Lane Kiffin triumphantly flew in from Tennessee nearly four years ago as the unlikely choice to extend Southern California’s football renaissance.
When Kiffin’s Trojans trudged home to that same airport early Sunday morning after another loss, athletic director Pat Haden couldn’t wait another minute to end the divisive coach’s tumultuous tenure.
USC fired Kiffin hours after a 62-41 loss at Arizona State that dropped the Trojans to 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the Pac-12. The loss was the seventh in 11 games for a powerhouse program still struggling under the cumulative effect of NCAA sanctions, but unwilling to accept such a dramatic decline.
”It’s never the perfect time to do these things, but I thought it was the right time,” Haden said.
Ed Orgeron will be USC’s interim head coach for the final eight games of the season before Haden chooses a permanent successor for one of college football’s highest-profile jobs. Orgeron, Kiffin’s assistant head coach and top recruiter, is the former Mississippi head coach.
Haden broke the news to Kiffin in a 3 a.m. meeting at the Trojans’ private airport terminal, but not before a 45-minute chat in which Kiffin tried to change Haden’s mind. Haden didn’t hire Kiffin but had been firmly behind the coach in public until Saturday, when the Trojans matched the most points allowed in school history.
”He did a lot of things well under some very difficult circumstances here,” said Haden, who also fired men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill during the season last January. ”No one could have worked harder. He did a lot of the things we asked. Graduated players, never had compliance issues . . . and he really worked under some very difficult NCAA sanctions, there’s no doubt about it.”
Kiffin ran a competent program despite the loss of 30 scholarships over a three-season stretch that ends in 2015. But even Kiffin acknowledged he wasn’t winning enough in the past two seasons at a school with USC’s pedigree, and he also created off-the-field troubles ranging from ethically questionable tactics to pointless squabbles with media.
”Lane did negotiate some of these things remarkably well,” Haden said. ”I have supported Lane with my heart and soul for 3-1/2 years and gave him every opportunity. He wasn’t given a fair hand in a lot of ways. I said all along, we graded on the curve, but we failed on the curve, too.”
The Trojans are off this week before returning Oct. 10 at the Coliseum against Arizona, giving Orgeron time to evaluate what can be done to salvage the season with the toughest matchups on USC’s schedule still looming.
Kiffin went 28-15 in parts of four seasons in his self-described dream job, but USC is 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 2001 after losses to Arizona State and Washington State, and the record only partly captures the discontent of USC’s fans and alumni.
The Trojans were unimpressive on offense even in their three victories this season, stoking unease around a school with sky-high expectations even at the tail end of crippling NCAA penalties stemming from coach Pete Carroll’s tenure.
Kiffin received withering criticism for persisting in calling the Trojans’ offensive plays himself well into the school’s second straight poor offensive season. The Trojans lost their home opener 10-7 to the Cougars earlier this month, and Coliseum fans serenaded USC repeatedly with chants of ”Fire Kiffin!”
USC has been in a slow tailspin since going 10-2 and beating Oregon in 2011, the last year of its bowl ban. After starting as the preseason No. 1 last year, the Trojans finished 7-6 and out of the rankings — the first preseason No. 1 in nearly a half-century to fall so far — followed by this season’s disappointments.
”I think it could easily be asked, `Why not last year after the 7-6 season?”’ Haden said. ”`What do you know now that you didn’t know after a 7-6 season?’ The rationale was the prior year, Lane had won 10 games. We thought, and (were) hoping that last year was an aberration. We felt we could rebound, make some changes, and indeed, Lane did. . . . But at the end of the day, we just weren’t making the progress I felt we needed to make.”
The firing comes less than five months after Haden said Kiffin had ”been as good as he can be” in the face of USC’s sanctions. Before this season began, Haden said he was ”100 percent” behind the embattled Kiffin.
”We support our coaches 100 percent until they’re no longer our coaches,” Haden said. ”Why would you support a coach 85 percent?”
The 52-year-old Orgeron went 10-25 in three seasons at Ole Miss, but that failed tenure did little to diminish his stature as a bulldog recruiter and defensive line coach. He coached alongside Kiffin at Tennessee before following his friend back to USC.
Orgeron, a Louisiana native with a thick Cajun accent, might sound a bit out of place in Los Angeles, but he’s a popular assistant coach and a USC devotee after 11 years over two tenures at the school.
”It’s an unfortunate day today that a coach got let go, but we understand the circumstances,” Orgeron said. ”I want to tell you we’re here as a staff to answer the bell. We’re all accountable for what happened as a staff and as players. Us Trojans know how to do it.”
Orgeron said Clay Helton will be his offensive coordinator and the Trojans’ play-caller. Helton, USC’s quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, has been with the Trojans since Kiffin returned in 2010.
Most players found out about Kiffin’s dismissal by text messages in the middle of the night. The players have the next two days off before returning to practice Wednesday.
”We’ll try to move forward now and focus on these next eight games, really bonding as a Trojan family and getting these wins,” offensive lineman Marcus Martin said.
Like the precocious Kiffin’s other two head coaching jobs, his USC tenure had an abrupt, messy exit.
The Trojans’ former co-offensive coordinator was an NFL head coach at age 31, a head coach in the Southeastern Conference at 33 and USC’s head coach at 34. If there was a consistent trend to those stops with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and the Trojans, it was turmoil.
With Oakland, he lasted only 20 games as an overmatched head coach before his departure became a public feud with Al Davis, the late Raiders owner. He then infuriated Volunteers fans when he left after 14 months to head back to the Trojans.
Former USC athletic director Mike Garrett hired Kiffin away from Tennessee to replace Seattle Seahawks coach Carroll, the architect of USC’s dynasty over the previous decade. Kiffin was an assistant under Carroll, eventually running the Trojans’ offense alongside Steve Sarkisian, now Washington’s coach.
Kiffin had nothing to do with the misdeeds committed under Carroll and Garrett, who was swiftly dismissed and replaced by Haden.
The coach still faced enormous expectations at USC — especially last season, when the Trojans started out ranked No. 1 in the country with quarterback Matt Barkley and star receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. USC lost five of its last six games, including the Sun Bowl, and Kiffin parted ways with his father, defensive guru Monte Kiffin.
The scholarship restrictions gradually eroded the Trojans’ depth, and last season’s struggles clearly hurt the vaunted recruiting power of Kiffin and Orgeron. Between the sanctions and injuries, the Trojans played at Arizona State on Saturday night with 56 recruited scholarship players, well below its limit of 75 and the standard 85.
Kiffin didn’t help several strange decisions.
Last year, USC was reprimanded by the Pac-12 for underinflating footballs before a loss to Oregon. Kiffin also was criticized for switching jersey numbers on players in an apparent attempt to deceive the Trojans’ opponents.
Kiffin even closed USC’s practices to the public after years of transparency under Carroll, who embraced USC’s tradition of raucous open workouts. This season, Kiffin also closed his practices to the media.
He then dithered on his choice of a starting quarterback, waiting until the third game to select Cody Kessler over Max Wittek. The offense has been largely terrible this season, but Kiffin was finally undone by another dreadful game by his defense, which had been solid under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast until Arizona State piled up 612 yards.
USC’s next game is in 11 days, giving the Trojans time to regroup and heal. Orgeron still plans to hit the recruiting trail for a school in transition.
”I want our guys to believe and have a little fun,” Orgeron said. ”One of the things we’ll do as a staff is get really close to our players, circle the wagons a little bit and have some fun for these next eight games, and let the chips fall where they may.”