It's All in the Family for Monte Kiffin

Who knew? Who knew the total package Lane Kiffin was bringing to the USC football program when he was hired to replace Pete Carroll on Jan. 13? Sure, there would be Ed Orgeron, heart and soul of Carroll's two national championship teams as defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator before leaving to become head coach at Ole Miss. But Monte Kiffin, then nearing his 70th birthday?

We no longer have professional football in the Los Angeles area, so all the acclaim Lane Kiffin's father had acquired as an NFL defensive genius with few challengers probably was lost on the USC community.

But no longer. It hasn't taken long for the grand young man (70 on the last day of February) to win the love and admiration of droves of players, recruits, media members and Trojan fans. And he's just Monte, too. No pretentions, no swagger -- just a guy from Nebraska (Lexington, mid-state) whose talk includes an occasional Midwestern ``you betcha.''

He wants you to know right away he has long ties with ``Southern Cal'' (yes, nearly everyone in the Midwest knows the Trojans by that name.)

``My first game as an assistant college football coach was against Southern Cal in a game at Lincoln,'' Kiffin says. ``Jimmy Jones was quarterbacking Southern Cal and he threw two touchdown passes to Sam Dickerson. Southern Cal won, 31-21.''

Kiffin pauses, giving me time to appreciate his remarkable retention of these details, and, believe me, I was amazed. You see, I covered that game as a reporter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and didn't recall how the touchdowns were scored.

Kiffin follows with more details. ``Maybe you will recall that we (Cornhuskers) came to the Coliseum the next season and played a 21-21 tie. That was the year we went on to win a national championship. I'll never forget coming out of that tunnel at the Coliseum and feeling the chill run through my body at being where I was.''

This season, Kiffin will be participating in his 44th season of coaching, 26 in the National Football League, where he became widely recognized as the leading defensive coordinator, and 18 in college ranks, including 11 as an assistant at his native Nebraska and in a similar under Lou Holtz at Arkansas. He also was head coach at North Carolina State for three years. He recalls one of his coaching companions at Arkansas.

``Holtz hired a young assistant named Pete Carroll -- he was 25 but looked about 18,'' Kiffin says. ``One day Lou said, `I haven't gotten to know that young assistant very well.' I said, `You'd better get to know him soon because he isn't going to around here long. Pete was that impressive -- right from the beginning.

``I recall Terry Donahue of UCLA interviewing Pete that year for an opening with the Bruins. Terry told me later Pete was extremely impressive, but he was so young Terry didn't think he fit the position that was open at UCLA.''

Trojan fans: (Don't you shudder to think what might happened if Pete Carroll had wound up at EWE CEE ELL AY? Lordy, lordy, lordy.)

At this point, the 85-year-old sportswriter interviewing Kiffin had the temerity to ask what a 70-year-old guy was still was doing working, especially as a college assistant.

Kiffin laughs. ``Hey, Lane is a great recruiter. He came after me hard when he got the Tennessee job. But, you know, I'm happy the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and I've got a home in St. Pete (Petersburg) that's on the Gulf of Mexico.''

Kiffin laughs again. ``But Lane kept after me and finally, I said, `You betcha. What the heck, let's give it a shot.' What I didn't know was that it would be one and done at Tennessee. Good thing I kept my place in St. Pete. But then Lane convinces me to come with him to Southern Cal."

Kiffin pauses. ``One thing I want you to know -- I wouldn't have come to Southern Cal with him if I didn't think he would win big here. I know this school. It's a great place with tremendous potential. And, as I said, Lane is a terrific recruiter, and so is Ed Orgeron. They make a great team. You should have seen them at Tennessee. I'm telling you, I think there were eight guys they recruited who came in from high school and enrolled there for the spring semester. I mean, guys who can really play.''

Kiffin changes the subject to talk about his recruiting days at Nebraska. ``Wasn't Richard Wood the first freshman to start for USC? You know, I recruited him out of New Jersey.''

Told Wood was the school's first three-time All-American, not the first freshman to start in the post-war period, and that defensive tackle Gary Jeter of Cleveland was the first freshman to start, Kiffin says: ``Yeah, I remember asking Wood why he would fly over Nebraska and go another 1,500 miles to Southern Cal. Now I know.

``And you mention Jeter. I recruited him for Nebraska, too. In those days, there were conference letters of intent in addition to a national letter. I recall seeing a sign in Cleveland that said, `Gary Jeter signs conference letter of intent with Nebraska.' But we didn't get him.''

Kiffin digresses for a moment. ``One thing people should know -- Lane will never leave here for the NFL. He loves this school and the football program. Really loves it.''

And will there be a day when Monte Kiffin decides he's had enough.

There's no hesitancy in Kiffin's response.

``I don't ever plan to retire,'' he says. ``I've kept my place in St. Pete, but right now I'm living at the Radisson Hotel across the street from the campus. My place is about 10 feet from McKay's restaurant or whatever you call the place that's in the hotel. You can't imagine the thrill I get from walking in there and seeing pictures of the old coach and others.''

This sounds like a marriage that's going to last a long time -- happily for USC football.


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