Lane Kiffin, Trojans in need of major overhaul
Something needs fixing at USC.
In a matter of four months, the football program dissolved from a preseason No. 1 ranking to broken and in need of repair, even before Wednesday's news of an alleged locker room altercation among Trojans players after last month's Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.
Whether coach Lane Kiffin is the man to fix, or perhaps even overhaul, a system that fell apart last season remains in question. Too many things went wrong, not the least of which was the Trojans' 7-6 record and their horrendous performance in a 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in El Paso.
The facts about the postgame incident are murky, although Kiffin denies it was physical. According to the LA Daily News, which first reported the story, several freshmen players questioned the effort of the team's seniors, suggesting their performances were less than 100 percent. It's not known exactly how serious the confrontation got, but the fact it happened at all is an indication that things aren't right at USC.
But we already knew that. This was simply the final straw that should tell athletic director Pat Haden that his decision to bring back Kiffin next year – a call he made before the Trojans were crushed by crosstown rival UCLA in November – was probably questionable at best.
Let's see, there was the jersey switching against Colorado, the deflating of game balls against Oregon (which resulted in a reprimand and fine by the Pac-12), the late arrival to a dinner preceding the Sun Bowl and the loss of five top high school players who had verbally committed to USC but are now going elsewhere.
The Trojans' first season off NCAA sanctions was supposed to be a coming-out party for Kiffin, who directed the team to a 10-2 record in 2011 and a No. 6 ranking in the final AP poll. With quarterback Matt Barkley returning for his senior year, the expectations for a BCS title were beyond high.
But nothing went right.
The Trojans had plenty of stars – Barkley, Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, TJ McDonald – but they demonstrated little cohesion or passion. The fact they argued among themselves after their final game was little more than a sad statement to a very unsatisfying season.
While the specifics of the Sun Bowl altercation may never be fully known, it seems clear that the team's freshmen players were upset with their older counterparts. Anyone who saw that game, either in person or on television, couldn't help but be surprised at the lack of effort by the Trojans. They went through the motions; they were there, but they weren't there.
Through a USC spokesman, Kiffin said, “Contrary to media reports, there was not a brawl or altercation in our locker room after the Sun Bowl. There was a noisy verbal exchange among a couple players who were frustrated with the outcome of the game. It lasted less than a minute. There was nothing physical. That happens sometimes in football locker rooms after a disappointing loss.”
He's right, frustration often breeds anger in locker rooms, regardless of the sport. But after the season the Trojans endured, this clearly boiled over. It's not something to forget quickly. It reveals problems that need to be addressed.
There certainly must have been frustration that Barkley, who sustained a shoulder injury against UCLA, did not play in the Sun Bowl. According to reports, one player began “bad mouthing” Barkley, questioning why he sat out the game.
In an interview with ESPN radio Wednesday morning, Barkley said, “If you ask some of the guys who were there what happened, they'll negate those claims about people throwing punches and all that stuff or whatever was said. Obviously, in the locker room after that game, which was a loss, there's gonna be words exchanged. People weren't in the best mood, but that wasn't to say we were fighting each other or there was an altercation.”
If you take Barkley and Kiffin at their word, it was frustration talking. But that should be enough to see that trouble could be brewing next season if Kiffin doesn't establish a new culture. The seniors are gone -- everyone else should be pointed in a new direction.
If Kiffin doesn't create a sense of family and passion within the program, much as Pete Carroll did during his successful tenure, there are going to be more 7-6 seasons and more frustration. And that's something that can't be tolerated.
Ultimately, it falls on Kiffin to fix.
And if he can't do it, then Haden will have to.