When USC landed Kliff Kingsbury as its offensive coordinator, it was seen as a coup for a struggling program that was searching not only for an upgrade on its coaching staff but also a public relations boost. He was anointed the savior, the reason to have hope entering the 2019 season. His addition even temporarily quieted the many critics of USC’s decision to retain head coach Clay Helton.
But last Tuesday, Kingsbury spurned the Trojans in favor of a NFL head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals, bringing forth two absurd realities: the fascination in the professional ranks with finding the next Sean McVay (the Los Angeles Rams head coach) and just how far down the abyss USC has fallen.
A few months ago, Kingsbury was fired at Texas Tech, where he amassed a 35-40 record over six seasons. And yet, he was the hottest commodity on the market. Even after USC reeled him in, teams kept calling. He reportedly turned down a head coaching offer at Houston. But he could not turn down the NFL. He interviewed with the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals before ultimately being offered the gig with the latter.
Why the sudden influx in attention for a coach with a sub.-500 record? It could be because Kingsbury, 39, is young and in the mold of the offensive-minded, new-fangled coaches who have taken over the league, such as McVay and San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. The Cardinals, in fact, made sure to mention in their press release that Kingsbury was friends with McVay, as if being linked to the Rams coach was an automatic qualification to coach in today’s NFL.
Make no mistake, this is a risky hire, just like McVay was when the Rams hired him in 2017 as the youngest coach in the NFL. Kingsbury has no experience running a defense and could easily be overwhelmed by the job. But to the Cardinals, the risk is worth it, and this move makes the trend clear: the NFL has become obsessed with finding the next young, bright offensive mind.
This spells disaster for USC. The Kingsbury hire was almost universally praised. He was exactly the man Helton needed to turn the ship around on a program coming off a 5-7 season. There was hope that, with Kingsbury implementing his pass-heavy Air Raid offense, quarterback JT Daniels would have a breakout sophomore season and the talent the Trojans have at wide receiver would finally live up to its potential.
Instead, USC was — for lack of a better word — played. Almost immediately following Kingsbury’s hiring, USC started advertising season tickets with the coach’s picture. All that excitement is now gone, and the school is now stuck with an unpopular head coach while Athletic Director Lynn Swann is left scratching his head, owing an explanation as to what the hell happened.
In many ways, this episode epitomizes the state of the USC football program. Sure, nobody expected Kingsbury to receive so much interest from the NFL so soon. But for a reported $150,000 buyout, Swann lost his prized asset. It doesn’t matter if you blame Kingsbury for being disloyal: USC was unprepared and caught off guard.
This is what happens when a program needs its most prized asset more than the asset needs it, when an assistant coach is more valuable than the head coach. Kingsbury held all the leverage throughout the whole process. Swann was left with an empty hand, and now USC, already dealing with the repercussions of a 5-7 season that has resulted in an apathetic fanbase, is back to the drawing board.
It is ironic, this saga. Critics went after USC all season for having a head coach they perceived was in over his head. So USC went out and brought in an A-plus assistant, only to find out that Kingsbury was so overqualified that he was NFL-head-coach material.
Cruel? Yes. But fitting? Absolutely.
All of this could have been avoided had USC simply fired Helton, cleaned house and started anew, hiring a fresh, innovative head coach like … oh, I don’t know, Kliff Kingsbury? But USC attempted to patch deep wounds by applying a Band-Aid, which ripped off immediately. Even in the best-case scenario, Kingsbury would have fixed the Trojans’ offense and then left for a head coaching job after next season.
Instead, the worst-case scenario — no Kingsbury at all — was what they got. And it was what they deserved.
Eric He is a senior writing about USC sports. He is also the features editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.