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Owens: Kelly and Kiffin headed in different directions in third years (Nov. 20)

Andrew Owens | Tuesday, November 20, 2012

When archrivals Notre Dame and USC conclude the regular season in Los Angeles on Saturday, the matchup will showcase one head coach’s program trending upward. On the other sideline, the head coach will feel the weight of a 7-4 record, a failed season and a disgruntled fan base on his shoulders.

It’s exactly what everyone expected in August, but with a twist of role reversal: USC, the preseason AP No. 1 squad, has tumbled out of the top 25 with a nightmarish season, while Notre Dame, who was more likely to play in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl than the BCS National Championship Game, is the top team in the land for the first time since Everett Golson was 10 months old.

Pundits can point to many reasons for the Irish uprising and the Trojan fall, but it boils down to this: Quite simply, Notre Dame has a better coach.

USC coach Lane Kiffin’s childish antics have just about worn out their welcome at a school still recovering from the public-relations hit of severe NCAA sanctions. Following a 38-28 loss to crosstown rival UCLA on Saturday, even a victory over the No. 1 Irish might not be enough to save his job.

His third-year counterpart, Irish coach Brian Kelly, took a lot of criticism during his first 30 months on the job.

He doesn’t know how to build a defense, they said. He’s never been at a big-time program before, they said. Look at the way he yells at his players, they said.

Poor beginnings – a 1-3 start in 2010 and 0-2 in 2011 – fueled critics’ arguments. Kelly didn’t have the immediate success predecessors Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis did. But he’s proving the foundation he laid is more stable than any coach since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines.

A year ago, in the week following Notre Dame’s flat 31-17 night-game loss to the Trojans, Kelly took heat for his comments regarding the differences between players he recruited and those Weis recruited.

It was atypical of Kelly’s calculated handling of the media and his players. Whether he was trying to light a fire or was simply reacting to his frustration, he looked immature in the aftermath. As he grew into the position and learned from his mistakes, he has transformed the program into his vision.

Kiffin has simply remained the same abrasive character who has turned off so many people in the past.

It started in August when he lied about voting USC No. 1 in the Coaches’ Poll. It continued with his revocation of credentials for a Trojans beat writer who reported an injury. Then he felt the need to trick Colorado (Colorado!) by having players switch numbers. A couple weeks ago a student manager was relieved of his duties for deflating footballs against Oregon, which the coaching staff assuredly had no role in.

Each gaffe is followed by another, and another and another.

Today, it seems far-fetched that USC was No. 1 just a couple months ago. But its struggles aren’t because of a lack of talent. It’s because of the coach, whose maturity is less than that of many Trojan players. It’s not out of the question that USC comes out with an inspired performance Saturday in the absence of quarterback Matt Barkley, but it would be a credit to the players’ resolve, not the coach’s button-pushing.

At Notre Dame, Kelly continues to push the right buttons. His team is No. 1. His recruiting class is No. 3. The program’s graduation rate is the highest in the country. He continues to go about his job the right way.

As Kelly’s future looks as clear as a crystal football, Kiffin’s is losing air as quickly as a deflated one.

 

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.