On Monday morning, I was woken up by the sound of my phone vibrating. Still groggy, I picked it up and was immediately snapped out of my daze: men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill had been fired.
My initial thought was how strange the timing seemed: After all, the team had just won a game, something it doesn’t do very often. But my next thought was far more serious, at least in the football-crazed USC community’s mind:
What does USC coach Lane Kiffin think about this?
Try as we might, most of us at USC have not been able to extricate images of the failed 2012 football season out of our heads. I am sure many sleepless nights have been spent tossing and turning over images of Stanford fans rushing the field, senior quarterback Matt Barkley lying injured on the Rose Bowl turf and that dreaded goal-line stand against Notre Dame at the Coliseum. These images have surely had staying power in my mind.
But more important, at least for Kiffin’s sake, is how often Athletic Director Pat Haden ruminates with these memories. In listening to the grumblings around campus, it is apparent that Kiffin might not have the highest approval rating from Trojan fans. But it is the opinion of Haden that matters most and one has to wonder what that opinion might be, given what has transpired these past weeks.
The two biggest factors that weigh into the judgment of a head football coach are how his team performs on the field and how well he recruits. We all know that Kiffin’s team failed miserably in the former this past year, but it is in the latter qualification, one that Kiffin has a reputation for exceeding in, that he has struggled mightily as of late.
Over the course of about six weeks, USC has had five of its verbally committed recruits renege on their pledges to play football for the Trojans. The reasons for each vary, but the trend is troubling, to say the least.
First came wide receiver Eldridge Massington’s decommitment in early December. The Texas native has since pledged to enroll at UCLA next season. Then, after months of speculation, safety Max Redfield, an Orange County prospect, left the Trojans and committed to Notre Dame on Jan. 4 at the Under Armour All-American game. Two others in that time frame, wide receiver Sebastian LaRue and defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, dropped their commitments to USC but have yet to commit elsewhere.
But the biggest shocker in the string of decommitments came nearly 10 days ago, when defensive end Kylie Fitts of Redlands, Calif., announced that he was no longer committed to USC. Fitts had been a longtime fan of the Trojans and was set to begin classes this week after graduating early from high school. But because of the commitment of another recruit, defensive back Leon McQuay III of Florida, there was no room for Fitts on the roster at this time. This left Fitts dismayed and he has since began scheduling visits to other schools.
Fair or unfair, Kiffin has taken criticism for the loss of Fitts. Many in the recruiting circuit have lashed out at Kiffin for his perceived dishonesty and, as Fitts’ high school football coach Kurt Bruich put it, being “shady.”
These instances where a player has a change of heart are commonplace in the recruiting world, but for it to occur at such a high volume is concerning. And the last thing a coach with Kiffin’s reputation needs at a time like this is to be accused of deceitfulness, especially considering he is coming off such a disappointing season.
And to throw gasoline onto the proverbial fire, reports came out Wednesday alleging that anywhere from 10 to 15 USC football players were involved in a locker-room altercation following USC’s embarrassing 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech at the Sun Bowl.
Though the allegations have been refuted or claimed to have been exaggerated by Khaled Holmes and Matt Barkley on Twitter, things appear to be going from bad to worse for Kiffin, who is presumably already on the coaching hot seat for next season. But why O’Neill’s firing should matter to Kiffin is this: Haden is not afraid to pull the plug at any time, even in the middle of the season and even after a victory. Anyone who assumes that Kiffin will have a full year to prove himself capable of leading USC’s football program need only to refer to Haden’s handling of O’Neill, a coach that Haden himself did not hire and someone who had to deal with NCAA sanctions and troublesome off-court incidents during his time at USC.
The point is: Just as was the case with O’Neill, time is running out for Kiffin to pick up the pieces. Job one will be to salvage this recruiting class, one that, despite the aforementioned losses, is still ranked in the top-10 nationally. But the next step, one that has proven to be difficult for Kiffin, will be to translate all the talent on USC’s roster into wins on the field. And while Kiffin continues to scramble to right the ship, he’ll now have to do it with the knowledge that Haden will be watching with an ever-ready hand on the trigger.