January 13, 2010
It's obvious why Lane Kiffin wanted to bolt to Southern Cal, even if it meant playing the heel after a single season in Tennessee to do it: USC remains one of the richest, most storied, most talent-laden powerhouses in the country, supplied by sunny, fertile recruiting grounds that Kiffin knows well from his days as a Trojan assistant. But even the locals are stunned that USC would spring for a 34-year-old with a 12-21 record as a head coach and a series of high-profile embarrassments in dealing with his peers and with the NCAA alike.
Why would one of the nation's elite programs want a relative neophyte who was chased from his first head-coaching gig by an outraged owner and from his second by flame-wielding students threatening to turn the campus into a riot zone? Here's what USC gets from Lane Kiffin:
• Players love him. All you need to know about Kiffin's reputation among players and recruits is this: The instant that massively hyped wide receiver Kyle Prater -- who had backed out of his commitment to USC after Pete Carroll's sudden resignation over the weekend -- heard that Kiffin was filling the job, he reaffirmed his commitment to the Trojans. Vol commitments, on the other hand, are suddenly heading for the hills -- as the father of one recruit told the Knoxville News-Sentinel, “I bought into the man instead of buying into the university." At least seven UT commitments have backed out following Kiffin's departure, one of whom (highly rated receiver Markeith Ambles) says he may follow Lane to California instead.
Current USC players, some of whom were recruited to L.A. by Kiffin, were universally positive about the hire, especially to have a coach who's familiar with USC and the vibe of the program they signed on to. On the same note ...
• He's "basically a Pete Carroll clone." That's Trojan running back Marc Tyler describing Kiffin Tuesday night, and it obviously weighed heavily in his favor that Kiffin is probably the closest living approximation to the man who built the wavering dynasty his former protegé now inherits -- they're both energetic, obsessed (and often unorthodox) recruiters determined to create a high-intensity atmosphere based on never-ending competition. Kiffin is so devoted to the Church of Carroll, his main thrust at Tennessee was to turn the Vols into the "USC of the South."
In his mind, USC is the program -- so much so that he apparently considered it consolation to the fuming hordes in Knoxville that L.A. is "the only place [he] would have left to go" -- and he's determined to recreate the halcyon days he remembers as an assistant.
• Norm Chow (Probably). Though it was Kiffin pulling the strings as coordinator of the dominant 2005 offense that ultimately came up a yard shy against Texas in the Rose Bowl, Chow's acrimonious exit from the staff has been lamented by USC fans for years as the moment the Death Star began to lose its edge. It was Chow who turned quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart into Heisman Trophy winners, and who guided one of the nation's highest-scoring attacks to national championships in 2003 and 2004 -- when, it must be noted, Kiffin is largely credited with fetching sandwiches. Chow's return to the fold from UCLA was so integral to Kiffin's own return that many reports suggest Lane had to agree to (or possibly even guarantee) a package deal with Chow to swing the offer, and at least one indicates that USC contacted Chow about the offensive coordinator position before it even knew who the head coach was going to be -- perhaps even letting him name head-coaching candidates he could live with.
That sequence of events still falls very much into the realm of speculation, as does Chow's status on the staff: He was still in Florida this morning at a national coaches' convention. USC players, however, seem convinced Chow is coming aboard.
• If all else fails, he's a placeholder. USC is staring NCAA sanctions squarely in the face within a matter of months, a blow that threatens to turn last fall's regression on the field into a permanent degradation of the dominant program of the last decade. Kiffin and his merry men may not be able to stop the decline; if things go really poorly, they may actually accelerate it. But if the combination of Carroll's departure and significant sanctions from l'Affaire de Bush promise to make some sort of backward step inevitable, a gamble like Kiffin is a better choice to burn those years on than a legitimate slam dunk. If this roll of the dice hasn't paid dividends three or four years from now, the money, tradition and recruiting opportunities will still be there, and so will the potential slam dunk candidates.
And if it has paid dividends, Trojan fans, don't be surprised when Pete Jr. slinks away in the middle of the night to the desperate NFL franchise du jour in 2011.