Requiem for a Kiffin

from Video

I am not one to suffer losses to inferior coaches well.  This tends to stem from the perception that when a team wins, unless there is a significant disparity in the quality of the two teams, the belief is that the team that won that game was, and will always be, the better team, and not that they were merely the better team solely on that given day.

It may explain why I wrote scathing criticisms of then-Auburn coach Gene Chizik and then-USC coach Lane Kiffin within two weeks of each other last fall.  They are the two coaches who benefited the most in their coaching reputation from victories over Oregon.  Each one found himself ranked #1 in the country shortly following a win over Oregon.  Yet the fact that both were unemployed within two years of achieving that ranking shows how inflated their reputations were, largely on the mindset that by beating the Ducks, they were somehow better than Oregon[1].

So as everyone is quick to pile on Lane Kiffin these last two days as they shovel the dirt on his coaching career, it would make sense that I would be as happy as anyone else.  The public has figured out he was not a very good (head) coach.

Instead, I find myself disappointed, because I loved having Lane Kiffin as the head coach of USC.

The level of mediocrity he brought to the storied program he coached was something I wanted to last forever.  I appreciated how he was good for a guaranteed seven to nine wins.  It was tough when USC won head-to-head recruiting battles for players like Marqise Lee, but I appreciated that he brought tons of four- and five-star recruits to Los Angeles only to never develop them.  Had they played for other schools, those players could have been weapons against the Ducks that could have shifted the scope of the Pac-12 and national title picture.  Instead, those players remained undeveloped and stowed away in the Coliseum, serving as relatively harmless talent until the time they were released into the NFL.

Kiffin didn't see it coming

From Video

Lane Kiffin seemed surprised that he was fired at the airport

While it had been reflexive to root against the Trojans whenever I watched them, I would also find myself disappointed as they began their downward spiral at the end of last season.  Every time USC lost, the seat got hotter for him, and I worried that too many losses could bring his eventual departure.  I wanted him to stay there as long as possible.

I did know that Kiffin would never be a long-term presence at the Coliseum and that the clock was always ticking on a coach who seemed both under qualified and overmatched for the job.  He was at a school where being liked by fans and boosters mattered more than it does any other place and he made himself as unlikeable as possible.  He was USC’s answer to Ty Willingham, the coach who would preside over the descent of a once-elite program into Pac-12 mediocrity.

Where Kiffin and Willingham differed, and why Kiffin met his demise sooner, was because of their personalities.  While Duck fans may have celebrated Washington’s losses, it was hard to root against someone like Willingham beyond his Husky association, as he gave every indication of being an individual of high character.

Kiffin inspired no such feelings.  Whether it was pulling a scholarship from a walk-on to give to a convicted felon, or telling a recruit that if he signed with another school, “he would end up pumping gas for the rest of his life,” he always played the perfect villain.  He was never successful enough to draw admiration, but he always made an effort to come off as unlikeable as possible.

He fired his own father as defensive coordinator to save his job, an effort than bought him an extra five games.  Kiffin couldn’t function as anything other than a football automaton, as there are stories of frustration from his days as a coordinator when head coach Pete Carroll would do things like checking his stocks at the office, only to draw Kiffin’s ire for doing things that weren’t football related at the office.  He wanted to focus on football all the time, which gave him even less depth of personality and further distanced him from having any semblance of likeability with fans. 

Lane Kiffin's future is so bright he has to wait, that's not right...

From Video

Lane Kiffin’s future is so bright he has to wear…no wait, that’s not right…

What will be fascinating is where Lane Kiffin goes from here.  For most people in highly successful jobs, their career is a slow climb to the top, and when that time at the top ends, it either coincides with a typical retirement age or they have secured a parachute for their exit.  Kiffin’s rise was meteoric.  He was a wunderkind coach whose rise to the top happened as fast as anyone in history.  He remains the youngest coach hired in NFL history, getting the head coaching position with the Raiders in 2007 at the age of 31.  Despite holding two other jobs since then at Tennessee and USC, he is still only 38 years old, still younger than Mark Helfrich or Steve Sarkisian, both of whom are still in their thirties.  Yet it’s hard to fathom what path he will take next, with his reputation tarnished and a repeated history of leaving every bridge behind him torched.

Kiffin’s next career decision will be as fascinating a question as any in recent memory.  Does he return to being a coordinator?  Does he find some smaller school willing to take a chance on him?  What about Canada?  Broadcasting seems unlikely considering Kiffin’s disdain for the media and their reciprocal attitude towards him.  Or, given his personality, is it possible he could leave the game behind entirely?

Wherever he goes, he is no longer on the Trojans’ sideline.  He is no longer a part of their destiny.  The program will move on, and search for its next coach.  Kiffin’s absence creates hope again for disgruntled USC fans, and the potential for the realization of that hope is why I am sad to see Lane Kiffin gone.


[1] I’m sure Auburn fans will flood the comments below with some “we were the better team…so-on-and-so-forth…get over it…” noise.  Then I will point to the fact that Oregon’s coach in that game is now in the NFL, while Auburn’s coach is working as a broadcaster in satellite radio, which is a totally normal thing for national championship-winning coaches to do within three years of their title.



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