What an interesting time it is for college football. Lane Kiffin and Paul Pasqualoni were fired from their jobs last week–Kiffin from USC and Pasqualoni from UConn–after only three years of coaching. After The University of Southern California suffered a loss to Arizona State this past Saturday, Kiffin was let go. Finishing his career at USC with a 28-15 record amid difficult NCAA sanctions, Kiffin’s coaching at USC isn’t universally perceived as failure. For USC athletics, and their fans, however, it’s failure with a capital F. ESPN’s Ted Miller says it best:
The problem with coaching USC is you’re coaching USC. If you don’t really understand what that means, then you’re doomed to fail.
Miller, of course, is alluding to the expectations that come along with having the title of head football coach at USC. Before the season started, athletic director Pat Haden expressed that he was behind Kiffin “100%.” However, throughout his time as head coach, talk as to whether or not Kiffin ever “fit in” or “looked the part” at USC wasn’t exactly uncommon. Considering the aftermath of his firing, it’s clear that Kiffin could not meet the demands of his position.
Football programs like USC, Alabama, Notre Dame, and many others, are among the “super programs” in which perfection is not only expected but demanded. These super programs, after experiencing a time of success, long for this perfection. It’s almost as if, after the glory of the Reggie Bush/Matt Leinart years, USC will accept nothing less than titles and sold-out stadiums, or at least a trajectory toward such. The bar has been raised, and it will never go down. Alabama went through the same cycle after winning the national championship in 1992, firing coaches like they were throwing away Little Debbie wrappers. Florida fired Ron Zook after falling short of Gator glory, only to hit the jackpot with Urban Meyer…and now ‘Bama is dominating the land with their own golden ticket, as it were. Perhaps you think referring to coaches as Little Debbies, golden tickets and jackpots is dehumanizing–you’re right. And yet such dehumanization is the inevitable result of a relationship–be it an institutional or human one–in which productivity is the sole purpose.
In his recent piece, addressing the factors that went into Kiffins firing, Gene Wojciechowski–in a very poignant manner–offers insightful comments, relating to our subject:
The stories will say that Lane Kiffin had lost a fan base, lost his team and lost too many games by too many points. And the stories will be true — Kiffin’s biscuits had been burning on the coaching hot seat for days, weeks, months.
But if we’re going to put on our truth helmets, the stories should also say that Kiffin was fired because an athletic director lost his resolve. He was fired because USC alums and boosters, almost prideful in their arrogance, think a roster of 56 scholarship players — oops, make that 55 with the loss of the team’s only true star, wide receiver Marqise Lee – shouldn’t affect the Trojans’ program.
Pat Haden, the AD who just two months ago said he was “100 percent” supportive of Kiffin, decided he was zero percent behind his coach after Saturday evening’s 62-41 loss at Arizona State. This is the same AD who said he would judge Kiffin not just by wins and losses, but by other factors, including academics, NCAA compliance and the character of his players.
“And Lane Kiffin gets very high marks in all of those areas,” Haden said at the time.
What a joke. Of course it was about the wins and losses. It’s always about the wins and losses at USC — and, to be fair, at almost any other major college football program.
While Wojciechowski isn’t exactly sympathetic toward USC, there’s some genuine insight into the ruthlessness of athletic departments. Even Kiffin, after having a not-so hot year at USC, affirms Wojciechowski’s thoughts:
Kiffin knew his job was on the line. He knew it when we spoke for nearly two hours this past January. He said then that he had to win eight or nine games this season — and they had to be the right eight or nine games.
“When you’re a sports figure and people dislike you, they’re going to look for the negatives,” Kiffin said. “Once you start rooting against somebody, you’re always going to look for the negative in everything they do.”
A vast majority of the USC/Kiffin conversation centers around the notion of justice. “Did they fire him too soon?”…football analysts ask. Perhaps USC should have given Kiffin more time to prove himself as a coach. Perhaps Kiffin’s time at USC was doomed from the start, having inherited the USC sanctions that stunted/delayed success. Make no mistake about it: Kiffin’s time at USC is a time from which grace is utterly absent; and that’s a sad time indeed. Ted Miller says it well:
Kiffin was unquestionably burdened with tougher circumstances than many coaches who take over college football superpowers. Yet such an explanation only goes so far in this win-now age.