LOS ANGELES — Given the giant task of replacing charismatic, championship-winning football coach Pete Carroll, USC on Tuesday surprised no one by turning to one of its own.
But the coach the Trojans chose was a shocker.
Lane Kiffin, a Carroll protege who had quickly become among the most controversial coaches in college football during his one season at the University of Tennessee, rejoined a program he helped to glory in six seasons as an assistant.
“We are really excited to welcome Lane Kiffin back to USC,” athletic director Mike Garrett said in a statement announcing the hiring. “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.”
Kiffin, 34, will be introduced at a news conference at USC’s Heritage Hall this afternoon. He was hired on the day Carroll was introduced in Seattle as the new head coach of the NFL’s Seahawks, completing a move that sent shock waves throughout football’s highest levels.
USC enjoyed one of the most successful runs in college football history under Carroll, but the coach left behind a Trojans program that is being investigated by the NCAA for various rules violations.
At Tennessee, Kiffin had a record of 7-6 and ran afoul of the NCAA with a string of what college football’s governing force considers “secondary” violations — mostly having to do with recruiting. His short stay in Knoxville was also marked by tough talk and brash statements predicting a swift rise for his team in the Southeastern Conference, which is generally regarded as the nation’s toughest league.
Kiffin said leaving Tennessee “was not an easy decision,” in comments shortly after addressing Volunteers players Tuesday night. “I really believe (USC) is the only place I would have left here to go.”
That didn’t seem to placate dyed-in-the-orange-wool Tennessee fans, however.
News of the coach’s departure was met with bitterness. Reports from the Tennessee campus said nearly 1,000 students had gathered outside the school’s football complex waiting for Kiffin’s departure, and fans held signs calling him a “traitor” and worse, while others burned Lane Kiffin T-shirts.
Kiffin’s hiring caught not only Volunteers fans off guard but also many observers. Much of the speculation regarding potential coaches with USC bloodlines focused on Oregon State’s Mike Riley, Washington’s Steve Sarkisian and NFL coaches Jack Del Rio of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Jeff Fisher of the Tennessee Titans.
Details of Kiffin’s contract with USC were not immediately known. The Trojans had a record of 65-12 while he was an assistant, and USC didn’t stop at bringing him back into the fold. Also coming from Tennessee is the nucleus of a high-powered staff that hearkens to the Trojans’ glory days under Carroll.
Kiffin’s father, Monte, was a longtime NFL defensive coordinator who was also Carroll’s mentor. Ed Orgeron was the Trojans’ defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, a role in which he is considered among the nation’s best.
Orgeron was already at USC on Tuesday night, poring over film and chatting with members of the Trojans’ current staff. Asked how it felt to be back at USC, he smiled, raised the thumb on his right hand and said, “Feels good.”
Coming up could be an addition that would top even those staff moves. USC on Tuesday was pursuing UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who helped the Trojans win national titles in 2003 and 2004 and tutored Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
Ironically, Chow, 63, left USC for the NFL’s Titans after the 2004 season in part because Carroll wanted to give him a lesser role and provide Kiffin and Sarkisian with larger ones.
USC players left in shock by Carroll’s sudden departure after nine seasons were excited at the news of Kiffin’s hiring.“I think it’s really good they got someone who knows Trojans football and the traditions and knows how we rock,” quarterback Matt Barkley said.
Another player said a Trojans team coming off a disappointing 9-4 season would welcome Kiffin’s attitude.
“He’s a good coach and he brings that nastiness that we need as a team to be hungry again and make things happen,” senior cornerback Shareece Wright said.
Kiffin also brings some baggage that was accumulated during his three seasons away from USC.
He left the Trojans for the Oakland Raiders, becoming, at 31, the youngest coach in the NFL. But a split soon developed between Kiffin and the team’s irascible owner, Al Davis, a rift that caused them to go for months without speaking before Davis fired Kiffin in October 2008 during a surreal news conference after a 1-3 start.
Kiffin, who was 5-15 in a little more than one season with the Raiders, replaced longtime coach Phil Fulmer at Tennessee and wasted no time raising the hackles of other coaches in the football-crazy SEC.
Most famously, Kiffin called Florida coach Urban Meyer cheater, a comment for which he later apologized.
Beyond its coach’s struggles to live within college recruiting boundaries, Tennessee’s program also came under scrutiny late last year when three of Kiffin’s prized first-year players were arrested in connection with an armed robbery. All were suspended from the team and two were eventually dismissed by Kiffin.
One of them, receiver Nu’Keese Richardson, pleaded guilty this week to a reduced charge of attempted robbery.
Despite the controversy, the Volunteers were regarded as a program on the rise under Kiffin.
One recruiting expert said Kiffin’s return to USC should be regarded as a coup for a program that appeared in disarray with the national signing day for high school seniors only three weeks away.