LOS ANGELES -- Lane Kiffin stepped to the podium at Heritage Hall. Within seconds, the newly hired coach at USC made a pledge, saying, "Our number one dedication is to running a clean, extremely disciplined program."
Almost on cue Kiffin's two toddler daughters, Landry and Pressley, challenged their dad's institutional control. First one jumped into the seat he had just vacated, while the other clambered about the table as if it were a jungle gym.
"Long day of flying," Kiffin quipped.
Kiffin has spent as much time the past few days in airports as George Clooney's wayward traveler Ryan Bingham, even if his future is not up in the air (that's Tennessee's problem).
"We flew down to Orlando Monday for the [AFCA] convention," said Monte Kiffin, Lane's father and defensive coordinator. "Lane had to attend a head coaches' meeting yesterday or be fined $30,000."
Lane Kiffin attended that meeting, but few people besides he and his dad realized then that he would not be a head coach at the school he was representing in Orlando just hours later. If you live in Knoxville you are justifiably angry right now and why not? This is a country-western song (Tammy Wynette's "He Stopped Loving Her Today" comes to mind) and the Vols just got dumped for someone richer if not also prettier.
"Tennessee is one of the top 10 to 15 programs," Kiffin said in a quote that will only ensure he will forever be as welcome in that part of the country as a Deliverance city slicker on a canoe trip. "To me it's a top ten job. USC is the No. 1 job. It's a dream job."
You can argue that assessment, but Lane Kiffin is not the latest itinerant college coach. This is not Larry Brown and his chronically itchy feet. It's not even Pete Carroll heading off to Seattle -- if Kiffin does not last nine seasons at USC, as Carroll did, it will likely be the school's decision, not his.
"This is the best job in America," Kiffin, whose press conference began 51 minutes late due to rush-hour traffic, said. "This is the best place in America."
Gaze into Monte Kiffin's face and you can tell that he is Lane's father. But listen to the two of them deal with the media and ... this is not a case of the apple falling far from the tree. This is a matter of whether the two of them are even the same fruit.
Lane Kiffin's question-and-answer session careened dangerously out of control when T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, the Southland's inveterate gadfly, cross-examined him regarding a recruiting issue. Simers asked Kiffin if reports that his recruiting coordinator (both at Tennessee and now joining him at USC), Ed Orgeron, had phoned Tennessee recruits after the hire advising them not enroll at Tennessee at mid-year, which is to say the same Wednesday of the press conference..
Kiffin replied that he had not had a chance to speak with Orgeron, who was seated just 10 or so yards to his left, about it, but then added, "I don't know that that's accurate. My understanding is that's inaccurate."
Simers then went full-blown Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee in a "Few Good Men" on Kiffin, wondering how he could know whether it was accurate or inaccurate if he had not spoken to Orgeron. The packed room of reporters -- and not a few USC students and supporters -- watched raptly as the cross-examination threatened to get out of hand. Athletic director Mike Garrett, who only 10 minutes earlier had introduced Kiffin to the assemblage by saying, "I take great pride in saying this, 'The head football coach, Lane Kiffin', now stood up and interjected, "Let's move it along."
It was an awkward moment and it spoke to Kiffin's integrity, his honesty. Lost in the moment was the fact that even if Orgeron has spoken to Tennessee verbal commits the past two days, it is completely within the rules to do so. You think other schools have not contacted those same commits when Kiffin's departure from Knoxville became official ... just as schools had contacted USC's verbals after Carroll swept himself up the coast?
Contrast the tension of Lane with the easy charm of his dad. When Monte was asked about his son's ability to run a clean program, he said, "Those six secondary violations at Tennessee? That first one was on me!"
And then Monte Kiffin, who will turn 70 on February 28 ... or March 1st (he was born on Leap Day) proceeded to go into great detail about how he had inadvertently skirted NCAA rules on a recruiting visit. No one seemed to be having more fun at Kiffin's expense than Monte himself. And that is a lesson that Lane could stand to learn.
As could Kiffin's recruiting coordinator. Orgeron, who has almost the same exact build as Babe the Blue Ox, found himself literally cornered and up against a wall by media members who were attempting to ascertain whether he had contacted recruits.
"All I did was explain the options, what are the rules, to the families that called me,"Orgeron repeated.
When reporters attempted to pin him down as to whether he phoned a recruit first, Orgeron went into a rope-a-dope. "That's all I'm saying."
Eventually, and only after Orgeron's forehead had turned the shade of a Trojan helmet, did he admit that, "Yes, I did call recruits to give them suggestions that I had. But to my knowledge, I followed the rules correctly."
Which he did. So why so slippery?
Another example: Lane Kiffin said that as he was leaving Knoxville he phoned Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton. "I told him that I'm not going to recruit any of the the verbal commits at Tennessee," Lane said. "I'm not going to call them - unless they call me."
Fine. But by "I'm not going to call them" did Lane Kiffin mean that he personally would not phone them, or that no one from his staff would call them? Because there's a huge difference between the two. And, since Orgeron admitted that he has phoned those recruits, then Kiffin's promise rings hollow.
As did far too much of his press conference.
Lane Kiffin is 34 years old. He is intelligent and polished and he just accepted the third head coaching job at the BCS level or above in his career. Monte Kiffin is 69, one of the true defensive gurus of the game, mentored then-unknowns Pete Carroll (at Arkansas, when Lou Holtz was the head coach) and Mike Tomlin (at Tampa Bay), and has not been a head coach since 1982. He spent three seasons at North Carolina State.
Monte Kiffin may not be the boss ("I call him 'Coach', he calls me 'Dad', and we get along fine"), but he has a self-effacing charm and a disarming smile. Lane Kiffin answers questions as if he's competing in a presidential debate. He may be a swell guy, but there are times when he makes even Nick Saban look folksy by comparison.
"This guy's not an arrogant guy," Monte Kiffin, who most certainly is not, said of his son. "If he's arrogant, I'll slap him upside the head."
Watch your noggin', Coach. And don't be afraid to get slap-happy, Dad.