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Lane Kiffin Dings His Own Reputation with Numbers-Changing Fiasco

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Lane Kiffin Dings His Own Reputation with Numbers-Changing Fiasco
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

And with this, my invitation to the USC campus will likely be thrown into the nearest wastebasket, doused in gasoline and set ablaze.

I’m not sure I’ve ever sniffed a So Cal speed dial anyway (I haven’t), but I suppose any potential campus hugs will be lost, which is unfortunate. I enjoy a good hug from a stranger every now and then. I can also assume that Coach Kiffin will no longer be inviting me to his birthday party and that I will likely be de-friended on Facebook shortly. Crushing, indeed.

But before we get to the latest strange Trojan development, let me start by saying this: Lane Kiffin is viewed unfairly at times—a lot of the time—and can probably do no right until he wins a championship at USC. Actually, the first one will be a “fluke;” he’ll probably have to obtain multiple pieces of hardware to truly satisfy the critics.

He has a LeBron-like stigma surrounding him and has had a bull's eye on his back long before he dared you to open fire. With that stated, he also brought much of this on himself. Just ask any intoxicated Tennessee fan what he thinks of the former Vols’ coach, like I did at a wedding a few weeks ago. The result was a magnificent, open bar-fueled, hour-long tirade unfit for your child’s shell-like ears.

Kiffin has bounced around, leaving previous landing spots in the middle of the night and without a note...he’s never been a wordsmith in front of the microphone...and his latest brushfires have only increased the size of this bull's eye. 

His most recent clash with the media came when USC tightened up its policy when it came to reporting “strategy and injuries” from practice. It led to a reporter being banned from practice for two weeks (and then unbanned, or debanned, or whatever) shortly after. It also gave us this peculiar moment when Kiffin stormed off when pressed about an injury.

I guess he had to go.

Fast forward, and following a solid (and expected) drubbing of Colorado, the focus on Kiffin’s team should have been about its performance and the huge games ahead. Yes, the Trojans were going up against Colorado, but the offense looked sharp and they seem to be turning a corner that we expected them to turn weeks ago. 

Instead, however, the attention has turned to jersey numbers, and USC appears to be involved in “legal” uniform manipulation during games. The Los Angeles Times outlined the latest scenario in the Trojans' blowout win against Colorado. They’re basically doing what your father always wanted to do in Little League baseball with your older, more talented brother. Well, not exactly.

Cody Kessler is easily identifiable in the No. 6 jersey the reserve quarterback has worn in his two seasons at USC.

So confusion reigned last week when Kessler played on special teams in the first half against Colorado — even running for an apparent two-point conversion — wearing No. 35, the same number worn by punter Kyle Negrete. In the second half, Kessler was back wearing No. 6. 

"We change jerseys all the time with our guys," USC Coach Lane Kiffin said Tuesday. "We'll change some more this week. Everything's within college rules."

There are rules in place under “The Football Code”—which actually sounds like a bad movie in the making—that covers this topic. As the Times also pointed out, “Changing numbers during the game to deceive the opponent” is listed under the “unethical practices” section of this football law guide.

It creates an interesting scenario from a ruling standpoint, and one can argue just what advantages are gained by doing something like this. While Kiffin might indeed be operating within the guidelines, that doesn’t necessarily make it right.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

As more than a 40-point favorite against Colorado, Kiffin took time to ensure that his players switched uniforms. Think about that for a second. Forget about the rule, whether you believe this is being done to “deceive” an opponent—and really, why else would you do it?—and analyze this for what it is.

Better yet, let’s break this down to a simpler and incredibly important question: Would this move fly at recess?

He’s living down to the stigma that has been bestowed upon him, and Pat Haden, USC’s athletic director, is very aware of it.

"I know he's got a reputation, a target on him, and I talk to him every single day about the best way to act," Haden told the Los Angeles Times.

Walking off on the media is fine—we can be a nuisance and a handful—but it’s much more tolerable when you’re winning and winning large. Just ask Nick Saban, who scolds the Alabama tape recorders on a weekly basis and would be rarely classified as "peachy." 

Kiffin doesn’t have to be friendly, and he doesn’t have to be likeable. His players seem to like him as a coach, and their impressions are really the only ones that matter. Of late, however, he seems to becoming a caricature of himself, and the bull's eye is growing with each and every unnecessary flare-up. His latest attempt to garner a “competitive edge” is toeing a strange and familiar line.

If he's going to become the head coach many believe he will be—and better yet, the one many hope he won’t become—he needs to stray away from this path.

Years from now, when he's won multiple titles—just play along—perhaps we'll look at these antics in a much different light and say, "That's just Lane being Lane."

And maybe then, I'll finally get my USC invite.

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