Last Friday, USC decided to part ways with offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu after three seasons on the job. Head coach Lane Kiffin offered a predictable and politically correct statement on the firing, saying “as we continue to evaluate all facets of our program, including the organization of our staff, we made the decision to go in a different direction at this coaching position. Kennedy Polamalu is a good coach, a good person and a good Trojan. We wish him and his family the best.”
We don’t really know why Polamalu was let go. That information probably won’t be disclosed anytime soon. And normally, the dismissal of an assistant coach wouldn’t really garner much analysis.
In this case, however, there’s another question worth examining: Was the timing of Polamalu’s firing ethical?
Think about it: National signing day was Feb. 6. Polamalu was fired on Feb. 8. It’s not unreasonable to believe that some of the new recruits, especially on the offensive side of the ball, could be influenced by the fluidity of USC’s coaching staff. So was this move put off until after the Trojans officially recruited the prospects they were hoping to lock up?
My best guess: Probably. And while it’s not a particularly proud moment for Kiffin and company, firing a coach a few days after signing day is about as tame as it gets during an incredibly tense recruiting period.
If another coach had done something similar to Kiffin (and surely other coaches have done something similar in the past), there would be significantly less blowback from the media and the team’s fan base. That’s not to play the “woe is me” card for Kiffin — after a string of dishonest maneuvers last season, including the infamous ball-deflating incident, USC’s coach really doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt anymore.
That doesn’t mean what he did this time around was particularly wrong though.
The recruiting process in 2013 is about as cut-throat as it gets. Prospects change their minds on where to go to school on a day-to-day basis. Case in point: highly regarded linebacker Reuben Foster committed to Auburn, got a tattoo of his soon-to-be alma mater, and ended up choosing rival Alabama on signing day. USC needed every scholarship it could get, especially after multiple verbal commits ended up going elsewhere when it came down to decision-making time.
Add in the crippling sanctions that continue to limit the Trojans’ options on a year-to-year basis, and it becomes increasingly harder to blame Kiffin for making a tactical decision of sorts.
It sounds strange summing up the job security of a coach as a tactical decision, but that’s essentially what it was. Polamalu was an important recruiter in the program and helped bring in running back Ty Isaac, among others. Kiffin likely knew long before Friday he didn’t want to keep Polamalu around, but he needed to keep the outside appearance of stability in the coaching staff. Besides, for all we know, recruits and even Polamalu himself knew what was coming.
If no one involved in the signing day process had any idea of the impending firing, then Kiffin’s maneuvers become a little more suspect. That would change things from a strategic decision to something less acceptable. From all indications, Polamalu was a well-regarded figure in the locker room, and his firing was met with a fair amount of opposition from Trojan players. Ultimately, though, Kiffin made a choice, and dwelling on his motives isn’t worth the time and effort.
After a 7-6 season, Kiffin is on the hot seat more than Haden will ever admit. It’s put-up or shut-up time for the Trojans, who, admittedly, won’t be as talented as the last season’s underachieving squad. Kiffin has been criticized for his lack of creativity at times with the play-calling, especially with weapons such as sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee and junior running back Silas Redd at his disposal. This is his chance to show that he’s capable of righting the ship. Bring in a new offensive coordinator, take the issue seriously and make the offense a top priority.
Polamalu wasn’t the problem for the Trojans in 2012. In the end though, he took the fall for the Trojans’ coaching staff. The timing of the move was questionable, but if Kiffin can make amends next season, all will be forgiven and forgotten.
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