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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 15, 2010

Making a name as a coaching mercenary


By Jim Litke

Lane Kiffin returned to Southern California saying he felt like he never left.

No doubt assuming Kiffin was talking about what he's accomplished on the football field since leaving behind USC and an offensive coordinator's job at the end of the 2006 season. In his first stint as a head coach, he went 4-12 with the NFL's sad-sack Oakland Raiders, then started the next season 1-3 and got fired by owner Al Davis. Kiffin's next job, at Tennessee, lasted all of one season and produced a 7-6 record.

Off the field, though, it's been a very eventful three years.

Kiffin won at a 33 percent clip, but ran his mouth 100 percent of the time, even if half of that was spent apologizing. He saw guys breaking rules everywhere he looked, except the guy in the mirror. Davis called Kiffin "a flat-out liar" while banishing him from Oakland. That sounds flattering compared to what people in Tennessee are saying about him now.

(Small wonder: In what might be just one measure of Kiffin's insincerity, he named his son, born a year ago, Monte Knox Kiffin, then said he'd be called "Knox," a reference to the Vols' Knoxville location. To spare his next child similar embarrassment, how about this for a middle name: "Mercenary.")

Kiffin is Exhibit A for what's wrong with college football, but he's hardly alone. Because the only amateurs left in the sport are the players and the people in charge, coaches like Kiffin, Bobby Petrino and Nick Saban treat schools as though they were luggage lockers at the airport a place to store baggage before catching the next flight out of town.

Coaching has always been a profession where loyalty is in short supply. In the pros, at least, players aren't left in a lurch. Colleges hire and fire coaches just as cavalierly, saying the bottom line is the welfare of "the kids." But they're not even bothering to pretend anymore.

Not when they cancel classes in midweek, or feather brand-new nests for guys like Kiffin while people at his last stop work 'round-the-clock to clean up the mess he left behind, and limit how many of his recruits defect to USC.

Go back and listen to Saban's remarks after he won a second national championship, and count how many times he thanked his "organization." He credited several of the higher-ups at Alabama, to be sure. But Saban has no problem assembling a staff, and with a well-oiled recruiting machine in tow, he would have won just about anywhere he set up shop.

Winning titles at two different schools Saban's first was at LSU may be unprecedented in the modern era, but it's hardly a coincidence. Saban is an athletic department unto himself; the only thing he needs upon arrival are uniforms and directions to the stadium.

The strange thing about Kiffin is that he's had nowhere near the success that Saban has, or even Petrino. But he does have the organizational part down already, perhaps because of the man Knox is really named after. That's Kiffin's father, Monte, whose defensive genius and hard-earned reputation as one of football's good guys, spared his son more than one beating from insulted rivals like Florida's Urban Meyer.

To be fair, Kiffin's skill as an offensive coordinator in his first stay at USC impressed a lot of people. It convinced Davis, whose track record with young up-and-comers included hiring John Madden, Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden, to give him that shot with the Raiders. It also convinced USC's recruiting coordinator at the time, Ed Orgeron, to follow him to Tennessee, and now on the return trip.

If nothing else, at least Team Kiffin hit the ground running. At his introductory news conference Wednesday, Kiffin tried to reassure a fan base unnerved by possible NCAA sanctions resulting from Pete Carroll's tenure by vowing to run a "clean, disciplined program."

Apparently that promise didn't cover Orgeron, who was already busy getting back in touch with a few of the kids he recruited for Tennessee to tell them how much more fulfilling the coursework is at USC. If those conversations turn out to be violations, it might mark the earliest an incoming college coach has gotten his team into trouble with the NCAA.

"I make tremendously strong ties with families in recruiting. I always try to guide them in the right direction," Orgeron said, defending the calls.

Of course.

Because it's always about what's best for the kids.

Remember that when you watch the movie, "The Blind Side." In it, Saban is one of a half dozen SEC coaches paying a recruiting visit. Not one of them is working the same job today.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.