When USC trots out onto the field on Sept. 3 at AT&T Stadium for its opener against defending national champion Alabama, a familiar face will be stalking the sidelines for the Crimson Tide.
The Trojans’ former head coach has rehabilitated his image in an impressive fashion after his abrupt departure from USC nearly three years ago. During his tenure as offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin has rewrote the school’s offensive record book, coached a Heisman Trophy winner and was instrumental in helping the team capture another national title last year.
While some fans clad in cardinal and gold who will make the trip to Arlington, Texas, for the opener may still hold a little animosity toward the team’s former coach and the legacy he left Los Angeles with, that won’t exactly be the case for the man who now occupies Kiffin’s former job.
“It won’t be weird at all, I’m so thankful for the amount of football that he taught me during the time he was (at USC) and the opportunity he gave me to come to SC – I’ll never be able to repay him for that,” Trojans head coach Clay Helton remarked Thursday at Pac-12 Media Days. “One of the good things about Coach Kiffin is the way he treated his staff. He’s maintained relationships with all of us and was great to us as a staff.”
Helton was one of Kiffin’s key hires when building a staff back in 2010 and was eventually promoted to offensive coordinator during the latter’s final season in Los Angeles. Several other current USC coaches also were at one point hired by Kiffin and many of the team’s upperclassmen either played for, or were recruited by, their former head coach.
That could result in TV cameras capturing a few hand shakes and head nods with college football’s most infamous coordinator during warmups for one of the biggest non-conference clashes of the season in the first week of action. Still, there is plenty of understanding that while there will be a well-known face across the field in Kiffin, he’s on the other sidelines for a reason.
“I’m not really worried about him,” left tackle Zach Banner said. “He’s a great coach and a cool dude to be around but I’m not really worried about him during the football game.
“We could all care less (about Kiffin).”
Perhaps that’s because of the monumental task at hand for USC in taking on a loaded Alabama squad that will likely be no lower than third in any of the preseason polls and a two-deep filled with five-star talent at multiple positions.
“I can't tell you how excited we are to have the opportunity to play a defending national champion, to play one of the top head coaches in the history of this game in Nick Saban,” Helton added. “I think it's given us a little bit of a kick-start in the summer and really has made our football team have a little chip on their shoulder.”
Strange as it is to imagine a program like USC with a chip on its shoulder, it might not be as bizarre as seeing one coach wearing crimson instead of cardinal.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.