When Lane Kiffin took over as head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2007, he was 31. One of the stars of his defensive unit, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, was more than two years his senior.
Kiffin’s stint at Oakland was far from a success — the youngest head coach in NFL history crashed and burned through a 4-12 season that eventually ended a little while later in a bizarre war of words with owner Al Davis. He quickly recovered, signing on with the University of Tennessee to become the youngest Football Bowl Subdivision head coach in the country before controversially leaving that post for USC.
Now Kiffin is 37 and about three-fourths of the way through his third season with USC. The Trojans have woefully underperformed based on preseason expectations, which launched them to the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press top 25 poll.
As is the case with any struggling high-profile organization, the calls for Kiffin’s dismissal have already begun. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel was particularly harsh toward the team’s failures of late, saying, “At Lane Kiffin’s two previous coaching stops, the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Volunteers, Kiffin baffled everyone by somehow landing better jobs despite not accomplishing much. With a team in shambles, his father looking overmatched and his quarterback failing to live up to expectations, it’s unlikely that Kiffin will fail upwards again.”
Thamel certainly has a point, that Kiffin deserves a large portion of the blame for USC’s woes. Ultimately, though, he should not be fired.
Kiffin is this football team’s most important prospect — a mix of youth and smarts that, down the road, could help result in some serious accolades for the university. As strange as it might sound, Kiffin, like many of the collegiate athletes he oversees, has yet to reach his potential.
Lane Kiffin was 15 years old when Matt Barkley was born. I’ve tried to keep this in the back of my mind when the coach does something immature — namely the infamous recruiting accusations made against then-Florida coach Urban Meyer, the petty lies he told about his preseason coaches’ poll vote and most recently, his decision to switch Cody Kessler and Kyle Negrete’s jerseys just to attempt a silly two-point conversion.
Though Kiffin has yet to work out the kinks with his conduct, his coaching experience is anything but lacking. Almost immediately after his playing days ended at Fresno State in 1996, the future USC coach transitioned to the sidelines. He’s remained there ever since — a 37 year old with 16 years of coaching experience.
It’s an important distinction to make, as Kiffin’s maturity has cost him in the eyes of his peers. But he’s been coaching longer than several of those peers — some of whom are old enough to be his father — and he’s got plenty of time to put the pieces together to make sure the quality of play on the field matches the talent on paper.
I get the criticisms of the argument I just laid out. If Kiffin is experienced, why does he get the benefit of the doubt for being young? What has he shown over the last three years that points to future national titles?
Foremost, Kiffin has masterfully guided USC through the crippling NCAA sanctions that threatened to tear the football program down. The Trojans’ roster lacks depth, but is still constructed to take a few blows.
That’s not going to change anytime soon. With Kiffin leading the way, USC has the best recruiting class in the country coming to Los Angeles in 2013, according to Rivals.com. So fans and pundits thinking Kiffin is a bad coach appears to be irrelevant to the most talented high school football players in the nation.
Others point to Kiffin’s time here and argue that he has just one signature win — USC’s 38-35 victory at Oregon last season.
True, the Trojans have fallen in games they should’ve pulled out, including last year’s triple-overtime loss to Stanford and all three defeats this season. Improvement in that department needs to be seen, and sooner rather than later. I’m just not ready to pull the plug at the first sign of trouble, which in truth has come in 2012. USC was an average 8-5 football team no matter who coached them in 2010. You could argue the Trojans’ overachieved without any bowl hopes last year. This year has been a disappointment, sure, but is it really worth scrapping everything USC has put in place?
It’s important to remember that youthful coaches for big-time teams in the pro and college ranks are nothing new. Kiffin might have been a pioneer in the NFL, leading the Raiders while barely on the other side of 30, but there’s a track record of success for plenty of other young guys out there.
Three years ago, then-36 year old Mike Tomlin won a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last season, a barely 40 Erik Spoelstra was the leader of a Miami Heat squad that dismantled the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. Of course, young coaches are by no means guaranteed to lead their teams to the promise land, as proven by Kiffin in Oakland and Raheem Morris for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Kiffin isn’t some sort of test dummy for coaches in their mid-30s — he’s a genuinely talented coach who could pay dividends for the university.
As athletic director Pat Haden recently told the Los Angeles Times, “He’s definitely a work in progress. It can be challenging, but I think we’re making progress with Lane … I think he has a big future in front of him and a long runway.”
I agree. And I am hopeful that his plane will land on that runway sooner rather than later.
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