Watching the BCS on TV, Lane Kiffin thinks about big picture for USC

As USC football Coach Lane Kiffin closely watches his idol, Nick Saban of Alabama, he discusses changes that must be made to secure the Trojans' future success.

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We're watching the BCS championship game together Monday night in Lane Kiffin's USC office — you know, the game the Trojans were going to be playing in Miami.

It sounds silly, if not ridiculous, after the kind of season the Trojans have just experienced, but five months ago Kiffin and others were voting USC the No. 1 team in the country.

Right now Miami feels millions rather than a couple of thousand miles away, a brooding Nick Saban on the TV screen, a winner of two of the previous three title games. Soon to make it four titles overall.

Saban is 61. By way of comparison, Kiffin is a 37-year-old kid still in need of training wheels, a kid who also idolizes Saban.

He will not turn the game off when it's clearly a blowout because he wants to hear Saban's postgame interview. He predicts what Saban will say, and gets it almost word for word.

On TV they are talking about Saban's single-minded drive to make Alabama a winner. But now that Kiffin has three children, he's not so sure his idol has the proper priorities.

He says this, though, while I'm sitting on his bed.

It's a white couch. When Kiffin leaves his home on Sunday mornings during the season, he doesn't return until Thursday night. The couch is his bed most nights.

He tells his wife, "If we're going to be successful, I don't want one play that we missed to be the difference."

But near the end of the season, he's talking to his 3-year-old son on the telephone. "He says, 'Hey Dad, do you think we could have a sleepover?'

"He says, 'Dad, do you think you could sleep over at my house?' Not in his bed, but in his house, like I don't live there."

His wife puts it another way: "A lot of good it does sleeping in your office; you still go 7-6."

To hear others now, USC is in ruins and Kiffin is the reason. He was already on the outs with most fans across the country, but now he's lost the Trojans' fan base.

"It was a bad season of coaching by the head coach," Kiffin admits, and yet he's amazingly upbeat.

He says he's excited about recruiting and is already reviewing everything from who calls offensive plays to the tenor of preseason workouts to his interaction with players.

He moved his attention to defense before the Sun Bowl, and even though he won't say so, USC insiders say he didn't call the offensive plays for the bowl game.

"I promise you, we're going to get back to playing tough USC football," he says, while blaming himself for protecting his best players and thin roster by not going harder in practice.

He has a copy of Alabama's daily practice schedule in front of him as he speaks, already comparing it period by period against USC's.

He has talked to Saban, to other coaches at Alabama and to Notre Dame's Brian Kelly. One year ago the Notre Dame alumni were questioning Kelly's ability to deliver success.

More than a question, it's an outcry at USC.

But the kid pays little attention to the negativity or the posse ready to run him out of town. He believes he has to be rock-solid confident as a leader, everyone in the McKay Center feeding off the head coach.

"Pete Carroll taught me that," Kiffin says. "I have to learn from the negative but focus on the positive.

"I remember when we lost to Texas in the Rose Bowl [in 2006]. I probably shouldn't say this because my wife will get mad, but it was like I didn't want to live.

"Believe me, I understand the pain, and what a loss means to the USC family. It looks like I don't care, and I get that. But inside I'm suffering just like everyone else.

"When I first got here I met Marv Goux, and I heard about the passion of Marv and Dave Levy. And I've seen Ed Orgeron cry after a loss. But as head coach, I don't believe it's in the best interests of the team if I go in the tank."

He moves on now without his dad, Monte, as defensive overseer and Matt Barkley as quarterback. And though it appears sometimes he's detached emotionally, he talks differently.

"Look at my dad; he's here today, he was here Saturday and Sunday and he doesn't have a job," Kiffin says. "Now you know where I get it.

"But looking at the time we had together, even though it didn't work out, Pops got to spend four years with his grandkids and that doesn't always happen in this profession. No one can take the memories away from my kids.

"We were over to my parents' house Sunday and I watched Dad playing games with my kids to get them eating. It was just so cool. That's what I'll miss."

As for Barkley, he says, "It's hard to care about someone more than I do about him. I think so much of his parents as well. I've bounced parenting things off Les because he and Bev have done such a wonderful job raising kids.

"But I spent so much time with Matt and our receivers, I'm concerned how it affected other players. I could see why they might feel neglected; I need to do better."

During a break in the game he steps out of his office onto the Pat Haden Terrace overlooking the practice field. There is a plaque on the wall dedicated to Haden's accomplishments.

"As you can see, he's always over my shoulder," Kiffin jokes. "I'm so fortunate; it's not your usual coach-athletic director relationship. Look at my phone, we text each other constantly with great give and take. I feel I have tremendous support from both the school's president and Pat, but now it's on me."

He says his job is to concentrate on the big picture and reduce distractions such as the jersey-switch controversy.

"All I want to know is if it's legal, yes it is, so I go back to third-down plays," he says. "I should have said, 'Whoa, it's legal, but what about the Kiffin factor?' It's not worth it.

"I know it's my fault there's a Kiffin factor because I've made mistakes. I wear a hoodie in the biting cold, which has nothing to do with completing a second-down pass, but I get criticized. I get it. Bill Belichick wears one the following Sunday and it's no big deal.

"It's all about winning. That's why I have to figure out how we can go 17-3 over the last two seasons but then lose five of the last six.

"What could I have done better when we were 6-2 and suddenly we can't play for the championship? I don't have the answer, but I will."

With the pizza gone and Saban's legacy certified, Kiffin is asked where he thinks USC will be ranked next season?

He grins. "I know I won't be voting.

"But I also know I owe the USC family something better. And we can do that."

t.j.simers@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesTJSimers

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