When Lane Kiffin didn't deliver, he damaged the USC brand
Less than a year ago, USC was 6-1 and had won 17 of its previous 20 games. Then it all came apart, quickly.
USC had lost its class, among other things.
Games, relevance, traction in recruiting -- those too -- before AD Pat Haden finally fired Lane Kiffin upon his team’s arrival Sunday morning back in LA. It seemed sudden, stark and heartless after five weeks of football only if you haven’t been paying attention. This was not an example of college football’s win-at-all costs mentality, it was more that Kiffin had cost USC too much of its polished reputation.
The program had lost part of its identity in a tipping-point 62-41 loss to Arizona State. Like a handful of other programs -- Notre Dame, Texas among them -- USC operates at a higher level than everyone else. Call it uppity or not, it just is.
The program's headquarters said it all -- Heritage Hall.
So did part of Haden’s heritage, the honorable AD being a Rhodes Scholar himself. Reggie Bush shamed the program and the university but he didn’t shame that football on the field. Look up in the Coliseum stands where they still wear his No. 5 and still consider that Heisman and national championship intact.
Those goals, in an honorable way, are what USC shoots for. But when Steven Spielberg is making jokes about the Washington State game, the state of the program is so far beyond football.
Lane’s Kiffiness could not endure past Saturday night at a respected university and shining college football icon.
There was that embarrassing episode last year, banning a reporter from practice -- the week of the Stanford game for gosh sakes! A guy with the pedigree, the looks and the energy to get the gig at a top 10 program came off as petty.
But that was last year. Inevitably Haden had to do something now to preserve that image, that USC look, that tradition, the heritage. Yeah, football had to change too before what limited recruits USC has access to start staying away because of the negativity. Kiffin had to go because Stanford and Oregon are threatening to rule the Pac-12. UCLA may have already taken over the LA market that once seemed locked down in Troy.
The rock star coach became the Nickelback of his profession. He posed well. He looked good, but there was nothing of substance behind the crap music. When a school relies more on its past than delivering on its future, that’s when things turn sour. USC, then, had become an oldie. The same week Haden went to the NCAA -- much too late for some loyalists -- to ask for leniency in the Bush penalties, he may have posted the Trojans’ biggest win of the season.
Only Kiffin could make us ignore his biggest and most valid excuse -- he was working with a limited roster because of those penalties.
Now Haden can proceed with a clear conscience, starting a search that no doubt will attract the best and brightest available. It had to be done. Haden didn’t hire Kiffin. The coach will ultimately be known as Mike Garrett’s failed last gasp to regain part of Pete Carroll’s legacy.
Garrett, and others, fell for the same promise. Haden did support him -- at least publicly -- as much any AD should. I believe Haden was sincere. What else was he supposed to do? It all came crashing down in the last year, really. It just seems like it has taken so much longer.
Thirteen months ago USC was the preseason No. 1. A year ago it started 6-1 and had won 17 of its previous 20 games. The reasons it descended to this level are all valid -- NCAA scholarship limitations, Matt Barkley’s injury, no clear quarterback to take his place, lack of depth. But none of that explains how Oregon scored 62 in the Coliseum last year or that, in the end, the Trojans may have quit on their coach.
Kiffin's firing makes all the sense in the world because USC had lost the handle on its world. Haden has a shiny new athletic facility (John McKay Center) that the football program has to live up to.
If college football is the front porch of any big-time university, this one was being populated by an overseer with a vacant stare. It was that look we saw when Kiffin was calling plays down near the goal line last year in that late flailing attempt against Notre Dame. It was same look shown when he was deciding on a starting quarterback at a place that spits them out like a Pez dispenser. Kiffin had to know he was losing his grip. Trouble was, he was showing it in public, weekly.
It finally took the world capital of entertainment that gladly props up talentless drones like Miley Cyrus to finally find Kiffin out. You can be a lot of things in LA, boring isn’t one of them. In the end USC football was not fun to watch. That was the worst thing. Carroll’s “Win Forever” motto had been replaced in some minds with “Make Us Care.”
When the coach reportedly wanted to ride the team bus back to campus after the Arizona State game, Haden and the administration didn’t allow it. Why would they? Even then, Kiffin didn’t understand it was over. A career mostly spent falling up the coaching ladder was finally paused.
Haden had to do something now because the program was descending into a Paul Hackett-like state. Only those whose memories go back beyond Carroll know the reference. What made Kiffin so popular at various times in his career was his potential, his youthfulness, his energy. This is a guy who charmed the likes of Al Davis and the football factory formerly known as Tennessee.
Almost all of that promise is gone now -- before the age of 40. Kiffin will re-emerge somewhere, perhaps even work his way up another head-coaching job. But a man who has coached at the highest levels of football a young age -- NFL and SEC -- has seen his career arc flatten.
There was a quarterback controversy that didn’t have to be. Disorganization on defense at critical times, to say the least. Until someone from inside the program corrects me, it did look like the Trojans had quit on their coach. And it may not have been the first time.
The media bought the hype, too. Yeah, blame us but also blame a fawning Vol Nation. Blame Garrett. The same man who hired Carroll helped in this deconstruction of the program. In the end, there was too much of that smirking quirkiness that made Kiffin, at first endearing at Tennessee, become an SEC punch line.
Hey, at least Eddie Haskell made us laugh.
The man who walked out on Knoxville was kicked out of USC. Karma? It seemed like Lane Kiffin had lost all of his best qualities as he stared across the field Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium Saturday night watching Arizona State coach Todd Graham put up 62 on USC's once-proud franchise. Even Graham, somewhat of an aggressive sort in these situations, showed no signs of running it up.
Kiffin's firing should not come as a surprise Sunday morning. Make all the jokes you want about third base and Monte's son being born on it. After the final game of his USC career, he needed a ride to get home.
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