SCOTT WOLF on USC: Kiffin still has room to grow Nov. 17, 2011

from LA Daily News - All Sports News· ·

When former USC coach Pete Carroll was 41, he famously flashed a choke sign in an NFL game after an opposing kicker missed an extra point. That gives USC coach Lane Kiffin another five years to act like a jerk.

When former USC coach Pete Carroll was 41, he famously flashed a choke sign in an NFL game after an opposing kicker missed an extra point. That gives USC coach Lane Kiffin another five years to act like a jerk. That might sound like a harsh analogy but the pair is constantly compared, so Kiffin knows Carroll will always be the gold standard around Heritage Hall. But if Kiffin is expected to win like Carroll, maybe everyone should remember Carroll's petulant side before he became a demi-god. "Any time you take this job and follow (Carroll), there is pressure on you," Kiffin said. "We could be 40-point underdogs and people expect you to win here." Whatever one thinks of Kiffin, he is 8-2 with a team ranked in the Top 25 as the Trojans prepare to play No. 4 Oregon on Saturday. What will sound strange to those who only view Kiffin from TV interviews or sideline shots is the humility that accompanies his coaching. Kiffin rarely makes anything about himself and prefers to credit USC for successes. After USC routed Washington last week, Kiffin said only the Trojan program could weather probation and it had nothing to do with him. Maybe it is a sign of personal growth in Year 2 at USC but those close to him saw it before he took the job. "Every year you change whether people realize it or not," Kiffin said. "I do. People say a quarterback improves with experience. So does a coach. To me, you have to learn from your mistakes. I've made plenty of them." The fans only see a young coach with his head buried in a play chart during games. Kiffin sees 200 plays that he's trying to constantly reshuffle to keep opposing defenses off-balance. His coaches see someone they respect. "He is a great game-day guy," Trojans special-teams coach John Baxter said. "He sees things in slow motion." That's the type of comment usually reserved for athletic geniuses. But Kiffin said he has heard it before. And he doesn't sound cocky saying it. "I've had people say that over the years," Kiffin said. "Even though I'm not that old I've been in football forever." Everything about a football game is business to Kiffin, so he found it strange early in the season when ESPN wanted to know why he never smiles. Carroll celebrated every play USC made so everyone is accustomed to a charismatic figure on the sideline. "He won, so they like it," Kiffin said. "Go back to before he was winning and what they said." If Kiffin loses, he looks like the guy who brightens a room by leaving it. If he goes 10-2, fans will find his stoic expression endearing. Perhaps surprisingly to outsiders, USC victories are more of a relief than cause for celebration for Kiffin. "You feel way more relief," he said. "That comes with the job." And losses tend to stick with him forever. "A little bit of the Washington (loss last year) came out of me (when we won Saturday)," he said. If Kiffin grew this year, maturity remains an issue. A natural grumbler, he blossomed into a full-blown whiner about the officiating after the Stanford loss and drew a $10,000 fine. That's the biggest example, but the smaller issues hurt USC more this season. There is a tendency to want to be too cool during games, best illustrated by the failed two-point conversions against Minnesota and ill-fated fake field goal against California. Statistics are also an obsession. Kiffin sent an underling to see how many receiving yards Robert Woods had as he neared the single-game record against Arizona. He then foolishly went for it on fourth down to try and get Woods the record. The play backfired; Arizona took over and quickly scored a touchdown. The Wildcats then attempted an onside kick in an effort to get the ball back and tie the score in a game USC should have won easily. There was also the moment when Kiffin shamelessly blamed a young assistant for sending in the wrong play when Matt Barkley tried a pass late in the Syracuse game in an attempt to break the single-game touchdown record. Barkley was sacked and it was embarrassing when Barkley told the media afterward the assistant coach sent the right play into the game. Such hubris might also explain why Kiffin wasted freshman tailback George Farmer's redshirt year by sticking him into the California game midway through the season. Farmer will play no more than four games this season and wants to go back to his natural position, wide receiver. These are correctable errors. So if Kiffin is right and learns from his mistakes, USC could be even better next season. And the fans might make fewer comparisons to Carroll.