PASADENA — Lane Kiffin was the only coach to wear sun glasses Thursday at every turn, for every interview at the Rose Bowl, and no wonder.
The USC football coach stands in the glare of expectations and criticism and a growing perception that no matter where the man goes, drama and strife seems to follow.
Oregon was picked to win the Pac-10 Conference this fall in a media poll released at Media Day, never mind the Ducks’ myriad off-field woes. USC was tabbed to finish second, by a hair, in the closest media vote since the ballot began in 1961, never mind the team going 5-4 in conference play in 2009 and the loss of four early-round draft choices. And, most telling, the recent sanctions levied on the program.
But this is still USC, and like it has for much of the previous decade, the Trojans were the talk of the hour, only there was only so much Kiffin could talk about. He insisted that this is still very much the job he wanted because, “it’s the best job in the country with the best history.”
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He said of the lawsuit the Tennessee Titans slapped on him for how he hired away assistant coach Kennedy Pola, “We cannot comment on that.” But to understand Kiffin is to understand the man will get in his digs.
USC is down to 71 players (most Pac-10 teams carry at least 85) as the team has lost a number of transfers in the wake of the Trojans’ punishment for past misdeeds that include no bowl game for this season and losing scholarships.
“Our front-line guys stayed,” Kiffin said, adding that the NCAA’s ruling that USC players could transfer without having to sit out a season, per the norm otherwise, means, “we created free agency in college football. A lot of guys left not to play in a bowl game but for playing time.”
And this kicker from Kiffin: “People expect USC to start crumbling.”
Oregon, meanwhile, is still reeling from the loss of ace quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who steered the Ducks to the Rose Bowl last season but was booted from the program for repeated arrests in recent months. Oregon coach Chip Kelly said he isn’t sure who will take over the position.
Still, no Pac-10 team returns more talent than Oregon.
Oregon State was picked to finish third, and Stanford fourth. The Cardinal lost Toby Gerhart to the NFL Draft, but it does return All-American quarterback candidate Andrew Luck and perpetually upbeat coach Jim Harbaugh, whose team opens Sept. 4 against Sacramento State.
Cal, picked to finish seventh, returns quarterback Kevin Riley, the Pac-10’s active leader in wins, starts and touchdown passes. The Bears open at home against UC Davis on Sept. 4.
Washington State was picked to finish last in the Pac-10, though coach Paul Wulff predicted his team will be the “surprise” team.
He also said that tailback James Montgomery has made a “miraculous” return after two serious leg injuries last season threatened his career.
Thursday concluded a whirlwind week of media blitzing for the Pac-10. New commissioner Larry Scott escorted each Pac-10 head coach to New York to visit with reporters, many of whom are in bed by the time the West Coast night games kickoff, then to the New York Stock Exchange, and then, finally, to the ESPN headquarters in Connecticut.
All of this is an effort to raise the conference’s profile. Pac-10 coaches tirelessly defend the Pac-10 as a whole, debunking any theory that it is a soft conference.
“We’ve been the Left Coast Conference and perceived as a finesse conference for years,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. “You get into conversations with someone east of the Mississippi and they’ll tell you, ‘You play that throwing-the-ball-around football, not the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust stuff, tough guy stuff.’ Well, this is a great conference.”