The feeding frenzy hit Lane Kiffin hard at USC and he didn’t like it, not one bit. Jordan Campbell to Louisville, D.J. Shoemate to UConn, Malik Jackson to Tennessee, Vidal Hazelton to Cincinnati, and on and on and on until the biggest, baddest college football program west of the Mississippi River was reduced to an also-ran.
The NCAA hadn’t just pounded USC with sanctions for the Reggie Bush scandal but had declared open season on the Trojans’ roster, giving any junior or senior the ability to transfer and play immediately while Kiffin was forced to suffer through a two-year bowl ban. For all his persuasiveness, all his recruiting charm, Kiffin lay helpless as opposing coaches picked over his roster like vultures on a carcass.
“We created free agency in college football … free agency there’s no salary cap on,” Kiffin whined at Pac-12 media day in 2010.
But, well, that was two whole years ago, and so much has changed in Kiffin’s world of moral relativity since.
For one thing, USC’s postseason ban has expired, and the Trojans are no longer beaten down by NCAA penalties and scholarship losses. They’re back in machine mode, ranked in the top-three of every preseason poll and legitimate contenders for the national championship. But they’re also a little weak at running back going into fall camp, and it just so happens that a good one has come available thanks to the NCAA penalties levied against Penn State this week.
Suddenly, “free agency in college football” is just fine by Kiffin, as long as he’s the one doing the poaching, of course.
Kiffin spent Thursday in Connecticut meeting with Penn State running back Silas Redd, according to an reports, with a strong possibility he will join the Trojans by next week.
Which, for the record, is perfectly within the rules on Kiffin’s part and nothing more than an exercise of the rights given to Redd by the NCAA. They should all be free to leave Penn State if they want. The NCAA got that part right.
But wasn’t this entire ugly episode at Penn State supposed to be about the so-called culture? Wasn’t the lesson that a college campus becomes an incubator for bad stuff when a football program becomes too big and too important? Shouldn’t these penalties have caused the college football community to, you know, pause for a moment before going back to sleazy, backstabbing business as usual?
Not when there are talented players on the market, apparently.
You want a culture check? How about Illinois sending eight assistant coaches — yes, eight — to State College to recruit? How about several Penn State players, who had publicly announced their intention to stay on Wednesday, tweeting that coaches from other schools were stalking them outside their apartments?
There’s a delicate line between giving Penn State players a soft landing and using the school’s misfortune as an all-out recruiting opportunity.
Kiffin didn’t like it when it happened to him. And yet how do you fix the culture of college athletics when, given the first chance to do it to someone else, he’s on a plane to Connecticut trying to sell Redd on abandoning Bill O’Brien and the becoming the final piece to a national championship at USC?
It’s a difficult question, granted, when the other side of that argument is that Kiffin is just doing his job, and doing it completely within the rules. Perhaps college football’s culture is so far beyond repair anyway that even if USC wasn’t making a desperate effort to recruit Redd, another top-10 program would.
But wouldn’t it say something about Kiffin, beyond the fact that he wants to win a bunch of football games, if he took a pass here? If this USC team does do something special, wouldn’t it be more meaningful if Kiffin didn’t have to line up like everyone else for a bite off Penn State’s rotting corpse?
And not everybody is getting in line. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said at Thursday’s Big Ten Media Days his program wasn’t pursuing any Penn State players.
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald told the Chicago Tribune “there are certain things we stand for as a program,” and poaching isn’t one of them. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier told ESPN that his program wouldn’t actively recruit off Penn State’s roster but would investigate if someone contacted him.
Maybe that’s all self-serving pabulum from coaches who either couldn’t get anyone from Penn State or looked at its roster and didn’t see anyone who could help. Maybe there’s actually a little bit of honor and respect left in this business. Who knows?
Either way, State College is now the Wild, Wild West, much like it was at USC when Kiffin’s roster was decimated. Two years later, Kiffin is taking a stand: Do unto others as they did to you. But in this case, isn’t that what’s wrong with college football to begin with?