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Sunday, September 29, 2013
USC can learn from Kiffin experience

By Steve Bisheff

If nothing else, the ugly aftermath of the Lane Kiffin era is clear.

USC would be wise to give Boise State head coach Chris Petersen a look.
USC should never be a proving ground for head coaches. It should be a place for only a head coach who already has demonstrated the ability to win at this level.

That should be athletic director Pat Haden’s mantra as he begins the coaching search that will dictate the Trojans’ football future.

Get a proven guy. Don’t gamble with someone who looks the part. Go with someone who already KNOWS the part.

Much of the early speculation has centered on Jack Del Rio, currently the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos. Del Rio is a former Trojans star with deep USC roots, a ruggedly handsome guy who would look great in front of the TV cameras.

But Del Rio had limited success in his lone head-coaching attempt at Jacksonville and has no coaching or recruiting experience at the collegiate level. This is not to say he couldn’t get the job done. Maybe he could. But again, you’d be rolling the dice.

At USC, you don’t have to do that. The rich tradition and history of the program is such that this is one of the more coveted jobs in the sport. This is the place where John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll coached. This role that should be reserved for the potential giants of the business.

If Haden follows that game plan, three names should be at the top of his list: Boise State’s Chris Petersen, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin. All three are bright, young, energized coaches who have been overwhelmingly successful at the collegiate level and would bring instant impact and prestige to the program.

What Petersen has done at Boise is phenomenal. One can only wonder what he might do given the resources and facilities of USC. Much the same can be said for Fitzgerald and Sumlin, who both have resurrected tattered programs and taken them to startling new heights.

The sad lesson of Kiffin’s rocky tenure is that you don’t rush to hire someone who doesn’t have the proper résumé. In the wake of Carroll’s departure four years ago, that’s precisely what former athletic director Mike Garrett did.

Garrett’s intentions were good. He wanted someone who had been around USC and knew how to keep the recruiting pipeline going. Kiffin qualified in those areas. Unfortunately, what he didn’t qualify in was the most important area -- the ability to coach.

He was fired by the Oakland Raiders and had struggled at Tennessee. So what exactly were his credentials to become the new USC head coach? There really weren’t any, but Garrett hired him anyway. It has proved to be one of the more grievous mistakes in the history of USC football.

Much like Steve Lavin when he was rushed from a graduate assistant into the hallowed basketball head-coaching position at UCLA, Kiffin was overmatched from the start. He banned fans and even rich donors from practice, appeared to have a general disdain for the media and generated more off-the-field controversy than he knew how to handle.

From deflating footballs to changing player numbers, from banning opposing teams from practicing the day before games at the Coliseum to being in the middle of a mini-locker-room revolt after a disastrous Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech last season, Kiffin never could seem to get his equilibrium.

The stress from NCAA sanctions certainly figured into it. But overall, whether it was a defense that suffered terribly under his dad for a couple of years or an offense that staggered through the end of last season and first four weeks of this one, the problems continued to pile up.

To me, the defining moment of his USC coaching career came early in that fateful final night in Arizona. The Trojans were looking good, moving the football in more creative ways, throwing downfield and running well. They had taken a 14-7 lead and had the ball with a third-and-9 in the second quarter when Kiffin made the call only he could make. It was a bubble screen to Marqise Lee, who was promptly tackled for a loss with defenders all around him. USC punted, Arizona State quickly scored the tying touchdown, and the whole momentum of the evening changed.

Stubborn to the end, Kiffin lived for the bubble screen and eventually was buried by it.

It was at some point early in the second half of that same game when you knew it was over for the beleaguered coach. As what seemed like a much-improved Trojans defense collapsed under the pressure of it all, eventually coughing up an unheard-of 62 points to the Sun Devils, you realized it was no longer of matter of if, but only a matter of when.

If nothing else, firing this wildly unpopular head coach five games into the season should temporarily stop the cardinal-and-gold bleeding.

Had Kiffin been allowed to continue, the atmosphere would have turned unbearably ugly at the Coliseum. The boos, the signage, the overall discontent would have lingered over the place like the fog on a chilly late-fall Saturday night.

Now fans and boosters can rally around interim head coach Ed Orgeron, a well-meaning, deeply dedicated man who will do everything in his power to get through the rest of the season with some of USC’s dignity intact.

Then it will be up to Haden. The former star quarterback and Rhodes scholar will be asked to make the most important decision of his brief career as an athletic director.

Be smart about this, Pat. Learn from what happened with Kiffin.

Whatever you do, don’t let USC make the same mistake twice.