Lane Kiffin's Last Stand at USC

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2013 is a make-or-break year for Kiffin at USC.

Lane Kiffin's last stand at USC.

Lane KiffinThere are two ways to look at the fallout of Lane Kiffin’s decision to include more contact in USC practices this spring.

On the one hand, the 20 players ruled out for the Spring Game are evidence that even when the coach tries to do something to improve his team — toughening it up by staging more physical practices — it backfires. Dude is just plain unlucky.

On the other hand, putting the Trojans through a more demanding spring with a roster that has been depleted by NCAA sanctions (thank you, Reggie Bush) is the desperate move of a man more interested in preserving his job than caring for his players.

Either way, Kiffin loses. And maybe that’s the whole point here. As he enters his fourth season leading the USC program, Kiffin finds himself in a situation that includes few happy endings. Either he is the man who couldn’t withstand the NCAA’s crippling punishment, or the guy who just didn’t capture the right tone in Troy. Kiffin needs a big 2013 to prove that he is the right man to lead a program that believes it should win at the level of the Pete Carroll era (80–9 from 2002-08), not the 19 years that came before it (133–89–6).

USC athletic director Pat Haden has said: “There’s no reason that Lane Kiffin shouldn’t be our coach.” Haden didn’t hire the former Trojan assistant. These days, that’s a dangerous condition.

“I can’t imagine a better relationship with a guy who didn’t hire you,” Kiffin says.

Kiffin sits in a remarkably perilous position, with critics snapping at him from every corner and UCLA eager to take over control of the L.A. football scene. Yet, he seems strangely calm and determined to remove it all from his world.

“That’s part of this job,” Kiffin says. “You can’t be too high or too low. Some people were telling me 12 months ago, ‘Thanks for saving the program. You’re going to be here forever. You’re our guy.’ Now, I don’t know anything.

“The only thing I can do is stick to our plan and coach the best we can.”

Last season was the perfect confluence of misfortune, bad judgment and just plain absurdity. The Trojans began the year as everybody’s No. 1 team. They had a Heisman candidate under center in Matt Barkley, excellent skill position players, some nasty defenders and plenty to prove after a two-year postseason exile. But after a 6–1 start, the Trojans disintegrated, losing five of their last six, including an embarrassing Sun Bowl defeat against Georgia Tech. Barkley was lost for the season in the loss to UCLA, and Kiffin had some bizarre moments that included barking at reporters, switching a player’s uniform number during one game and using deflated footballs during another.

Lane KiffinIt appeared as if the program was careening toward the surreal, with a stew of poor play and unexplainable sideshows that some said revealed Kiffin’s true nature. There were those who argued that the reason Haden didn’t can Kiffin after the season was that he didn’t want to saddle another coach with the post-probation roster limitations and preferred to let Kiffin ride out the storm before dispatching him. Whatever Haden’s motivation might be, Kiffin is back, and the Trojans are trying to put 2012 as far behind them as possible.
“Last year is dead and gone,” senior defensive end Devon Kennard says. “This is a new team, a new group and new leaders. There are a lot of new coaches. Everything is new. That’s our perspective after the season we had (in 2012). We’re now focused on this team.”

It’s going to be a vastly different outfit than its ’12 predecessor. “We’re creating a new energy,” Kiffin says. Kennard references staff changes, and USC has a new offensive coordinator in the person of former quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Clay Helton. Kiffin removed his father, Monte, from atop the defensive flow chart and brought in Clancy Pendergast, who spent the last three years directing Cal’s D and has six years of NFL coordinator experience. In all, Kiffin’s 2013 staff includes four new coaches, with an emphasis on revitalizing the Trojan offense.

That won’t be easy, since Barkley is gone. Sophomore Max Wittek, who struggled in two starts at the end of last season, is the likely quarterback, and though talented players like explosive wideout Marqise Lee and running back Silas Redd return, there are questions about whether the Trojans can keep up in a conference that features some of the nation’s most potent attacks.

“Things are really different,” Wittek says. “There’s a lot bigger focus on fundamental things, the small, minute details that mean a lot.”

No amount of coaching can change the composition of the Trojans roster, which continues to feel the impact of the sanctions. USC has added only 30 new players over the past two years and has one more year of recruiting limitations.

The impact has been dramatic. Haden told USA Today last November that USC traveled to Stanford with only 56 scholarship players and 14 former or current walk-ons, some of whom had been awarded scholarships. No matter how you slice it, the Trojans have been compromised considerably.

“I think the sanctions do a lot of little things that people don’t realize,” Kiffin says. “They affect our ‘service teams.’ When we go to our 2’s, they are what our 3’s used to be when I was here before (on Carroll’s staff). We’re using more walk-ons. It impacts the way we can practice. But it is what it is.”

Some Kiffin supporters — and Haden counts himself as one — argue that it’s impossible to know whether the coach is actually capable of leading the Trojans to the top of the Pac-12 and into the upper reaches of the college football world, because of the sanctions. Others counter that Kiffin’s 7–6 record at Tennessee, coupled with last year’s collapse, indicate that he is not qualified.

Although there were reports last year that Kiffin had lost some members of the team, this year’s squad seems to have faith in its coach and is approaching 2013 as if 2012 were 30 years ago. To them, the discussion about Kiffin’s future doesn’t matter.

“In the locker room, we’re not worried about that,” Kennard says. “We can’t do anything about that, and we can’t control it. We believe in Coach Kiffin. He has the players’ best interests in mind, and he wants to put us in position to be successful. As a player, I respect that.”

Until Aug. 29, when the Trojans finally “put it on the field,” as Kiffin says, the only thing to do is speculate. This is a huge season for the Trojans — and for Kiffin, who could be fired if the team isn’t highly competitive in the Pac-12. Kiffin isn’t worried, at least outwardly, and insists that he cannot wait for the games to start.

“When you have a season like that, you form a great resolve, and you never look back,” he says.

For Kiffin, that’s a good idea, because he doesn’t want to see who might be coming after him.

Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 Pac-12 Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 Big 12 season.

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