It ended with a whimper, not a bang.
The Lane Kiffin era at USC finally, mercifully, came to an end in the wee hours of Sunday morning, providing a jolting wake-up call for most Trojan fans who stayed up late the night before watching their team get blitzed by Arizona State in a 62-41 defeat.
The resolution to the most talked about coaching hot seat of the year was two hours old before most people even knew about it.
When all is said and done, Kiffin’s record at USC will forever stand at 28-15, with seven losses in his past 11 games and zero bowl game victories. But the numbers don’t come anywhere close to telling the entire story.
Kiffin inherited a program in shambles. USC fans don’t like to think of their team this way, but that’s exactly what it was in the process of becoming when Kiffin took over. The bowl ban cost the team a chance at the Rose Bowl in 2011, sure, but the loss of 30 scholarships was by far the most crippling aspect of the sanctions levied by the NCAA in 2010.
Take the ASU game, for example. When two wide receivers went down with injuries, Kiffin was forced to play walk-on redshirt freshman Robby Kolanz in the second half of a meaningful Pac-12 game. This is just one instance of a dire situation, but it illustrates how much the scholarship losses put this roster behind the eight ball.
Given the adverse conditions Kiffin was forced to deal with, 28-15 actually does not sound that bad. Consider that from 2002-04, while facing a two-year bowl ban and loss of 21 scholarships over three seasons, Alabama went 20-18, with the lack of depth on its roster being a key factor in its struggles. When the NCAA hits you with some of the harshest penalties in college football history, it doesn’t want you to succeed.
But that wasn’t the only hindrance Kiffin had to overcome upon his arrival in Los Angeles. Rightly or wrongly, deserved or undeserved, Kiffin came to Troy with a bad reputation. To be blunt, it was easy for people to dislike him. He shot his mouth off at Tennessee, didn’t schmooze the L.A. media and was perceived as someone who “failed up” throughout his career, consistently receiving marquee coaching jobs without ever having succeeded at his last stop.
It was always an uphill battle for Kiffin to win the hearts of the locals. The 2011 season, in which the Trojans went 10-2 and finished ranked No. 6 in the AP Poll, helped win some support, but the reviews were anything but unanimous. Then the 2012 season happened, which can only be described as an unmitigated disaster, and the approval ratings, again, tanked. His short leash grew even shorter in 2013, eventually resulting in the plug being pulled just five games into this season.
During his time here, the criticism came in all shapes and sizes. A lot of it was definitely warranted. The ball deflating, jersey switching, coaches’ poll voting and media ditching were all self-inflicted wounds that could have been avoided. Kiffin’s playcalling was also constantly criticized — though I’m not sure if the disapproval of fans that know next to nothing about football can be taken too seriously.
Other barbs thrown Kiffin’s way, though, don’t hold water. Many pointed to his stoicism and lack of enthusiasm on the sidelines as evidence that he didn’t connect with his players or was unable to provide inspiration to them. Kiffin has pointed out before that he keeps his fist-pumping to a minimum so that he remains focused on the next play, and he stands far from the line of scrimmage, and away from people on the sidelines, to get a better angle at the field, not because he can’t connect with the players.
Athletic Director Pat Haden and USC players who have spoken to the media in the wake of Kiffin’s dismissal have nothing but good things to say about their former coach. A skeptic might chalk this up to political correctness, but I will just take them for their word and believe that Kiffin had his players’ respect and loyalty.
As for his sideline demeanor, I guess judgment on that is based on results. If USC won, then Kiffin was praised for his laser-like focus. Against Oregon in Autzen Stadium in 2011, with the crowd going crazy and the Ducks mounting a comeback, he was a calming presence amid the chaos that helped the team hold on for the upset victory.
But in a loss, critics called him boring: He lacks enthusiasm, he can’t inspire his players, and his dispassionate ways have a negative impact on the team. When things got out of hand in the third quarter against ASU, he looked confused and couldn’t take control of the situation, killing any chance the Trojans had of winning.
Thus is the nature of coaching at USC. Expectations are high, sometimes unreasonably so, and Kiffin knew that when he took the job. It’s the reason he made a reported $4 million annually — to win, no matter the circumstances.
It’s a harsh reality, but it’s the reality nonetheless. Fans might not have liked what the program did under Kiffin’s lead, but really, he was destined to fail all along. Given the burden he had to bear, he deserves some praise for how much he succeeded. If he had been given a better chance to begin with, who knows how far the Trojans could have gone with Lane Kiffin as their leading man.
“Inside the 20s” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this story, email Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dailytrojan.com.
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