Southern California: In the matter of the curiously, and criminally (in terms of NCAA rules) deflated footballs and coach with the over-inflated sense of self, the question is not whether we can believe Lane Kiffin – we already know that we cannot – but whether we should here.
On Wednesday USC reported that it had fired a student manager who deflated footballs that the Trojans’ offense would use moments before taking the field in last Saturday night’s 62-51 loss to No. 2 Oregon. Purportedly, the student acted alone when he let the air out of a few balls on the Oregon sideline shortly before kickoff.
The idea behind the scheme is that slightly deflated footballs are easier to pass and catch, and when your aerial attack is burdened by the limited talents of quarterback Matt Barkley and wide receivers Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and Nelson Agholor, you need all the assistance – fair or unfair – that you can get.
So, of course a student manager places himself in the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository, needle in hand, and acts alone in this clandestine and nefarious exercise. Because some young man (or woman) who gladly devotes his extracurricular hours to assisting a program, likely one that he worships, would risk everything and perhaps undermine the program’s integrity for…what, exactly?
Here is what we know: Three months ago, Kiffin, whose reputation as a man of unimpeachable integrity was not exactly Gibraltaresque at the time, lied bluntly about his preseason coaches’ poll ballot. Kiffin, when told that Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez had voted the Trojans No. 1, told reporters, “I would not vote USC No. 1, I can tell you that.”
Except that he did, as the USA Today, which oversees the poll, felt compelled to report. Pressed upon the discrepancy a few days later, Kiffin equivocated by saying, “Looking at it from the outside, I wouldn’t (vote USC No. 1). But did I? Yeah.”
Here is a man with presidential potential.
We have established, at the very least, that Kiffin has little concern for what you and I might call the truth. And then last week the USA Today (confound that rag!) caught the Trojans switching jersey numbers of players so as to confuse the opposition. That USC would stoop to this practice against Colorado, which had lost three of its previous four games by at least 34 points, should tell you something about Kiffin’s nature: He does not bend, or break, the rules because he feels he needs to do so in order to win. He does so because he is addicted to the thrill of it.
Lane Kiffin is smart. And stubborn. And a bit of a maverick. He began his USC career by going for two after every touchdown, which is fine but also displays a touch of hubris. His high school coaches once told me that he’d occasionally ignore the plays that they sent in to him when he played quarterback. He knew better even then. And he had little respect for authority, even then.
The USA Today/Coaches’ Poll incident should inform you that Kiffin has little concern with whether or not he communicates the truth to anyone outside of his program. The jersey-switch incident should inform you that Kiffin will bend the rules to the limits of elasticity, if for no other reason to see if anyone is keeping tabs.
Kiffin forfeited the benefit of the doubt over the course of both his career and this season. Our feelings about his credibility, though, are not enough to convict him in this incident. Maybe we are naïve. Maybe many schools do this and this time USC just happened to get caught. And so the student manager, being the most expendable suspect, had to be cut (we’ve all seen “The Godfather” and know how this goes).
What we would love to have is a conversation with the student manager’s parents. There’s taking one for the team and then there is the matter of having your reputation unduly sullied. Most parents would not allow a person in Kiffin’s position, much less an institution such as USC, to exploit their child in that way.
What we know is this: Kiffin loves risk and he loves the thrill of demonstrating how much smarter he is than those who play by the rules. He is a narcissist. It is no exaggeration to suggest that he is pathological. And so he will strike again. Eventually, he will let the air out of his own once-promising career.