Though former head coach Lane Kiffin’s high points were ultimately outweighed by his many low points, he was merely the most recent USC coach to follow this downward trajectory. Kiffin’s dismissal concluded a career arc similar to that of another coach who was unceremoniously fired only eight months prior — former USC basketball head coach Kevin O’Neill.
Athletic Director Pat Haden didn’t hire either man, but played the cautious card a little too long with both, and it cost him. Both coaches were destined for failure sooner or later, and shortly after initial success, each suffered setbacks in their public perception.
Kiffin was the man that people never really understood, with his sometimes combative relationship with the media and his apparent aversion to fully embracing the gig he once called his “dream job.” O’Neill was the man people knew too well, from a public fallout at Arizona that squashed his chances of replacing the legendary Lute Olson to an altercation with an Arizona booster in March 2011.
Both men were hired toward the end of former athletic director Mike Garrett’s tenure. O’Neill was hired in June 2009 after Tim Floyd resigned, star players DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett left for the NBA Draft and top recruits such as Solomon Hill and Derrick Williams decommitted from USC and instead went to Arizona.
Kiffin did not know the severity of the NCAA sanctions when he left Tennessee in January 2010, and the effect of 10 lost scholarships per year was amplified when a wrecking ball of injuries smashed into his program.
Each found moderate success, at least in the context of expectations at USC. In his second season, O’Neill’s team went 19-15 and made it to the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, losing to eventual Final Four participant Virginia Commonwealth. Kiffin went 10-2 in 2011, defeating Oregon on the road and clobbering UCLA 50-0 in the final two weeks of the season.
O’Neill was never known as a players’ coach, and neither was Kiffin. The latter dominated the recruiting trail, but both coaches lost their players’ trust, and thus control of their programs. O’Neill was known for cussing out players in practice and had difficulty retaining his players, with many transferring to other programs.
For Kiffin, his failures were evident during the Sun Bowl debacle, Marqise Lee’s public comments on his handling of the quarterback situation and, ultimately, the frustration on players’ faces after losing to Washington State and Arizona State. Though players frequently mentioned that Kiffin was approachable when they wanted to discuss personal issues, he seemed to distance himself from them during in-game crises.
The biggest issue at hand, and the one that wore out Kiffin’s welcome faster than his infamous 29-second press conference, is the expectations of USC athletics. An obvious point, right? But in O’Neill’s case, he arrived at USC with virtually no expectations of success. If Kiffin being brought back after a 7-6 season was egregious, then what is to be made of the decision to keep O’Neill after a 6-26 campaign in 2011-12, the worst in USC’s program history?
“We graded on a curve, but we failed on the curve, too,” Haden said at the press conference following Kiffin’s firing. O’Neill stuck around because he had a new group of transfers that became eligible for the 2012-13 season. Kiffin remained after the 2012 season because he earned Haden’s confidence and brought in defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to replace his father, Monte Kiffin.
Their tenures both ended with midseason firings during their fourth seasons. O’Neill was dismissed four games into Pac-12 play, and Kiffin was let go five games into the 2013 season. O’Neill’s replacement, interim head coach Bob Cantu, posted a 7-8 record and installed a high-tempo offense to replace O’Neill’s defensive-minded system.
We’ll see how interim head football coach Ed Orgeron has altered USC’s gameplan, but so far, he’s re-energized the team with his relentless enthusiasm. Putting cookies back on the dining table and having Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles after practices won’t directly translate into wins, but it’ll boost the team’s morale, something that likely cratered after the Trojans’ early-season struggles.
Kiffin’s legacy, on the other hand, might not be viewed in such a positive light.
“Twenty years from now, you’ll forget that [Kiffin] even coached at USC,” former USC star wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson said on ESPN Radio 710 last week.
I don’t think O’Neill or Kiffin will be forgotten, but will instead end up as symbols of the adversity USC faced through the years of heavy NCAA sanctions.
Both ended up as stopgaps, nurses taking care of the two programs until Haden decided to call in the doctors. For the basketball program, the void has been filled by the “Shot Doctor,” Andy Enfield. For the football team, we’ll probably have to wait until December to find out who the next coach will be.
No matter who ends up taking the job, though, they’ll enter a program that has something Kiffin or O’Neill didn’t have: a near-clean bill of health.
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