"I anticipate the media will ask me if our football coach is on the hot seat this year. Here is my answer and will be my answer whenever I'm asked: He is not. I'm behind Lane Kiffin 100 percent. I have great confidence in him. He's a very hardworking, detail-oriented coach. He's a dynamic play-caller in my estimation, and he's an exceptional recruiter. He knows USC, and he knows what it takes to be successful here. ... We all know the second half of last year was disappointing, but I firmly believe we'll bounce back strong this season. We have a lot of good players. We have made positive additions to our coaching staff as well. I understand that many people judge a coach by the win-loss record. But as the athletic director, I must look not only at that but a lot of other things that are important to us at USC. There are many factors, including academics, NCAA compliance, community engagement, the character of his players and any off-field issues. Lane Kiffin gets very high marks in all of these areas. All of these things -- including winning -- are important to us."
-- USC athletic director Pat Haden, two months ago
So what changed? How did Haden go from this statement of support to firing Kiffin at the Los Angeles International Airport early Sunday morning? Had the Trojans suddenly become scholastically slacking, NCAA rule-breaking, aloof bad guys in eight short weeks? Of course not. But they had lost to lowly Washington State at home in Week 2 and given up 62 points in a loss at Arizona State on Saturday. It's funny how embarrassing blowouts can make an AD forget all those things he claims to hold so dear.
Haden and USC president Max Nikias huddled on the sideline in Tempe during the second half of Saturday's 62-41 humiliation. Maybe they made the decision right then and there. Maybe Haden watched Kiffin call for a pass on fourth-and-one from his own 41-yard line and decided his July estimation of Kiffin's play-calling ability was hilariously erroneous. What's wrong with a pass on fourth-and-one? Nothing, except when the coach has the quarterback split out wide and asks a running back to throw the pass.
When the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis lamented his decision to hire Kiffin as that franchise's head coach, we wrote it off as the rambling of a man whom the game -- and possibly reality -- had bypassed. Now? Davis seems downright prescient. Kiffin left a dumpster fire at Tennessee that a second coach is still working to extinguish, and now Kiffin has set USC's program ablaze as well. He will certainly blame his failure with the Trojans on the harsh NCAA sanctions, and he'll be partially correct. But even unprecedented and unfair sanctions couldn't make USC a Pac-12 doormat. Kiffin may have done that all by himself.
In 2011, this seemed impossible. Kiffin went 10-2. He beat Oregon in Eugene. But he has done nothing else in his career to suggest that year was the norm and not an anomaly caused by the maturation of Pete Carroll's final few recruiting classes. Kiffin's teams in 2012 and 2013 have appeared listless and rudderless, and Haden couldn't deny the obvious any longer.
Though Haden certainly must regret sticking his neck out for Kiffin in July, credit the AD for pulling the plug before the inevitable cratering. This was only going to get worse. As USC players hobbled off the field on Saturday with little on the sidelines to replace them, the immediate future must have looked awfully bleak. If the Trojans had a coach whose play-calling genius gave them -- to borrow a phrase from another play-caller whose reputation far outstrips his accomplishments -- a decided schematic advantage, then the NCAA-mandated depth issues might not have been of such grave concern. But when Haden looked over at Kiffin, holding his play sheet in front of his lips so television cameras couldn't capture the genius tumbling from his mouth, he probably realized the situation was hopeless.
USC has eight games remaining in 2013. Of those, only one (Colorado) can be reasonably penciled in as a USC win. Several look like toss-ups. Two (Stanford and UCLA) look like bloodbaths. So, with a bye week coming up, Haden jettisoned Kiffin to allow the players time to adjust to a different voice.
Haden could have waited, but that would have been silly. The best philosophy has always been the one espoused by Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, who said this to The Associated Press in 2002 after firing his baseball, men's tennis and gymnastics coaches in quick succession: "I'm a big believer in the saying that if something needs to be done eventually, it needs to be done immediately," Foley said.
Why let the fire intensify? USC has to endure one more year of NCAA sanctions. The Trojans can sign only 15 players, and they already have commitments from almost half that number. (And frankly, any player who decommits because he had his heart set on playing for Kiffin probably isn't a player USC wants.) The recruits in the class of 2015 -- USC's first full class post-sanctions -- now know the program will have a new leader. They'll be paying attention. When USC does name Kiffin's replacement likely in November or December, he'll have more than a year to put together that class.
The other benefit to firing Kiffin now is it gives USC a head start on hiring that new leader. While the Trojans won't make direct contact with any coach still involved in his regular season, they can begin making backchannel contact with representatives of various coaches. By the time hiring season begins in earnest, Haden will know exactly who is interested and exactly who might fit. Plus, USC will get a head start on that other old-money program that likely will need a new coach. Texas seems too dysfunctional at the top to realize what must be done eventually, so the Longhorns will have to play catch-up.
Want names? You'll see plenty. Jack Del Rio, Chris Petersen, Greg Roman, James Franklin and pretty much everyone else who has had success with a whistle will get mentioned. Our first Jon-Gruden-has-a-place-on-Manhattan-Beach message board post is likely only minutes away. But rather than concentrating on a very broad list, let's examine what USC needs.
Basically, it needs another Pete Carroll. Carroll is the only coach to figure out how to win consistently at USC in the past 30 years, but he established a pretty clear blueprint: charismatic coach mines local recruiting hotbed and sells LA to elite out-of-state recruits. Players have fun. Will Ferrell shows up on occasion. But every practice is a cutthroat competition for playing time in a city where every moment is a cutthroat competition for attention. The coach doesn't necessarily need to have Carroll's showmanship or salesmanship, but he needs to realize those elements are essential to the success of the program and ensure the staff meets those needs. He needs to understand that with the available athletes nearby, USC should always have a dominant defense that can reload even when the offense hits down cycles.
Kiffin coached under Carroll, but he and Carroll had little in common. Carroll connected with people. Kiffin is an X's-and-O's lover who acts uncomfortable in the presence of other human beings. The next guy doesn't necessarily have to be as cuddly with the media as Carroll was, but he needs to understand people. (This dichotomy exists. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops wants nothing to do with anyone carrying a notepad, but he is beloved by players, staffers and their families because he knows how to treat humans. He doesn't care how he treats sportswriters.) Haden, a people person himself, should be able to identify this trait fairly well.
Unlike when Kiffin got the job and the impending NCAA sanctions hung over USC like the sword of Damocles, a huge group of accomplished coaches will want this position. The opportunity is too great. Fortunately for the next guy, Haden cut ties with Kiffin before Kiffin could do any more damage.