What Went Wrong: Lane Kiffin
By Christopher Wuensch
Lane Kiffin said all the right things during this week’s Pac-12 coach’s teleconference about not looking forward and focusing on this week’s practices and Saturday’s game against Arizona State, despite reporters’ attempts to goad him into becoming some sort of future-forecasting prophet.
What many didn’t see coming was the awakening of Southern California’s long-dormant offense, only to witness the Trojans’ vaunted defense collapse in epic proportions — turning a one-point game in the third quarter into a 62-41 trouncing at the hands of the Sun Devils.
That was all Trojans officials needed to see. In a move even the most amateur of clairvoyants could foretell, USC fired the head coach on Sunday after three-plus mostly underwhelming years in Los Angeles.
Kiffin exits stage-right with a 28-15 record, sub-par by USC standards. He appeared in one bowl game and lost convincingly to Georgia Tech.
The wheels began coming off for Kiffin’s tenure in Los Angeles last season. The Trojans put together a 10-2 season in Kiffin’s second year on the USC sidelines and were the AP preseason No. 1 squad. But USC limped to the barn and a 7-6 record, including losses in five of its final six games — including the unfathomable 21-7 loss to the Yellow Jackets in the Sun Bowl.
Earlier in the week reporters grilled Kiffin to react to the NCAA’s recent restoration of scholarships to heavily-sanctioned Penn State. USC, which itself still is climbing out of the hole dug by sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush investigation, petitioned the NCAA for similar leniency this week — only to be shot down.
The 38-year-old coach took the high road, praising his Penn State counterpart Bill O’Brien. But where O’Brien is seen as a sanctions-savior in State College, Kiffin largely was vilified in L.A.
Kiffin could be seen as the unfortunate fall guy for the transgressions of former head coach Pete Carroll and Bush, who left the program reeling with the loss of 30 scholarships through 2015 and a two-year postseason ban.
Southern California and Kiffin still landed highly-coveted recruiting classes (and even poached star running back Silas Redd as a result of the aforementioned Penn State sanctions), but the effects of the scholarship losses definitely made a difference for a program that considers itself among the nation’s elite.
Look no further than the Trojans’ quarterback situation for proof. After a slew of Heisman-worthy and NFL-bound signal callers for USC dating back to Carson Palmer, the Trojans have struggled mightily under center this year. Kiffin’s two-headed monster approach to quarterback failed miserably as Cody Kessler and Max Wittek could not invigorate a loaded Trojans offense.
Kiffin’s inability to land a star quarterback contributed to his downfall. His squad was fat on talent — including Heisman hopeful wide receiver Marqise Lee, a deep running game and one of the nation’s top defenses — but seemingly lean on leadership.
USC landed a Top-15 recruiting class this winter, but still appeared to lose out to cross-city rivals UCLA, who were deemed to have had a better class. The result is a Bruins team that is now the frontrunner to win their second-consecutive Pac-12 South Division title. That’s unacceptable in Trojans Nation.
Recruiting woes or losing ground to UCLA aside, Kiffin’s demise might a result of his inability to ingratiate himself with Trojans Nation, both internally and externally. This is now the third head coaching gig he’s vacated in six years since becoming the youngest head coach in NFL history with the Oakland Raiders.
He hits the unemployment line with a middling career record of 40-36 (35-21 at Tennessee and USC) and only two bowl trips (both bad losses).
The Trojans have 11 days to find a coach before USC’s Oct. 10 matchup against Arizona. Whomever they choose will be tasked with saving the 3-2, 0-2 Trojans and lifting them from the Pac-12 South basement.
Kiffin will wear a coach’s headset once again. One theory suggests Kiffin could take the nepotistic route and join his legendary father Monte Kiffin, who heads up the Dallas Cowboys’ defense. Wherever his career takes him, however, even the best prophets may not know.