Friends, Coaches Say Lane Kiffin Then Was Much Like Lane Kiffin Now
MINNEAPOLIS -- It was quite some time ago when Jon Leverenz lived out a dark fantasy that is now held by many of his coaching brethren and, more than likely, even more fans.
"Lane is the only player that I have ever thrown a football at with the intent to hurt," Leverenz, one of Lane Kiffin's former high school coaches, said earlier this week.
In 1993 Leverenz (center in picture above), now the head coach at Bloomington (Minn.) Jefferson High, was the Jaguars' defensive coordinator. That autumn, Kiffin was the Jaguars' quarterback and a team co-captain. After an offensive series went nowhere, Leverenz barked at the unit to hustle to the sidelines.
"(Lane) was asked to hustle off the field with the rest of the team and in his arrogance, he elected not to hustle to the sideline," said Leverenz. "Being a young emotional coach, I rifled one about 30 yards, right past his head."
And then what happened?
"He jogged the rest of the way to the sidelines," said Leverenz.
The Trojans returned to Minnesota for the first time since 1980 on Saturday. For Kiffin, the contest was sort of a homecoming. As the son of itinerant defensive coach Monte Kiffin, Lane grew up in a small number of locales, but he did two stints (1986-89 and 1991-94) in the Twin Cities.
"I've got a lot of homes," said Kiffin, 35, during the week when asked how it felt to be going home to play the Golden Gophers. "We moved, like, 17 times. Everywhere we play seems to be home."
Everywhere is home, so nowhere is. Kiffin had a nomadic childhood that has given way to a similarly nomadic adulthood (Los Angeles to Oakland to Knoxville and back to Los Angeles, all in just the past five years).
On Saturday he returned to the town that was as close to a childhood home as he ever knew. But it might as well have been Pullman or Corvallis for all he cared. Asked after the Trojans' 32-21 victory if he had given any thought to where he was this weekend, Kiffin stoically replied, "No, it doesn't really matter."
USC's first-year coach was quick to compliment Minnesota on its immaculate new stadium as well as its fans. But, once again, that trademark Kiffin aloofness (it skips a generation; Monte, the Trojans' defensive coordinator, is as affable as they come) was on display.
"There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance," said Stan Skjei (above lett), who was Jefferson's head coach from 1987-99 and thus, Kiffin's head coach in high school. "Lane will say things that rub people the wrong way, but that's not by design. It's just who he is."
There's something you must know about Minnesotans, in case you have never met one or listened to Garrison Keillor or read Steve Rushin: they are congenitally predisposed to be friendly and unassuming. For men such as Leverenz and Skjei, both of whom played college football at Minnesota, an adolescent as proud and stubborn as Kiffin was akin to an alien landing in their backyard.
"The biggest thing is, Lane knew football," said Skjei, who also coached two of Bud Grant's sons. "Generally, Lane and I were on the same page, but it's just like you see now: Lane was always very confident in what he wanted to do."
Skjei and Leverenz attended Saturday's game at TCF Bank Stadium, as did Steve Stoekler (above right). An offensive and defensive tackle as well as the other co-captain on that '93 Jefferson High team that Kiffin took to the state sectional championship game in his only season as a starter -- they wound up losing, though -- Stoekler was one of Kiffin's closest friends in high school.
"Lane always had a sense of what he wanted to do on the football field," said Stoekler, who later played at North Dakota State and Concordia College, "and he doesn't like to compromise."
He's also a conundrum. Kiffin has wealth, youth, a beautiful family and he's already, by the age of 35, landed three jobs that most in his profession would spend a lifetime hoping to be offered. So, why doesn't he ever show any joy?
On Saturday, USC scored five touchdowns but finished with 32 points. That's because three times, including after a first-quarter touchdown, the Trojans went for two after scoring. They failed all three times.
"We should have had 35 points, given those PATs," quarterback Matt Barkley said.
USC is now two of seven on two-point conversion tries and seven-for-seven on PAT kicks. The question is not whether one philosophy trumps the other ("I think positively," said Kiffin. "If you make it, then you're that much more ahead of them."), but what it reveals about Kiffin. Stubborn. Headstrong. Kiffin is unafraid to be contrarian. In fact, it almost appeals to him to be so.
Back in high school, when Kiffin donned the silver pants and helmet and the powder-blue jersey of a Jaguar quarterback, he was like a coach on the field, said Skjei. Which had its advantages and drawbacks.
"He was the kind of kid you wanted with fourth-and-two to have the ball in his hands," said Skjei.
Then again, if left to his own devices, No. 11 would never have let it get to fourth-and-two. Kiffin often changed plays in the huddle.
"A play came in once and it was third-and-long, we were in our own territory," recalled Stoekler, who is now Leverenz's brother-in-law. "Lane said, 'Screw that!' and called his own play. It went for big yardage. Our coaches were frustrated because they had a maverick on the team, but he was so talented. And very smart."
A maverick. It was another native of the Twin Cities, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said, "Action is character." USC has scored 14 touchdowns this season and after half of them, and never once when trailing, Lane Kiffin has gone for two. Has held up two fingers as if he were flashing USC's "V" sign.
Is it imprudent? That's not the point(s). It's emblematic.
On Saturday, under the fairest of skies in the Twin Cities, Leverenz, Skjei and Stoekler all were on hand to watch Kiffin.
None of them had a chance to meet with him, and none ever expected as much
Stoekler, now in operations at Target, was the last of the trio to speak to Kiffin when he attended his wedding to the former Layla Reaves five years ago in Tampa.
"I just remember all the great speeches at the groom's dinner about Lane's character," said Stoekler. "You know, he really does have a great sense of humor."