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Thursday, November 29, 2012
Monte Kiffin's move leaves a sad aftertaste

By Mark Saxon

If you were paying even casual attention to USC football, you’re probably not exactly floored by Thursday night’s announcement that Monte Kiffin is stepping down as USC’s defensive coordinator.

Monte Kiffin
Opponents rolled up an average of 500 yards on Monte Kiffin's defense in USC's five losses this season.
It felt for a while as if this was coming. Things just weren’t working out and somebody named Kiffin was going to get caught in the line of fire.

They certainly didn’t work out this season, when defensive breakdowns were the primary reason USC probably is headed for the Sun Bowl when virtually everyone expected them to be vying for a BCS title shot or, if things sputtered, the Rose Bowl.

When the Trojans were playing the spread offenses that are so typical in college football now, things didn’t really work out the previous two seasons for Monte Kiffin defenses either. Sadly, the primary snapshot of Kiffin’s tenure at USC will be a Trojan defender flailing on an open-field tackle.

If you’re a conscientious father seeing your son get pummeled on a daily basis by fans and the media, Thursday’s action was really the only decent move. Monte Kiffin, 72, said he’s stepping aside to “pursue opportunities in the NFL,” but had he not done what he did it was only a matter of time before his son, Lane, also was in pursuit of other "opportunities."

If you root for this team, you’re probably not overly saddened by this development either.

In USC’s five losses this season, opponents gained an average of more than 500 yards. For a team that has fattened the NFL with some of its brightest defensive talent over the decades, that’s embarrassing. Veteran USC observers had never seen a team run up and down the field on USC as Oregon did while running up 62 points at the Coliseum a few weeks ago.

But you also have to pause for a moment and recognize something uncomfortable. USC isn't going to get back to the glory of the Pete Carroll years as swiftly as so many people had hoped. When Mike Garrett hired Lane Kiffin two-and-a-half years ago, fans were probably more excited about the assistants he brought with him than about Lane’s return after a short and uninspiring adventure.

Monte Kiffin carried an aura as the founder -- or, at least, co-founder (along with Tony Dungy) -- of the “Tampa 2” defense that finally started slowing down those nickel-and-dime-to-death offenses that Bill Walsh dreamed up. Kiffin was also Carroll’s mentor, and you don’t have to say much more than that to get people excited around USC.

He's as respected within the profession as any coach in America. He was fun to be around after practices, the way he talked relentlessly about how good the opposing coaches were, how dangerous the opponent was (even when it was Minnesota or Washington State) and said things like, "Gosh darn it! I'm serious now."

Of course, what springs to mind is that, at his age, Kiffin just couldn’t make the necessary changes the job demanded. Twenty-six years in the NFL didn’t prepare him for an Oregon.

Who knows who the next face of the USC defense will be. Does Ed Orgeron deserve to step into the No. 1 chair? Is Gene Chizik the answer? Randy Shannon?

The point is, it was time to bring in a fresh set of eyes, a fresh look at the problem. Considering USC has the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation coming in next season, I’m still not convinced the Kiffin era at USC is over just yet.

We can say for sure that the Kiffin era of USC defense is over, and that's not entirely encouraging.