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Lane Kiffin, players are coping with Southern Cal's football sanctions

Thursday afternoon was glorious at the University of Southern California. Pedestrians dodged bicyclists and skateboarders on the sun-splashed campus, the marching band rehearsed the school's unrivaled fight song and the Trojans' football team prepared for tonight's home opener against Virginia.

Rarely has a season been so welcomed.

"This is why we came here," baby-faced quarterback Matt Barkley said after practice, "to play football, not to deal with all this other junk that's been going on this offseason. So it is a relief to be finally playing again and not have to worry about all that other stuff."

USC's "junk" and "stuff" have been well-chronicled.

Former Trojans tailback Reggie Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, accepted myriad improper benefits from an agent. Citing the four most-feared words in college sports, "lack of institutional control," the NCAA pounced, banning USC from bowls for two season and reducing its scholarships for three years.

Prior to the sanctions, coach Pete Carroll bailed for the Seattle Seahawks. Following the penalties, athletic director Mike Garrett exited — you decide whether resignation or termination.

Noble Plaza, the area outside the athletic department's Heritage Hall headquarters, was a misnomer.

Heritage Hall is anything but. The lobby showcases the six Heisman Trophies USC acknowledges — all references to Bush have been removed — national championship banners and a bronze bust of John Wayne.

Yes, that John Wayne played football for USC, a program that's won 11 national titles and 31 bowls while producing 156 first-team All-Americans.

But this summer was more about shame than heritage. The Football Writers Association of America stripped the Trojans of their 2004 FWAA national championship, and the Heisman Trust may do the same with Bush.

"All the questions were: How are you guys going to bounce back from the sanctions? How's the team going to respond? Are you guys going to fall apart and not care anymore?," junior tailback Marc Tyler said.

Into the morass stepped a new coach and athletic director, Lane Kiffin and Pat Haden.

Haden, 57, is seasoned, sage and cautious, as you'd expect from an attorney. He's never worked in athletics administration, but he is family, the quarterback of the Trojans' 1974 national champions.

He hired his best friend and former USC receiver, J.K. McKay, as senior associate athletic director for football and expanded the department's compliance staff, change evident in the gaggle of security manning the gate to the team's practice field.

Kiffin, 35, is young, confident and too glib by half. His brief, uneven tenures with the Oakland Raiders (5-15) and University of Tennessee (7-6) gave many pause, and his poaching of Tennessee Titans assistant Kennedy Pola so close to this season irritated others.

But Kiffin, too, is family, a Carroll aide from 2001-06. Sharing lineage with Haden comforts Kiffin, whom Garrett hired.

"There's a couple reasons why," Kiffin said. "One because he is a Trojan, and I knew him before. And two, he's not coming from another (school). Normally your athletic director is hired from somewhere else. They want to come in and turn your place into a different football program, or they want to eventually bring in their own guy. … He wants to make this work."

Although the grant-in-aid cuts, 10 per year, don't start until February, the 2010 Trojans are a work in progress. Injuries, transfers and redshirts have left them with about 65 available scholarship players — the NCAA limit is 85 — damage that was evident in USC's 49-36 opening victory at Hawaii last week.

"We're just trying to manage it," Kiffin said. "That's why we're not practicing as physical as we used to. That's why we try to play more guys in the game. We pulled our starters last week a lot earlier than we normally would.

 

Read more at dailypress.com

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