Lane Kiffin deserves most of blame for USC's disappointing season
LOS ANGELES -- A USC team manager backed up Lane Kiffin's black Mercedes S550 and parked it about 10 feet from the door to the USC locker room late Saturday night. The sleek sedan, with tinted windows, was perfectly positioned to be Kiffin's getaway car after a bad night for the Trojans.
There's plenty to run from this season as USC has imploded from the AP's preseason No. 1 to a three-loss disaster. The Trojans set historic lows against Oregon on Saturday night for both yards (730) and points (62) allowed. And after one of the ugliest nights for a program that began playing football in 1888, the Trojans are in fifth place in the Pac-12, ranked behind rival UCLA in the BCS and appear destined for the Holiday Bowl.
When asked by SI.com how much of the blame is on him and his coaching staff, a subdued Kiffin said, "All of it."
SI.com spoke with 10 opposing head coaches, assistants and NFL personnel types over the past week to examine what's gone wrong at USC. Many of the people interviewed put the blame squarely on the 37-year-old Kiffin, whose team's performance hasn't matched its talent.
"There's no excuses with the players they've got," said a coach who faced USC earlier this season. "It's an embarrassment of riches. You've got to find a way with those guys."
To be fair, Kiffin has had to deal with harsh NCAA sanctions from the Reggie Bush scandal, including a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years (this is the first season the scholarship restrictions kick in). But even Kiffin knows that with the talent flowing through his program he should have had more success.
"With the players that we have, we should not be 6-3," Kiffin said on his Sunday conference call with USC beat writers. "There's only one person for that to fall on -- that's me as the head coach."
In six seasons as a head coach in the NFL (with the Raiders) and college (Tennessee, USC), Kiffin has one signature win -- last year's 38-35 victory at Oregon after the Ducks missed a potential tying 37-yard field goal on the game's final play -- and a handful of bad losses. Kiffin is 0-3 against Stanford, the most inexcusable defeat coming this year. The Trojans also lost to an Arizona State team last season that fired its coach and earlier this season fell to an Arizona squad that UCLA beat 66-10 on Saturday.
Kiffin's star quarterback, Matt Barkley, doesn't appear to be improving, and his draft stock is falling according to NFL executives. The defense that Kiffin's father, Monte, runs (he's the defensive coordinator and reportedly gets paid $1.5 million per year) is historically awful. And the team that Lane himself voted No. 1 in the preseason is now ranked 21st.
Along the way, the immature and embarrassing antics that defined Kiffin's tenure at Tennessee have returned. Already this season he's admitted lying about his coaches' poll vote, pulled off a duplicitous number change to trick lowly Colorado and banned a local beat writer for accurate reporting.
"I think at this stage [Washington coach] Steve Sarkisian is a better coach," said an NFL personnel director. "When those two came out there were Golden Boy 1 and Golden Boy 2. I think Steve is the better coach."
It all adds up to a hot mess in in L.A. With a career record of 36-31 in six seasons as a head coach and a 3-8 record against ranked opponents as a college coach, some are still wondering how Kiffin got here.
So what's gone wrong this year? Everything.
For all his star studded recruiting classes and creative ways he's handled USC's scholarship restrictions, Kiffin lacks the coaching acumen to match his recruiting prowess. No coach interviewed said that the Trojans lacked talent. But many pointed to the lack of discipline, as USC's 9.44 penalties per game lead the nation by a landslide, even after committing just three against Oregon. (UCLA is next with 8.89). Multiple coaches pointed to two other weaknesses of Kiffin -- poor game management and the appearance that Kiffin goes for style over substance. USC poorly managed the clock in its loss to Stanford last season and couldn't hold a 15-point lead deep into the third quarter against Arizona. Kiffin was also criticized for not spiking the ball on a last-ditch drive at the end of the Arizona game, a 39-36 loss.
"Don't get me wrong, he's a bright, young guy," one coach said of Kiffin. "He really is, but he doesn't have the patience, I don't think, or the maturity to understand that if you win 7-6 that's just as well as winning 70-6, and your guy doesn't have to break every record in America. He's out of the Heisman business. Go about your business winning games."
On his headset Saturday night, as USC failed to force Oregon to punt until the game's waning minutes, Monte Kiffin said he heard consistent pleas from his son.
"Can we get a stop here?" Monte recalled Lane asking him. "Can we slow these guys down?"
USC never did. In back-to-back weeks, the Trojans have given up a combined 1,318 yards to Arizona and Oregon. Long after Saturday's game ended, Monte Kiffin's voice was hoarse and he appeared overwhelmed after the worst consecutive weeks of a coaching career that spans nearly a half-century.
"It's mind boggling," he said. "I've never heard of that many yards. It's mind boggling."
When Lane Kiffin re-entered the college ranks as head coach at Tennessee four years ago, having his father -- a respected NFL assistant -- as a coordinator appeared to be one of the strengths of his staff. But Monte Kiffin could now be viewed as a liability as he's shown an inability to adjust to college spread offenses.
"Spreading the field all the time seems to be a little bit of an issue for him," said one NFL executive.
Monte Kiffin, 72, said he's not concerned about his job -- "You can't think that way," he says -- but both he and his son said something needs to change with the Trojans' defense, which is ranked 65th in the nation.
"We have to re-evaluate the whole thing," Monte Kiffin said.
USC has tried to recruit more agile players to combat spread teams. Monte Kiffin called around the Pac-12 last year looking for clues on how to stop the spread, according to one coach. This past summer, Monte even visited the coaches at Nevada to try to figure out how to stop the zone read, a foundation of Oregon's blur offense. The Ducks' fast-paced attack has concepts from the pistol offense, which was invented by Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault.
The biggest indictment of the Trojans' inability to stop Oregon on Saturday night came from Monte Kiffin himself. He said Oregon didn't do anything fancy on offense or even run the option. They simply ran tailback Kenjon Barner on stretch run play after stretch run play. USC had no adjustments or answers as Barner gained 321 yards and averaged 8.4 per carry.
"We just have to do a better job coaching," Monte Kiffin said. "I take full responsibility."
Matt Barkley entered the season as the clear Heisman favorite, but he's now out of the race after throwing 10 interceptions, three more than all last season. He's tossed two picks in each of USC's three losses, and a phantom pass interference call saved him from a third interception on Saturday night. Barkley's completion percentage is down nearly four full points from last year -- 65.2 from 69.1 -- and his celebratory return press conference and media coronation as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft seems like ancient history.
"People are going in there and saying, 'This is the top guy?'" an NFL personnel director said. "All the writers anointed him the top pick before the season began. But the scouts come out of there saying, 'He really doesn't make great decisions. He's not a polished guy like an Andrew Luck or a Matt Ryan.' He's got some flaws. He's just not the king."
Barkley said he has no regrets about returning for his senior season despite the three losses and deflated statistics. When asked by SI.com if he feels he's improved this year, Barkley said, "In certain ways, yeah. Absolutely. In the things that I wanted to. There's always going to be stuff that I'm going to have to get better at."
Some opposing coaches have been impressed with Barkley, complimenting his quick release, accuracy and ability to evade the rush. He has 30 touchdown passes and threw for 484 yards and five touchdowns in the Oregon loss. Others have been more skeptical, crediting the talent around him including the precocious receiver tandem of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
"He's a product of a system," an opposing coach said. "He's got a lot around him. Andrew Luck didn't have nearly the same skill around him. He did it despite not having first-round receivers."
The preseason narrative of the golden haired USC quarterback returning to school to revive a program from its scandal-tainted past is now shredded.
Barkley's two interceptions against Oregon looked like freshman mistakes, a horrible decision on a ball in the end zone and a rushed throw after he evaded pressure. Those aren't the types of throws that seniors make, especially in a game where USC couldn't afford to waste any possessions.
Consider the NFL much more skeptical, especially after Matt Leinart's career has flat lined and Mark Sanchez's is in decline.
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Things will likely get worse for the Trojans next season before they get better. Barkley graduates and will be replaced by an inexperienced starter, likely Max Wittek. USC has two more seasons with 75 scholarship players, as a lack of depth has clearly haunted them season. That won't change going forward.
"I don't think we'll have depth for a while," Monte Kiffin said. "That's what people don't realize that the scholarship [limit] is, the numbers are down. In the old days, I'm sure SC had guys stockpiled."
The brightest hope for USC's future is Lee, who had a jaw dropping 877 all-purpose yards in the Trojans' losses to Arizona and Oregon. Lee is the country's most electric player, could end up as a Heisman finalist this season and will be a favorite for the Heisman in 2013.
But USC's reliance on Lee (the Trojans also use him on kickoffs) also underscores its depth issues. "I think that's caught up with them a little bit," said an opposing coach, noting the poor performances against up-tempo offenses.
At Lane Kiffin's two previous coaching stops, the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Volunteers, he baffled everyone by somehow landing better jobs despite not accomplishing much. With a team in shambles, his father looking overmatched and his quarterback failing to live up to expectations, it's unlikely that Kiffin will fail upwards again.
Kiffin's Mercedes stayed parked outside the USC locker room until long after the game on Saturday night. He'll need more than a sleek getaway car to escape the mess in Troy.