How To Get Sacked: Four Reasons USC’s Head Football Coach Got Fired

A look back at the doomed marriage between the Trojans and college football scion Lane Kiffin

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Kiffin reacts during USC's 62-41 loss against the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday. He was fired just hours later.

Lane Kiffiin arrived at the University of Southern California with the deck stacked against him—in order to be successful as head coach of the school’s legendary football program, he would have to do more than just tread water. Instead, he became a punchline in a visor, with the whole college football world waiting for the day that many believed was inevitable from the start.

Saturday’s 62-41 loss against Arizona State was merely the final blow to Lane Kiffin’s much-maligned tenure. With the defeat, USC dropped to an underwhelming 3-2, just one year after being ranked as the nation’s top team in the preseason Associated Press poll—a precipitous fall with little precedent for one of college football’s most powerful and storied programs. After the loss, Kiffin was pulled off the team bus in an LAX parking lot, and unceremoniously fired early Sunday morning.

The problems for Kiffin began long before the Trojans kicked off their 2013 season. From the very moment he was hired by USC, the visor-wearing, playsheet-spinning football scion seemed in jeopardy of losing the job. Here are the four reasons why he ultimately did:

1. Almost nobody believed he deserved the job in the first place. The head coaching position at USC is one of the top jobs in college football. The program has a history of sustained excellence, enjoys a pipeline to a breadth of incoming talent from California and the southwest, sits in one of the country’s premiere media markets and has notoriously deep pockets. The school’s previous head coach, Pete Carroll, won a pair of national championships and is now the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks—one of six undefeated teams in the NFL. All of this is by way of saying that when Carroll left for the Pacific Northwest after the 2009 season, USC could have chosen practically anyone to take his place.

They chose Kiffin. At the time, the then-34-year-old was the head coach at the University of Tennessee, where he had completed just one 7-6 season in 2009. Prior to that, he had been forced out as head coach of the Oakland Raiders after compiling a 5-15 record in 2007 and part of 2008. He had never had a winning season as a head coach at any level, but he was the son of legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and had enjoyed success himself as the offensive coordinator at USC. For the Trojans, those qualifications seemed sufficient. Others disagreed—vehemently.

2. USC was faced with sanctions from the moment Kiffin walked in the door. This is one thing that Kiffin actually can’t be blamed for, but helps explain his fate all the same. A 2010 NCAA probe ended with the Trojans banned from Bowl games in 2010 and 2011, and the school was docked 30 scholarships over three years (among other penalties), thanks to improper gifts and perks given to former USC running back Reggie Bush.. These sanctions would later work against Kiffin, but not exactly in the way you might expect (more on this in a bit).

3. Kiffin didn’t exactly endear himself to the media. Last month, Matt Hinton described Kiffin as “impulsive and entitled, a frat-boy trust-funder who gave sullen, studiedly bored performances in press conferences as if to convey just how little he needed this media shit.” There’s more than enough video evidence to back up that claim. For example:

4. USC failed to live up to expectations—in no small part thanks to Kiffin. During the Carroll years, the Trojans finished first in the Pac-10 seven years in a row. Kiffin’s job was to return USC to that vaunted status. He did not. Instead, Kiffin’s Trojans never finished higher than 3rd (first in the Pac-10, then beginning in 2011, in the newly minted Pac-12). Those who would point to the NCAA sanctions as a means by which to explain USC’s struggles don’t have much of a leg to stand on: Rivals.com listed each of the last four Trojan recruiting classes among the top-15 nationwide (though that ranking has dropped each year and the 2014 class is poised for a nosedive, currently ranked 63rd on Rivals). So if not a lack of talent, then what?

Most have placed the blame at Kiffin’s feet. The defense, widely heralded as the team’s strong suit, surrendered 612 yards in Saturday’s loss. The offense has struggled mightily in spite of Kiffin’s expertise, unable to advance or protect the ball with any sort of consistency. All the while, Kiffin has seemed overwhelmed and utterly unprepared to solve the issues plaguing his team. At other programs, a few unremarkable seasons while weathering NCAA sanctions would be acceptable—but not at this school, and not with this coach.

Now it’s up to USC to pick up the pieces.

2 comments
jeffjahnke
jeffjahnke

if not a lack of talent, then a lack of depth. your reasons 1, 2, and 3 are all external factors. no one OUTSIDE OF USC believed he deserved the job. he didn't endear himself to the MEDIA. if you ask pat haden, his boss, and the only person who really matters, why he was fired then you'll find out that it was because he didn't put an improved product on the field this season. had we come out of the gates 4-0, your first three reasons wouldn't mean jack, and kiffin would still have a job.

as far as the way you phrase reason number 4, it has always been my firm belief that kiffin (who everyone admits may not be the best x's and o's guy, but a helluva recruiter) wasn't brought on to return USC to glory, but rather to help USC weather the sanctions by recruiting the best possible classes given the circumstances. Had you asked me when he was first brought on, I would've said that he would've been kept on until the end of this season regardless. Once the sanctions ended, my guess is that SC would've fired him and then brought on someone who could coach to help return SC to glory. But, all that aside, i think he accomplished his mission of recruiting the best possible talent given the huge hole we were in scholarship wise.

I don't want to come across like a lane kiffin apologist, though. the bottom line is that he wasn't winning games and that's why he (deservedly) was fired. i agree with haden's decision and, as a fan, am excited to see where we go from here. 

Rio
Rio

It takes a lot to overcome the loss of 30 scholarships.  Not many coaches are going to do well with that problem.