The truth is that we still don’t know if Lane Kiffin can coach. Three head coaching jobs in, and Kiffin is out again. This time, though, when USC fired him Saturday, taking him off a team bus and into a small room in an airport terminal to give him the news, it wasn’t about football or reality.
It was about Hollywood and image. Kiffin didn’t match up well. He wasn’t Pete Carroll, didn’t have the flowing hair, the California look, the LA smooth.
He got a raw deal. And I told him so this spring, when the inevitable was clear and we talked on a sunny deck outside his office on campus for just less than an hour:
“Once you don’t like someone for whatever reason — whether it’s that you don’t like him because he said something there, or he left a school, or he got stuff before he should have because he’s too young and didn’t pay his dues — you’re going to find that,’’ he told me at the time. “Whatever those reasons are along the way that you don’t know a person, but yet you don’t like him, you’re going to find that.’’
He called it the “perfect storm of dislike.’’
He saw it coming. But if he did get a bad deal, he also was easy fodder because of the things he did, the things he said.
“That,’’ he said, pausing, “is probably fair.’’
Kiffin didn’t win enough for a program that has all the resources possible. True. But come on: That was never going to be possible with a program that Carroll left under NCAA probation.
If you didn’t notice, USC is only about three-fourths of a team after sanctions reduced scholarships.
That’s nuts and bolts for the USC fanbase. Last year, USC had Matt Barkley and other stars, too. So people expected the world. Sorry, but this isn’t basketball where the team with the most stars wins.
It’s a star culture in Southern California, but football is a sport that’s built from the ground up. Depth, experience. USC didn’t have it. So it started the year ranked No. 1 last season even though it was nowhere near that good.
And I would argue this: From the moment USC got that ranking, Kiffin was a dead-man walking.
But maybe it was before that. Maybe there was no way to replace Carroll and the California look and feel, while people overlooked the cold reality of a roster with fewer than 60 scholarship players.
The new coach will be a bigtime star: Maybe Jon Gruden, if he wants. Jack Del Rio has the look. He has to be a proven coach and a good look.
Keep this in mind: A few days before Kiffin was fired, USC officials were meeting with the NCAA to ask for a reduction in sanctions – like the reduction Penn State got – because they felt USC’s current penalties were too harsh.
So if sanctions from a different regime were burying the program, then why did Kiffin get fired?
That’s not to say athletic director Pat Haden – how many weeks ago did he give Kiffin his 100 percent support? – shouldn’t have fired Kiffin. He had to. Everyone from the fans to the power brokers at USC had turned on him.
USC has a certain standing in Southern California, a certain spot it’s supposed to hold. And that’s not a step behind UCLA.
Kiffin might not have been the best game-manager. At the end of the Notre Dame game last year, he seemed obsessed with banging the ball into the end zone against a front seven that didn’t let anyone (other than Alabama) do that. Even more strange was the Washington State game this year, when Kiffin got so conservative and wouldn’t pass downfield.
And there always has been that feeling that Kiffin really didn’t earn the jobs he had gotten. He was hired at just 31 by Al Davis and the Raiders, but no one was going to blame anything on anyone who was working for Davis. At Tennessee, he stepped in and talked on the first day about beating Florida.
He was ripped for that.
Why did he do it? I asked him.
“Some of this stuff was not my fault, and a lot of it was my fault,’’ he said. “At Tennessee, I said I can’t wait to beat Florida in the Swamp and sing Rocky Top all night long.
“The thing at Tennessee I felt was that there needed to be energy in the program immediately. Two of the last three years there, they were 5-7. Urban Meyer and Nick Saban were at all-time highs. I felt like the fan base and players needed confidence.’’
The team improved there, but when he left after one year, fans went nuts. Media went nuts. One point: Every fan or media member would have left a job for a better one. I told Kiffin I’d done it myself once.
“Really,’’ he said. “Did they burn stuff?’’
In 2012, Kiffin seemed to suggest he didn’t vote USC No. 1, but then it turned out he did. He walked off when a reporter wanted to know about an injury. He had players switch jerseys to confuse opponents. In Tennessee, he was cited for recruiting violations. And no one actually pinned it on him when someone was taking air out of the ball against Oregon.
There also was just always the feeling he hadn’t earned his job, but was getting favored treatment because of his dad, defensive coach Monte Kiffin.
“Sure,’’ Kiffin said. “Any time that you get big titles or head jobs at a young age, there’s going to be that factor. `He didn’t pay his dues.’ I just think there’s a big combination in that, why is there this dislike for you.’’
Meanwhile, Carroll just fit in so well, no matter what shape he left the program in. Kiffin took over in January of 2010, and then the NCAA sanctions hit. Several upper classman left, but more importantly, it was impossible to replace them. Meanwhile, numbers kept USC from hitting much in practices.
“In the offseason this spring we decided to be back to the way we used to practice when the team has full rosters here,’’ he said. “Hitting. People were saying `Oh that sounds great, now we’re going to be a physical team and everything’s answered.’
“But there was reason we weren’t hitting last fall. We couldn’t afford injuries. So then in the spring we went the other way and hit again. Then, we lost 20 guys for the spring game.’’
Kiffin lost only two games in his first year at USC, before the sanctions started sinking in. But last year, fans hadn’t started thinking about reality.
Well, Kiffin is 38 now, and possibly unhirable.
In the old days, you could find celebrities on USC sidelines in practices, or games: Spike Lee, Snoop Dogg, Will Ferrell, Alyssa Milano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Dr. Dre.
Now Kiffin’s gone, and while USC hasn’t named a replacement, it has announced one thing:
Practices are open again.