When No. 18 USC and No. 17 UCLA meet for the Victory Bell at the Rose Bowl on Saturday in the most highly anticipated football matchup between the crosstown rivals since 2005, Trojans coach Lane Kiffin could find he has more than a berth in the Pac-12 championship game on the line. In fact, Kiffin, now in his third year at the helm of the USC empire following Pete Carroll’s fortuitously timed return to the NFL, might be coaching for his job.
Should USC lose to UCLA (8-2, 5-2) for only the second time since 1998 — the other defeat coming in a stunning 2006 upset that kept USC out of the BCS Championship Game — it would drop the Trojans to 7-4 with a game against No. 3 Notre Dame looming on Nov. 24.
A potential five-loss season would be the second such Trojans finish since the former offensive coordinator Kiffin returned to Los Angeles to take over a program that had been hit hard by NCAA sanctions. But Kiffin says he isn’t approaching Saturday’s game or the regular-season finale against the Fighting Irish as the make-or-break ventures that they are.
“I don’t think about it that way at all,” Kiffin said Tuesday. “I know we have a great plan here, to do the best we can in the situation we’ve been put in a couple years ago. We have a very young team, too, so I’m not at all even thinking that direction.”
His stated indifference about his future aside, Kiffin will be the first to acknowledge that his team isn’t where he wanted or expected it to be, and he’s aware that — fair or not — the rumors about a coach’s future are always about to swirl when there’s unrest among a team’s fans.
“I think it’s probably more difficult than people realize because — not to blame fans, but — we get so wrapped up in the final result of a game, win or loss,” Kiffin said
“Winning solves a lot of problems and losing creates a lot of problems, and very often games come down . . . to one play here or there. Those plays swing, and all of a sudden the coach needs to be fired; they swing the other way and the field goal goes in and now the coach is doing a great job.”
In nearly three seasons, Kiffin has lost only four games by more than a touchdown, but if he does end up on the hot seat — and a defeat at UCLA would certainly send him hurtling in that direction — the school will have more than Kiffin’s win-loss record to point to as evidence that a change is needed.
Not only has Kiffin been unable to resuscitate the program to pre-sanction levels, but this year in particular, he has come up short of the haughty expectations placed upon his team, which opened the season ranked No. 1, tabbed by many as the best bet to end the SEC’s run of six national titles. Indeed, the SEC’s streak is in danger as the season draws to a close, but it’s not because USC had anything to do with it.
Instead of dominating the national-title discussion, Kiffin’s group has struggled just to stay in the Top 25, failing to make the most of a tailor-made roster that is replete with future NFL talent despite transfer allowances and recruiting restrictions that would have ravaged lesser programs.
Kiffin has seen a Heisman frontrunner in senior Matt Barkley fade into the ether while such names as Collin Klein and Johnny Manziel emerge as the college game’s elite quarterbacks. He’s allowed the talents of wide receivers Robert Woods and a once-in-a-generation receiver like Marquise Lee — who set a Pac-12 record with 345 receiving yards in a 39-36 loss to Arizona — go largely to waste.
On the other side of the ball, it would be hard to make the statement that defense has been a staple of the USC program in quite some time — at least not since 2008’s dominant Rose Bowl season — but the Trojans’ D has taken a turn for the substandard since Kiffin took over, with his dad, Monte, by his side. At no time was that more clear than against Oregon two weeks ago. As hosts to the then-No. 4 Ducks, USC gave up more points (62) and allowed more yards (730) than in any other game in 124 years of USC football history.
Still, yet, there’s a case to be made that Kiffin’s worst offense isn’t his underutilization of talent or failure to live up to expectations. Instead critics point to the apparent mockery he makes of the storied USC program when he embodies the smug, petulant and even shady coach he used to be and assured everyone he never would be again.
When Kiffin dipped out of Knoxville after one 7-6 season at Tennessee, he promised he would come to USC a changed man. And for two seasons under the NCAA microscope, Kiffin stayed true to that pledge. But this year, with the full gamut of postseason opportunities at his disposal, Kiffin has taken every opportunity to remind us where the crooked perception of him came from.
His off-field indiscretions range from minor peccadilloes (fibbing about voting his team No. 1 in the preseason coaches’ poll) to gratuitous power plays (not allowing opponents to make walk-throughs at the Los Angeles Coliseum) to downright bullying (banning a reporter for accurately reporting a player injury, then later walking out on a press conference after a question about another injury).
And Kiffin’s acts of on-field imprudence may be even worse. Before a 50-6 drubbing of Pac-12 doormat Colorado, Kiffin changed his backup quarterback’s number to match his punter’s. This wouldn’t have raised any concerns until Kiffin decided to use the deceptively-numbered backup QB on a two-point conversion try, only to switch him back to his regular number for the second half.
Against Oregon, a USC student manager was found to have deflated a number of game balls, presumably in an effort to help the Trojans offense keep up with the Ducks. USC fired the manager and seemingly made him the scapegoat, painting him as a rogue who was acting strictly on his own behalf. But the explanation that Kiffin and his staff were wholly unaware of the secret ball doctoring hardly passes the sniff test.
Between the embarrassment Kiffin has brought USC off the field and the regression the team has made on it, it certainly stands to reason that the only thing standing between Kiffin and unemployment could be his contract, which pays him $4 million per year. But even a hefty buyout — it’s undisclosed how many years are left on Kiffin’s deal — might not be enough to keep him on the sideline, especially with a loss to UCLA.
However, a win on Saturday could change that.
With a victory over the Bruins, USC would advance to 8-3, clinch a spot in the Pac-12 title game and take a step toward rendering all of this talk about Kiffin’s job security moot. A win over Notre Dame in the regular-season finale, alone, would probably guarantee Kiffin another year on the Trojans sideline and another opportunity to make the most of the immense talent at his disposal.
Punching a ticket to the Rose Bowl with an upset in a rematch against Oregon or Stanford in the Pac-12 title game and following with a Rose Bowl win and an 11-3 finish — unlikely as it may seem right now — would make us forget there was ever a problem in the first place. Hot seat? What hot seat?
But first comes first: UCLA. The line between goat and savior is a thin one for a coach, especially in a city like LA, and Kiffin, a man who has somehow managed to fall up his whole career, knows as well as anyone that Saturday’s game is one he can’t afford to lose.
“None of us wanted to be where our win-loss record is, but at the same time, you want to be alive,” Kiffin said. “A lot of people in the country are not playing for the ability to win their conference, and we are, fortunately. … From that perspective it’s a good place to be, and (there’s) a lot to play for.”