Nothing seems to get new USC coach Lane Kiffin down, not even severe NCAA sanctions and the specter of transfers because of those sanctions.
Kiffin, 35, is only in his sixth month in his new job, but it's in a place he's quite familiar with.
"It is exciting to come back, somewhere that was really special to us," he said. "We were here for six years [as an assistant from 2001-06] before and were part of a really special run with 34 straight wins at one point. ... We already know so much about the program. We have been here and been part of some great runs. It's really different than if I had gone anywhere else."
This latest job is a chance to show the world he's more than the son of a famous coach, more than a Pete Carroll coattail-rider. Kiffin can show he's a bona fide big-time coach. And the Trojans are counting on Kiffin delivering the goods as USC enters its most crucial period since the program went on probation in the 1980s.
Carroll now is with the Seattle Seahawks after building the biggest, baddest college football machine of the previous decade. Carroll churned out seven BCS bowls, seven Pac-10 titles and two national championships. But Carroll didn't get out of L.A. with his reputation intact. The NCAA recently concluded a four-year investigation into USC's dealings with former star running back Reggie Bush. The results were harsh sanctions.
Among other things, the NCAA stripped USC of some victories from 2004-05, docked 30 scholarships (10 per year) from 2011-13 and imposed a two-year bowl ban that begins this season. USC is appealing the penalties, proposing to cut scholarship losses from 30 to 15 and reduce the bowl ban by a year.
"Hopefully, they will see it the same way -- that these penalties were extremely harsh, there was not precedent for something like this happening," Kiffin said. "What I have been told is that the appeal process could take up to nine months."
If USC has to bear the brunt of these sanctions, it could be crippling to the program.
"Sure, I worry about it," Kiffin said. "I have spent hours and hours about how to best manage this, the numbers, how many guys you lose each year. If not managed perfectly, this could be crippling to a school. Wherever we have been, it's the No. 1 thing that we do. Now it's even more important, making sure that we take the right kids and also the management of this roster over the next four seasons."
"Every player that you signed, you had to make sure that from top to bottom everything was in order, that they were going to make their grades and be a contributor," Tuberville said. "You couldn't afford to miss on a guy. Our third year, we went to a bowl, which was amazing."
Alabama was hit with sanctions similar to USC in 2002. The NCAA slapped Alabama with a five-year probation that included a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 21 scholarships over three years.
"The Alabama program is a great example of how crippling [scholarship losses can be]," former Tide coach Dennis Franchione said. "It is a premier program like USC. I went 7-5 and 10-3 the first two years, then they went through some struggles."
"The advantage that Alabama had as compared to maybe a private school like USC -- and I don't know this for 100 percent fact but I would think it is somewhat accurate -- Alabama could get a large number of walk-ons to fill out the team. And a large number of those guys became pretty good players for Alabama. They help you, numbers-wise. USC, on the other hand, I don't know how many walk-ons they get with what it costs to go to school there."
USC also is losing current players. The NCAA announced that upperclassmen will be allowed to transfer and play immediately. Three upperclassmen have bolted: linebacker Jordan Campbell left for Louisville, defensive end Malik Jackson for Tennessee and fullback D.J. Shoemate to Connecticut. None was going to be a starter.
Kiffin also recently released top 2010 signee Seantrel Henderson from his letter-of-intent. Henderson, an offensive tackle who is the No. 2 player in the class, now is at Miami.
"We continue to talk to people about why they chose to come to USC," Kiffin said. "I think you'll see a few [leave], but I don't think it will be as much as people anticipate. I think SC is still SC. The education that you receive here -- the kids who transfer out of here are throwing away something that can pay them dividends for years and years to come."
His one season at Tennessee produced a 7-6 record and an "exit, stage West" departure that left many in Knoxville fuming. But when USC came calling, Kiffin said he had to leave.
"This is the one circumstance that we would have left for," Kiffin said. "I don't think outside of Tennessee that this move would have surprised anyone. People around college football who follow it would have done the same thing, especially if they had been at SC before.
"I have had no one in this profession or around college football say to me, 'Why did you do that?' "
The bravado and bombast that marked Kiffin's brief Tennessee tenure has vanished.
"There's really no need for it here," said Kiffin, who seemingly had almost as many public reprimands from the SEC as he did wins. "I believe when you take a job that there is a specific plan depending on where you are and the state of the program at that time. We didn't need to do any of that attention-grabbing or working the media to sign the No. 1 class in the country.
"SC with these kids is in their head automatically. Before last season, these kids had watched SC play in BCS games since they were in fourth grade. So, that's marketing right there. We don't do any extra marketing."
Despite limited scholarships and the bowl ban, recruits still seem to be buying what Kiffin and his staff are selling. USC is on track to build another great class; the Trojans have 11 commitments, including one five-star and seven four-star prospects, already in the fold.
"We don't feel that you choose a place based on one or two games," Kiffin said. "You choose it for the degree, the platform to the NFL."
USC is paying Kiffin a reported $4 million per year, and convincing 17- and 18-year-olds to attend USC is just one part of the job. Another is trying to rev up an offense that faltered a bit last season. The players are excited about the possibilities.
"I was surprised because I didn't think he even was on the list," USC quarterback Matt Barkley said last week. "Once I heard that, I was really stoked he was coming because he has been in the system, he has coached here before, he knows the traditions.
"Most important is he has coached this offense and knows the system. I am excited that he will be play-calling for us."
Kiffin will be calling plays for a stacked roster, as most experts have the Trojans picked to finish first or second in the Pac-10 this season. But it's a roster Kiffin thinks isn't as talented as the some of the previous Trojans squads he was involved with.
"I don't really worry about it," he said. "You can't control it. We still have some really good players, but we still have some work to do as well.
"We won't have problems being motivated this year. We don't view the probation or sanctions having anything to do with our team's motivation. The players that come to USC come here to play on great teams and go to the NFL. That hasn't changed. We will get this done and get USC back to where it belongs, on top of the college football world."