't do it.

Can you?


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. More importantly, he is 4-0 as an amateur boxer, with three knockouts. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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