In the midst of a truly embarrassing season, USC quickly turned the page by firing Lane Kiffin immediately after last night's 62-41 loss to Arizona State. While the timing is a bit surprising, the action is justified given the Trojans' woeful play that dates back to last season.
Still, Kiffin always seemed set up to fail. Shortly after he took over, USC was hit with incredibly harsh sanctions that have proven to be inconsistent with NCAA penalties handed down at other schools (see: Oregon, Texas A&M, Auburn, Ohio State, and probably Miami, among others). The sanctions have seemed even less justified in light of former assistant coach Todd McNair's successful libel lawsuit against the NCAA in which the court ruled the body was "malicious" in their investigation of him. McNair had been the only alleged link between Reggie Bush's extra benefits from an agent and USC's knowledge of it.
Kiffin's first season was hampered by a wave of defections, as numerous USC bench players were able to transfer without having to sit out a year. Kiffin's most successful year came in 2011, when the Trojans went 10-2 with the largest roster Kiffin was allowed to have, as scholarship reductions hadn't gone into effect. USC would be capped at 75 scholarship players for the next three seasons. In 2012, Kiffin went a disappointing 7-6 after starting the season ranked No. 1 in the country. This year, the team was 3-2, but 0-2 in the Pac-12, and looked outclassed in last night's loss, when they were only able to send 56 players to Tempe.
That all being said, Kiffin didn't help himself much with the job he did both on and off the field. Following Pete Carroll was always going to be a tough task, but Kiffin seemed to lack any of his predecessor's charisma and enthusiasm. Kiffin was constantly at odds with the local media, for reasons that were mostly of his own doing. After refusing to be specific about injuries, he held an embarrassing 30-second press conference last year that brought to light questions about his own maturity that surfaced when he was head coach at Tennessee. Few reporters developed a good relationship with him, and by the end he seemed to adopt an "us vs. them" mentality with the media that never works.
Kiffin has always been an excellent recruiter, but his credentials in that area had begun to take a hit. Last year, after bragging that he'd have a No. 1 recruiting class, several top prospects changed their minds and committed to other schools at the last minute. This year's recruiting class was starting to look less impressive as kids were turning away from Kiffin.
On the field, USC's play was embarrassing. In the first four games, their passing game resembled that of a JV team. Only Kiffin could take responsibility for that, as the passing game was supposed to be his strength as a coach. Yet, despite having the nation's best receiver in Marqise Lee, two QBs who had been in the program for over two years, and host of other talented recruits at receiver and tight end, USC generated virtually no offense through the air until last night. The passing game's failings were even more maddening as their running game had seemed improved, and the defense had been one of the best in the country until last night. From last season through this season, USC simply looked out of sync as a team, and they appeared to be regressing each week.
Now the question is who USC turns to next. Pat Haden has not announced a replacement, but my guess is that he'll name Ed Orgeron as interim head coach. An excellent recruiter and a great defensive line coach, Orgeron did have a three-year stint as the head coach at Mississippi where he went 10-25. He's probably best known for recruiting Michael Oher in the story that inspired the movie The Blind Side. Orgeron has the title of "Assistant Head Coach", so I think he'd get the nod over defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. But unless Orgeron dramatically turns this team around, I'd expect USC to hire a new coach in the offseason.
While USC still has one more season of scholarship restrictions, this remains an attractive job. USC has the money to pay any top coach, they have a terrific new facility in the McKay Center, and they often will have the top pick of recruits in California.
I'd expect USC to make a play for Boise State's Chris Petersen, who has refused offers elsewhere before, but may be enticed by a new challenge and a fat new contract. Another option is Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who used to be the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Del Rio is a USC alum who turned down the Trojans job four years ago. But the timing may be right for him now.
Other names that may come up are Vanderbilt's James Franklin (who can match Carroll's positive energy), Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Fresno State's Tim DeRuyter, and Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.
People will dream about bringing down Steve Sarkisian from Washington, David Shaw from Stanford, or Mike Riley from Oregon State, but that will not happen. I highly doubt that Jon Gruden will come to USC either. One crazy longshot prayer would have Chip Kelly leave the Eagles after less than a season for USC, but don't bet on that.
In any case, it was time to turn the page on Kiffin.