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Kiffin thinks lawsuit motivated by location

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

PASADENA, Calif. -- Lane Kiffin thinks the Tennessee Titans' lawsuit against him and the University of Southern California is more about geography than coaching etiquette.

Kiffin claimed he wasn't allowed to say much Thursday at the Pac-10 media day about the suit facing Kiffin and the Trojans, who angered Titans coach Jeff Fisher by abruptly hiring running backs coach Kennedy Pola last weekend.

Yet the young coach with a history of audacious pronouncements couldn't stop himself from sharing his thoughts about the real reason for the highly unusual legal action taken by the Titans.

"I think it has to do with the location of the team in the lawsuit," Kiffin said.

Kiffin left the University of Tennessee in January after just 14 months running the program to take his self-described dream job at USC. He left behind a mattress-burning mob in Knoxville and an entire state full of furious fans who have vilified Kiffin online and in various media outlets for several months.

"I don't think the lawsuit has anything to do with the time frame, when Jeff Fisher got my message," Kiffin said.

The lawsuit claims Kiffin violated Pola's contract by making contact without permission, and Fisher admittedly was angry when Kiffin apparently contacted Pola without the customary courtesy call to Fisher. Kiffin claims he left a message for Fisher within the usual time frame of such a request, and says he smoothed over the dispute with the USC alumnus in recent days.

"When Jeff said that, I did take it personal," Kiffin said. "Not just because he's an SC guy, but he's Jeff Fisher, and I have a lot of respect for him. I'm confident that after talking to Jeff ... that he feels differently about that now. I don't know if he can come out and say it after what has gone on."

The lawsuit wasn't exactly the best way to get off to a good start with Pat Haden, the Trojans' new athletic director. But Kiffin said Haden was "well aware of every step" the Trojans took in rehiring Pola, who coached alongside Kiffin on Pete Carroll's staff at USC several years ago.

"He wasn't pleased, nor was I," Kiffin said of Haden's reaction to the suit.

Kiffin claimed he was forced to wait to hire a running backs coach and offensive coordinator until a few days before most football teams report to camp because the Trojans hadn't resolved the fate of running backs coach Todd McNair, whose contract wasn't renewed when it expired July 1. McNair was a key figure in the NCAA's investigation of illegal benefits for Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush, leading to heavy sanctions against USC last month.

Kiffin first tried to hire Vikings running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, who nearly accepted before Minnesota gave him a pay raise and a promotion to assistant head coach.

"We were very far down the road with Eric Bieniemy, thought it was done," Kiffin said.

Kiffin then turned to Pola, who teamed up with Ed Orgeron to recruit the cream of California's high-school stars during Carroll's tenure. Orgeron also returned to USC with Kiffin in January.

Although Pola will be the Trojans' offensive coordinator, Kiffin will call the plays, just as he did in Oakland and Tennessee.

With a full coaching staff in place, Kiffin's biggest concern about the Trojans' sanctions revolves around the unintended consequences of the NCAA bylaw that allows players to leave USC at any point without losing or postponing eligibility.

The coach believes it amounts to free agency, and he questions whether the bylaw can be used to punish his program in ways that weren't intended. He worries USC's coaches must use extreme caution to avoid angering players who might transfer if they're sent to run laps.

"There's no cut-off date," Kiffin said. "To me, there's no cut-off date until the last add-drop date at the school that's trying to recruit them. It's a difficult situation."

Yet the half-dozen players who have left USC -- not counting Seantrel Henderson, the offensive line recruit who backed out of his commitment after the sanctions -- all did so to get more playing time elsewhere, Kiffin said, not because of the Trojans' two-year bowl ban.

Kiffin is proud he managed to keep receiver Brandon Carswell, who was set to transfer to Cincinnati. Kiffin said he "begged" Carswell to stay for another year to finish the five classes for his degree.

"SC speaks for itself in most kids' minds," Kiffin said.

Kiffin hasn't thought much about running down the Coliseum tunnel for the Trojans' home opener against Virginia on Sept. 11, but he's confident USC still has the talent to be a force on the West Coast despite the sanctions.

"We'd love to get off to a great start," Kiffin said, "because of the perception out there that SC is going to crumble."