BILL PLASCHKE

Football practice or target practice, USC's Lane Kiffin won't open up

Coach Lane Kiffin is on hot seat, and his defiant response fuels critics: closing practice, not naming starting QB. He makes no apology.

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This is supposed to be Lane Kiffin's final season, the involuntary end of a four-year career marred by deflated footballs, phony jersey numbers and a Sun Bowl disgrace.

This is apparently news to Lane Kiffin.

As his USC team prepares for its season opener at Hawaii on Thursday night, Kiffin is not only ignoring the target on his back, he's embossing it.

Few coaches have a more desperate need for positive publicity, yet what does Kiffin do? He becomes the first coach in memory to close USC practices to the media.

His critics rip him for not being a strong or decisive leader, so what happens? He begins the season by announcing he is unable to choose a starting quarterback.

It seems as if the only person in town who is not pondering the idea of Lane Kiffin losing his job is Lane Kiffin, who is heading into his most dangerous season with a swagger that even his biggest critics surely find worthy of head-shaking awe.

Seriously, the dude is walking the plank as if he's preparing for a swan dive and a swim.

"I don't want to get fired, but you can't be afraid of it," Kiffin said this week. "I'm not afraid, and I'm not going to coach that way."

All signs indicate he should be very afraid.

After spending his first two seasons deftly managing a USC team whose national expectations were safely cloaked in a bowl ban, Kiffin led his newly unwrapped Trojans into chaos last autumn as they became the first team in the modern poll era to fall from a preseason No. 1 ranking to out of the polls entirely. A team that had the talent to go undefeated finished 7-6 with the final blows being struck against each other — verbal or otherwise — in a locker room fight after a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.

Some were stunned that Kiffin wasn't fired then, but he was seemingly given a vote of confidence last month when Athletic Director Pat Haden released an online video in which he said, "I'm behind Lane Kiffin 100%."

Only one tiny problem with that monologue: Last November, after the Trojans lost to UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Haden told this columnist, "Lane is my head coach 150%."

So, see, the guy is sort of losing ground. But then you spend some time chatting with him, and you realize he's acting as if he's just getting started.

"I'm going to coach like we're going to win every game and we're going to be here forever," Kiffin said.

This attitude is obvious outside the field, where the media now waits to interview players and coaches from behind a fence and across a street. Although closed practices are common throughout most of college football, and matter little to fans, open doors had long been the policy of a USC program that used the exposure to teach players everything from accountability to public speaking.

"I knew there would be articles written about Kiffin closing practice, but it's not about me, it's about doing something that is in the best interest of the players," Kiffin said. "It's not just competitive, it's all kinds of factors, and it's all about the team."

This attitude will also be apparent Thursday on the sidelines in Honolulu, where he has vowed to play both quarterback candidates, Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, until he finds his starter. Even though Kiffin says there will be not be a revolving door during the season, even for one game, fans cringe at the thought of their headstrong coach not only calling the plays but picking the quarterback between those plays.

"I know, if you care about your image, you pick the starter now and nobody has a bad story to write and I get praised for my decisiveness," he said. "But I can't make decisions based on what is going to help the national perception of Lane Kiffin."

There has been talk that although the more athletic Kessler has played better in practice, Kiffin sees more NFL-style potential in the strong-armed Wittek, and he wants to give him every chance to win the job. There is also a chance that Kiffin realizes Wittek's Sun Bowl debacle in a 21-7 loss was an unfair test for a kid quarterback, and that he wants to give him at least one more fair shot.

"We should have managed that game better," Kiffin acknowledged of the Sun Bowl. "We got there and that wind was going through the tunnel and right then, I should have said, let's just turn around and hand that ball off. I don't think I was very fair to the quarterback that day."

The media wants openness, he installs privacy. The fans want a quarterback, he gives them a tag team. Perhaps no other college football coach has a more heavily scrutinized lack of job security, yet Lane Kiffin, bless his brash heart, has decided to coach like nobody is watching.

"Well, actually, nobody is watching because the media is not at practice," Kiffin said with a grin.

Argggh.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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