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Kiffin headed back to USC in stunning hire

GREG BEACHAM | 1/13/2010, 11:23 a.m.


Nobody was surprised Southern California replaced Pete Carroll with a coach who has rich ties to the Trojans. From Knoxville to Hollywood, almost everybody was stunned to learn exactly which former Trojan is back.

Lane Kiffin abruptly left Tennessee after one season Tuesday night, Jan. 12 to return to USC, where he was an assistant coach for six years before embarking on one of the strangest, swiftest and rockiest journeys in recent coaching history.After 20 tumultuous games as the Oakland Raiders' head coach and 14 months at Tennessee in which he accumulated nearly as many NCAA and SEC reprimands as victories, the 34-year-old Kiffin has emerged with one of the most coveted jobs in college football. He will be introduced by the Trojans on Wednesday afternoon.

"This is something that happens very quick," Kiffin said in a brief statement on Tennessee's campus Tuesday night while hundreds of shouting, mattress-burning fans gathered outside the building. "I really believe the only place I would have left here to go was ... Southern California."

Kiffin was a blindside choice by embattled USC athletic director Mike Garrett and school trustees, who apparently gauged the interest of three coaches with strong Trojans ties - former players Jack Del Rio and Jeff Fisher and former assistant coach Mike Riley - before quickly grabbing Kiffin 24 hours after Carroll's farewell.

"We are really excited to welcome Lane Kiffin back to USC," Garrett said. "I was able to watch him closely when he was an assistant with us, and what I saw was a bright, creative young coach who I thought would make an excellent head coach here if the opportunity ever arose. I'm confident he and his staff will keep USC football performing at the high level that we expect."

Kiffin might be leaving Knoxville just ahead of an angry mob, but he's bringing along his father, respected defensive coach Monte Kiffin, and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, a bulldog recruiter and former USC assistant. Until leaving for a short tenure at Ole Miss, Orgeron helped land much of the talent that allowed Carroll to win 97 games, seven Pac-10 titles and two national championships in nine seasons before leaving for the Seattle Seahawks.

"Ed did a marvelous job during his previous time at USC, and we all know that Monte is a defensive guru," Garrett said. "I know Lane will fill out his staff with other outstanding assistants like them, ones who Trojan players and fans will really like."

Though reports differ wildly on how much Kiffin contributed to the Trojans' best teams, he's one of Carroll's most prominent disciples from his nine-year tenure at USC. Kiffin worked his way up to offensive coordinator in 2005 while also showing impressive skills as the Trojans' recruiting coordinator after Orgeron's departure.

For two seasons, Kiffin shared responsibility for the Trojans' offense with fellow longtime Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian, who left USC to take over at Washington in late 2008.

Although Kiffin's forceful personality and youth didn't make him a beloved figure among players or administrators, Kiffin and Sarkisian coordinated the Trojans' offense and provided instruction to quarterbacks Matt Leinart and John David Booty during two dynamic seasons.

Kiffin then was Al Davis' improbable choice to take over the Raiders as a 31-year-old coach with almost no NFL experience. He made it through just 20 games before an ugly public firing in which Davis called Kiffin a liar who brought "disgrace" on the Raiders.

Kiffin went 7-6 at Tennessee last season as the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Many credited him with revitalizing the program through his fierce recruiting and sometimes outlandish statements to the media, but he also brought an unwelcome spotlight on the Vols with several minor NCAA violations.

"I know that I can walk out of here and say this, that we've been here for 14 months and there's not one day I didn't give everything I had to the Tennessee football program," Kiffin said. "We're leaving here 14 months later a lot better team than we were 14 months ago."

Knoxville fire officials and university police were on campus after Kiffin's announcement as students burned mattresses and gathered around the athletic department building in hopes of blocking Kiffin from leaving campus. It was not clear if Kiffin was still on campus at the time.

"I think the students have had kind of a violent reaction to that, and a lot of them are disheartened, upset and feel betrayed that less than a year in that he would be leaving and taking off," Knoxville Fire Department spokesman D.J. Corcoran said.

"The Rock," a giant boulder on campus where students often paint "Happy Birthday" messages, had obscenities directed toward Kiffin. Students tried to enter the room where Kiffin read his statement, holding a sign that read "Go home traitor. It's time," mimicking a campaign the university used to promote Kiffin when he was hired. But the students were turned back before Kiffin talked.

During Kiffin's tenure, the Volunteers reported six minor NCAA violations ranging from mock news conferences for prospects to mentioning recruits by name on the radio and on his Twitter and Facebook accounts. The Twitter account belonging to Kiffin, whose missteps earned him the nickname "Lane Violation" at other SEC schools, had disappeared Tuesday night.

Three Tennessee freshman players were recently charged in an attempted robbery near campus, and the university confirmed the NCAA is looking into the activities of members of the university's Orange Pride student ambassador program as possible recruiting violations.

Kiffin returns to USC with the school facing a yearslong NCAA investigation over events during his tenure as an assistant, including Reggie Bush's final years at the school. While no discipline has been handed down, it's widely expected to arrive later this year - but Carroll has long intimated he believes the punishment will be minor.