It was Lane Kiffin's occasional habit after watching a play that was drawn up sound but wound up haywire: He'd crouch on the University of Southern California sideline, take his laminated play sheet and spin it in the air between his hands in frustration.
It was like he couldn't imagine how the Xs and Os that were represented in a certain call from that sheet – a call that was supposed to deliver yards, points, victory and continued glory to the Trojans – could instead turn so disastrous with sacks, picks, fourth-and-longs and loss after loss.
Yet it wasn't a typical coaches' sideline rant or rage – all teams have failed plays. There was a certain resignation, a certain stunned playfulness, a certain, well, there goes another one and I have no idea why.
The 38-year-old Kiffin was 28-15 at USC and had lost seven of his last 11 games. It took just an 0-2 start in Pac-12 play for athletic director Pat Haden's preseason declaration of "100 percent" support to drain to zero.
Haden named assistant Ed Orgeron interim head coach later on Sunday, likely because of his head coaching experience at Ole Miss.
Kiffin had his moments in L.A., but the momentum was clearly against him at this point. There were the losses. There was the poor play. There was even a cooling of USC's might on the recruiting trail – even locally. Suddenly it was UCLA that was the hot local program.
The program was suffering from the NCAA sanctions imposed following the Reggie Bush scandal. Scholarship limitations sapped depth, which not only changed the way USC could play, but also practice. Even Kiffin's early success at landing a small group of elite recruits failed to pay off. And the 10 fewer kids he was able to sign each year were showing up elsewhere in the Pac-12, notably over in Westwood.
Perhaps as much as anything, however, were those visions from the sidelines – the spinning play sheet is just one of the take-your-pick visuals of a coach who looked overwhelmed, outclassed or incapable of weathering the considerable NCAA storm.
Kiffin, the son of a legendary NFL coordinator (current Dallas Cowboys assistant Monte Kiffin), was once considered the boy wonder of football coaching when he was hired at age 31 to lead the Oakland Raiders.
He lasted just four games into his second season before the late Al Davis fired him, but that blowup was blamed as much on Davis as Kiffin. By November, Kiffin was tabbed to take over at Tennessee. In an eventful 14 months, he ruffled feathers, won some games, recruited like few others (at least on paper) and seemed set to establish himself as a college coaching presence.
Then his old boss at USC, Pete Carroll, left for Seattle, and Kiffin jumped at the chance to return to California. The move was considered betrayal in Knoxville, Tenn., which says all you need to know about how positively he was once viewed. USC thought it had found the kind of presence needed to navigate the heavy sanctions. Everything looked pretty good – USC won 10 games in 2011 and was preseason No. 1 in 2012.
And then it all turned to mush, Kiffin looking overwhelmed and unable to even diagnose the problems, let alone fix them. He became more humble in his public speaking and a punching bag to comedic fans. Suddenly, L.A. area recruits weren't lining up to commit. USC had just seven players verbally committed, a class that ranked 63rd on the current Rivals.com list.
It was all very un-USC like.
[Rivals.com: Check out USCFootball.com for more team coverage]
So, this was inevitable. Haden didn't bother even waiting until sunrise, didn't even bother waiting until October. The decision was made by USC administrators during the second half of the ASU collapse. Upon returning to LAX, Kiffin was pulled of the team bus and told of his firing in the parking lot, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. The bus was then sent back to campus.
The move allows the Trojans to focus on what – or who – is next. There's a philosophy in college administrating now, most often credited to Florida A.D. Jeremy Foley, that if the decision to change coaches has been made, don't wait until the end of the season to do it.
It's unlikely USC will turn its season around and rebound – that rarely, if ever, works in college football. It does put the Trojans in the front of the line when looking for available coaches, including giving Haden months to not only scout and run background on a potential hire, but also speak with their agents and negotiate (or even recruit).
[Dr. Saturday: USC fires Lane Kiffin]
The USC program isn't fundamentally broken. It still has the location, resources and commitment to win and win big. Sustained mediocrity really isn't tolerable. By bringing in a number of elite talents even in the heart of sanctions, Kiffin actually served the program somewhat well. The new guy, finally freed to recruit fully, finds a cupboard that isn't bare and is about as good as he could expect.
USC may be the most coveted job available this year. With the right head coach, it will be back – soon. Perhaps only Texas, should it part with Mack Brown, would be better, and that's probably a matter of geographic roots.
Right now, USC has the leg up.
So gone, for the time being, is Lane Kiffin and his sideline visuals of spinning play charts and confused frustration. He'll coach somewhere again.
This one didn't work out, though, and the fall was so spectacular, USC couldn't even wait until sunrise to make it official.
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