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May 14, 2012

A coach coming of age

Lane Kiffin was a head coach in the NFL at age 31. Youngest ever in the modern era of pro football.

Then again at Tennessee at 33. Youngest among college football's 120 FBS coaches.

Then a return to USC at the age of 34, where he's still the fourth-youngest FBS coach now going into Season 3. Not that this pattern should surprise anyone. After all, he started college coaching after giving up football as a Fresno State undergrad.

When you're Monte Kiffin's kid, when Pete Carroll was your first baby-sitter and Jeff Tedford your first college mentor, none of this is much of a surprise. But what's happened in the past year at USC might be.

The way Kiffin has rocketed toward the top of those "best college coaches" lists -- top 20 nationally now by The Sporting News, top three in the Pac-12. It's not something Kiffin himself thinks about. But it's there.

As he takes an hour break Friday during one of the slightly slower-moving seasons as his program works its way back to the top of the college football world, Kiffin talks about where he and his team are. And how it took this last season to get there.

"Where am I personally from this time a year ago? How different am I?" Kiffin repeats the opening question. He hasn't really stopped to look at it that way. He's never been here before. Not at Oakland. Certainly not at Tennessee.

At neither place did he have the benefit of a full second season, or as Vol fans sadly or angrily note, a second season at all. But he finally had one here this last year. And it's made a difference.

"A lot," Kiffin says. "A year, no matter when it comes in your coaching career, matters a lot. But what makes the biggest difference is that year after the first year. From Year 1 to Year 2 means a lot. No matter how well you know a program, how familiar you are with it, you spend so much time the first year just trying to know where you are every day.

"In Year 2, you start to feel much more comfortable. You've gone through so much that first year."

There's something else, that matters as well: "What you realize is that winning solves a lot of problems."

[ Y! Sports Radio: USCFootball.com's Dan Weber joins David Nuno ]

So which comes first, coaches and players getting it as they grow up together and go on to win with the comfort and confidence that comes along with that? Or does the confidence and comfort level that comes with the familiarity with one another and what you're trying to do bring about the attitude change that produces a winning program?

Where exactly does winning come in, with his young Trojans finishing at 10-2 thanks to four impressive road wins after a stumbling start at Arizona State?

"Winning isn't so much for me, or the coaches," Kiffin said. "We know what's in our plan. We understand that. Where it matters is with your players. They don't have to face the second-guessing about what they're doing -- or what we're doing. That's where it really matters. It takes that away from them, from the people around them. It really helps."

But in Kiffin's second year, it was a combination of the two -- winning and a change of attitude all around that mattered the most. And it happened at midseason in that place where Kiffin hadn't been: the start of the second half of his second season.

Did it happen in Cal week -- or the week-and-a-half leading up to a Thursday night nationally televised game at AT&T Park?

"You're in the right time slot," Kiffin says, knowing it was the two away games in three weeks, at Cal and Notre Dame, that saw a new-look USC team emerge after giving up 84 points and 946 yards to the Arizona teams in splitting the previous two games.

"If it was a single element, my best guess it was the defense coming around," he said of the turnaround. "That Cal win was a team win, we scored 30 points, didn't play well on offense and won by 21. And against a pretty good team with a good wide receiver, good running back and quarterback and a real good defense."

The Bears were never in the game. USC didn't let them in. "That's right," Kiffin says with a nod.

The more Kiffin thought about it, if it had to come down to a single moment for him, it may have been his time in the AT&T Park hallway as he headed to the Cal postgame press conference.

"I remember not being very happy with the offense coming off the field. Matt [Barkley] was off a bit. Marqise [Lee] was hurt. As the playcaller, you felt you were also off," he said pointing at himself. He was not at all happy.

"But then it occured to me, that was a really quality win. That was the best thing that could have happened to us, to have the defense play like that. We'd spent a lot of time in the 10 days getting ready for the game on our red zone defense and we got a couple of takeaways there. That's what I was thinking standing there in the hallway. I realized that that was a really good win."

And then came the questions. "I know what the culture is around here for our fans -- and the media. How we're supposed to win. So the questions didn't really surprise me. But I remember that press conference. The questions were so negative. And as I sat there, I told myself that our players are probably feeling some of this themselves."

So Kiffin gave them something good to think about. With a big smile, the offensive-minded Kiffin gave the defense a big "attaboy." Maybe without even totally analyzing what he needed to do at that moment, he just did it.

After all, it was Year 2. And the defense that had given up all those points in the Arizona games had held Cal to single digits. It was starting to come around.

"We had a number of things happen right then," Kiffin said of a team that started to welcome the challenge of the road, to welcome the bad weather games that were to come, to welcome scheduling anomalies like playing in a baseball park, or playing on Thursday or Friday nights, playing the first night game in forever the next time out at Notre Dame.

"They started really buying into what we were telling them about how it was all in their preparation," Kiffin said. The Cal game proved it. "We made a big deal of that."

And thanks to Notre Dame making a big deal the next weekend, with all the hoopla, the music, the fans, the recruiting visits, the whole "Super Bowl" atmosphere, the timing could not have been better to make this message a reality. It was like his USC team knew something the Irish did not.

"We told them the bagpipes would be out two hours before the game, the rock music would be louder than anything they'd ever heard," Kiffin recalls that week. And it all helped to reaffirm his policy that there was no need for walk-throughs, as USC had done before, even at Notre Dame Stadium.

"We told them it was just a football field, 100 yards, no big deal," Kiffin said. "We painted all that picture for them. We focused on the preparation. It was their third road game and they were ready. They executed really well."

Which became a theme for the fall.

"I'm sure when this schedule came out," Kiffin said with a tap on the back of a 2011 media guide. "I'm sure you wrote it. Everybody did. They've [USC's] got a murderous road schedule. They play at Cal in a baseball park, at Notre Dame at night, and then after the Stanford game, which our guys knew could have gone either way a couple of times and didn't say anything bad about their team, they go to Colorado on a short week for a night game, and then when you looked at the schedule, Oregon was next."

And all at night. The last two in the kind of cold weather that had always plagued USC.

"And it didn't at all," Kiffin said, indicating he might have been as proud of how the Trojans came out for the Colorado game as any in that run. It was the classic slip-up situation historically. A Colorado team that had beaten Utah and was starting to get healthy.

"T.J. [McDonald]was suspended, it was their 'Blackout night,' it was cold," Kiffin said, with snow piled up around the field. And USC came out hot. Another one for the prep even if there was little hype here for the ESPN game that produced Barkley's record six TD passes as the night went on.

Then came the Oregon game. And for the freezing night in Eugene, Kiffin's all-white ski ensemble. Which was not a spur-of-the-moment deal, he said. It's who he is -- and how he does things.

Short of wearing a billboard with "Baby it's cold up here," Kiffin could not have communicated that any better than the white beanie, ski parka and gloves.

"Two points," Kiffin said as he repeated the question about why he wore what he did that night: "Was there a recruiting aspect to the decision? There was. It turned out to be the most-viewed regular season game all year on TV, I think. I knew a lot of recruits would be watching. So yes, that was No. 1.

"No. 2 was simply for warmth," Kiffin said. "I call the plays and I have to be able to write the ones down for the next series. I'm never going to be the hero," he says. No short-sleeved Woody Hayes he. "And as your body temperature drops, your mind doesn't work as well."

It's a game where the play-by-play is still right on the tip of Kiffin's tongue, as one after another, he notes the little things that kept USC from "really doing something there," he says. Not just a win but a big win against the Ducks consistent with that 28-7 lead early in the third quarter.

But when it came to the moment that mattered the most, Oregon's final field goal attempt, Kiffin said that was the moment he knew. He knew "They knew," he said of his Trojan team. "They knew he was going to miss."

They weren't hoping, or holding their hands over their eyes. They were rejoicing in the knowledge that if the Oregon kicker kicked it straight, they'd block it. If he avoided the block, "he was going to miss it. They knew."

And Kiffin knew.

It was the end of Year 2. And he was in a far different place, one he'd never been in before.

Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at weber@uscfootball.com.

In the second half of our sitdown with Kiffin this week, he looks at his approach to recruiting now, how his new staff is working, where coaching in the Pac-12 and nationally is headed and how USC looks headed into 2012.



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