Lane Kiffin's Trojans are a disappointing 6-3 after opening the season as the top-ranked team. (AP)
Let's be magnanimous today. Let's give highly dubious Lane Kiffin the benefit of the doubt.
Let's take the USC football coach at his word – that in no way, shape or form did he encourage or condone a student manager deflating footballs before or during the Trojans' game against Oregon on Saturday. That this "rogue manager" simply dreamed up the idea himself to let air out of the six footballs USC used when it was on offense against the Ducks. That this kid, in a low-man-on-the-totem-pole job – and a job in which following orders is a highly prized attribute – would make a unilateral decision to monkey with the rules of the game and try to give his team a competitive advantage completely on his own.
That's what Kiffin said – it's all on the kid, who has subsequently been fired from his job after a Pac-12 and USC inquisition. And remember, we're giving Kiffin the benefit of the doubt here.
So you wonder where the manager may have dreamed up such a thing. Could it be he learned by watching Kiffin conduct himself?
Could it be that the "rogue manager" heard Kiffin say in preseason that he wouldn't vote his team No. 1, then USA Today disclosed that Kiffin had indeed voted his team No. 1?
Could it be that the manager saw Kiffin shut off access to the L.A. Coliseum for Friday walk-throughs by visiting teams before Hawaii played there in the season opener? Hawaii is coached by former Trojans assistant Norm Chow. Whether this was a personal shot by Kiffin or an attempt to gain an advantage is unclear, but it was a reversal of policy and an unsportsmanlike snub of a guy who once was held in high regard at USC.
Could it be that the manager saw Kiffin jack around L.A. Daily News reporter Scott Wolf, stripping his credential and banning him from practice for daring to report on an injury to USC kicker Andre Heidari? That led to a battle between the coach and the L.A. media, which ended with athletic director Pat Haden involved, Wolf's credential being restored and Kiffin sort of apologizing.
Could it be that the manager saw Kiffin pull a jersey switcheroo on Oct. 20 in order to help the Trojans beat big, bad Colorado (1-8)? USC had backup quarterback Cody Kessler change from No. 6 to No. 35 against the Buffaloes, a number worn by punter Kyle Negrete. Kessler then attempted to run for a two-point conversion – a play that was brought back on a holding penalty. In the second half, Kessler was back to wearing No. 6, seemingly in violation of NCAA rules about changing jerseys in an attempt to deceive the opponent. That brainstorm was almost certainly the difference in USC squeaking out a 50-6 victory over Colorado.
Could it be that the manager took note of USC's nation-leading 85 penalties on the season and said to himself, "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin?' "
No, I'm sure it can't be any of those things. I'm sure working for a head coach who has a penchant for finding every low-class maneuver in the book to get an advantage had nothing to do with it. I'm sure the "rogue manager" had to come up with this in the isolation chamber of his own nefarious little mind.
Along those lines, I do not believe Kiffin's amazing ability to major in minors has had any kind of negative effect on a team that began the season ranked No. 1 in America and now sits 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12. I do not find any correlation between a coach obsessed with picayune things like changing jerseys or pregame walk-throughs or media injury reports and a coach whose team is underachieving. I think USC is just unlucky and Lane Kiffin is unfairly criticized, and he needs better help in the student-manager department.
Some brief background on how the game ball thing works: each team plays offense with its own footballs. In the Pac-12, each team gets six game balls. They are checked before every game by the officials to make sure they are inflated to the standard level, which is between 12½ and 13½ pounds of pressure per square inch. Those balls are then marked by the officials and usually kept in their possession until they are used in the game.
A partially deflated football is easier to throw and catch – and few teams have a better throw-and-catch combination than USC's Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee. But I'm sure that had nothing to do with the manager's actions. Benefit of the doubt, remember.
At the very least, the manager doesn't seem like a MENSA member. As Kiffin himself pointed out Thursday, the kid was working on the Oregon sideline during the game and apparently deflating the footballs right in front of the Ducks. What school wants a cheater that dumb within their program?
Quite a few people have said this is no big deal, it happens all the time. So I asked Southeastern Conference supervisor of officials Steve Shaw about it.
"It is a big deal," he said. "It's very rare."
Shaw worked 21 years as an NCAA official before moving into the league office last year. In that time, he worked one game (he declined to say which) in which a team doctored the footballs.
"It is not a common occurrence," he said. "It would be highly unusual."
Darn it, unusual things just keep happening when Lane Kiffin is around. But I'm here today to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The question is how much longer Haden wants to give his dubious coach the benefit of the doubt.
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