Lane Kiffin has always managed to stay ahead of the curve, vaulting up the coaching ladder as things fell apart behind him. He flopped with the Oakland Raiders, drew NCAA scrutiny to Tennessee and, with a 25-13 record and no postseason victories, has managed to hold on to an elite job at USC.
But everything changed for Kiffin last season, when the Trojans began the year ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll and tanked so decisively that they lost five of their final six games. In vintage Kiffin fashion, he manufactured more drama than an episode of The Jerry Springer Show: uniform numbers mysteriously changed, balls curiously deflated and he clashed openly with the media. As USC heads into training camp for Kiffin's fourth season at the helm, there is no high-profile coach in the country in a more uncomfortable position.
The most fascinating aspect of Kiffin's upcoming season is that while he's largely responsible for USC's recent struggles, highlighted by last year's 7-6 campaign, he also offers the best hope of reviving the program. He has recruited well. He has made necessary staff changes. Now it's up to Kiffin; he has backed himself into a corner, and at this point in his career, he's the only one who can bail himself out.
No excuses, lawyers or complaints about scholarship restrictions can save him. Kiffin knew he was inheriting a program in transition due to NCAA sanctions in 2010, and there's little argument USC is playing worse now than at the time he took over. No matter what athletic director Pat Haden said in his recent video statement -- aren't those typically reserved for NCAA probation statements? -- Kiffin needs to win this year. He needs to show improvement, especially considering he's just 3-10 against ranked teams as a head coach.
Haden has no choice but to publicly back Kiffin, as all ADs support their coaches until they don't. But Haden isn't oblivious to the obvious: USC collapsed down the stretch last year; Kiffin ran off his father, Monte Kiffin, as defensive coordinator; and the Trojans got humiliated by a team with a losing record in a bowl game. Not only did USC look unprepared against Georgia Tech's triple-option offense last December, but reports emerged after the game of players clashing in the locker room.
"We didn't coach very well, we didn't play very well," Kiffin said. "There are so many bad memories of things."
The most apparent sign of USC's precipitous fall came from quarterback Matt Barkley's slide from a potential top-10 NFL draft pick to a decision-making liability. His 15 interceptions in 2012 severely hurt his stock and prompted fans to second guess Kiffin's skills as a play-caller and ability to develop quarterbacks. Barkley's shoulder sprain forced him to miss the Notre Dame game and the Sun Bowl, a fitting end to a season full of frustration.
"I don't know how it could have gone worse," Kiffin said, "if you were writing a script for things to go bad."
Haden has a vested interest in Kiffin turning things around, as a coaching transition would likely cost USC upwards of $10 million, given the contracts Kiffin, his assistants and his support staff carry. And that doesn't factor in the price tag a new coach would require. USC would likely want to bring in an experienced and successful candidate -- don't ADs always hire opposites? -- who would probably look for a salary somewhere in the $4 million to $5 million range.
Remember that Haden didn't hire Kiffin, and this season will go a long way in determining the coach's future with the school. Are Kiffin's 8-5 debut season and 7-6 finish in 2012 reflections of his coaching reality? Or is he really the type of leader who helped USC to a 10-2 season in 2011, which included an upset of Oregon, his only signature win to date?
From his home in Manhattan Beach, Kiffin holds a keen perspective on the volatile Los Angeles sports scene. He mentioned that the Clippers parted ways with Vinny Del Negro after Del Negro led the team to its best record in franchise history. He pointed out that Dodgers manager Don Mattingly endured a stretch nearly a month ago when his firing appeared imminent. (He didn't mention UCLA coach Ben Howland, but could have.) "And the other team," Kiffin said of the Lakers and Mike Brown, "he was the coach for about seven games. That hit home."
This season will be Kiffin's turn to roast on the LA rotisserie. Many of the flames on the hot seat have seemingly fluttered because of Kiffin's knack for pouring gas on them.
Kiffin has an uncanny connection to trouble, even if he outruns it. Those Tennessee hostesses just happened to go to South Carolina to visit recruits? Well, the NCAA never found Kiffin liable. All the recruits at Tennessee who either busted or got arrested? Kiffin didn't coach most of them. The balls that were deflated for USC's game against Oregon last season? Well, a rogue manager acted individually and without direction.
That doesn't even mention the Trojans' controversial jersey swap against Colorado or Kiffin's often abrasive relationship with local media. The narrative of Kiffin's fourth season with USC is simple: Kiffin needs to grow into the coach the school envisioned he'd become, because Haden is likely tired of waiting.
There are signs at that things could get worse this year. USC is still in the throes of NCAA sanctions, as Kiffin said the Trojans will play with 70 scholarship players this season, 15 fewer than the competition is allowed to have. Kiffin said if USC had been under these restrictions in 2011, it might not have been able to sign star receiver Marqise Lee, arguably the most electric player in college football. In the two recruiting classes since, USC has been forced to withhold 10 scholarships per year because of sanctions stemming from violations committed during the Pete Carroll era.
"Not just 20 less guys that come into our program," said Kiffin "Those 20 guys are playing against us."
When Kiffin watched television copy of USC's opener against Hawaii last year, he said he saw an elite team playing at an elite level with "juice." He said that same juice was sapped out of the program after poor game management allowed Arizona to rally back from 15 points down to upset USC on Oct. 27. So began the spiral of five losses in six games.
Can Kiffin recapture that juice in 2013? He demanded more hitting in spring practice in an attempt to find it, but the Trojans had 20 players miss the spring game with injury. USC is also dangerously raw at arguably the two most important position groups in the Pac-12: quarterback and the secondary. Max Wittek underwhelmed last year in his two starts replacing Barkley, and new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast inherits a secondary lacking depth. The offensive line and backfield could additionally use reinforcements; depth will be a huge issue, as every injury will be magnified because of the thin roster.
Kiffin termed the confluence of circumstances a "perfect storm," though the solution could be a favorable schedule. Of USC's first four games, the toughest test should come against Utah State, which beat Utah last season and had recent near-misses against Auburn and Wisconsin. USC's two biggest conference games -- against Stanford and UCLA -- come at home, and the Trojans avoid playing Oregon and Washington during the regular season. (Considering USC gave up a school-record 730 yards and 62 points against Oregon last fall, that's a huge break.)
Upon reviewing last season, Kiffin said he considered giving up play-calling duties, but mostly because he considered everything. He is acutely aware of criticism, noting at different times how his perceived lack of emotion and his propensity to throw to Lee too frequently have been questioned. Despite the outside perception, Haden and Kiffin have built a strong relationship. But Haden needs to see more out of Kiffin the head coach, as the only thing Kiffin has done consistently well is recruit.
"What have you done for me lately?" Kiffin said with his classic smirk. "That's sports nowadays and that's LA for sure."
Entering this fall, there's nowhere for Kiffin to run, and no more patience for losing. The only place he can turn is to the mirror, where Kiffin sees the cause and potential solution to all of his problems.