- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
That's the lesson learned by Lane Kiffin, who was fired shortly after the team's charter flight landed in Los Angeles early Sunday morning after his team's 62-41 loss at Arizona State, the school announced before any reporter could claim the news story prize.
Kiffin went 28-15 in three-plus years while the Trojans were buried under difficult NCAA sanctions, but the key span is the past 11 games. He lost seven of those, essentially starting a downturn just after folks started to wonder if he actually might be a good coach.
If you can recall USC in December 2011, the Trojans were coming off an impressive 10-2 season that included a win at Oregon. Quarterback Matt Barkley shocked many when he announced in front of a strategically placed Christmas tree during a Heritage Hall news conference that he would return for his senior season to take care of "unfinished business."
That, of course, meant a Pac-12 and national title.
The Trojans headed into the 2012 offseason overbrimming with talent and expectations. They were ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP poll. Yet, little thereafter went well. And that falls, not unfairly, on Kiffin.
He just never seemed capable of getting out of his own way and just coaching his collection of athletes, which in just about every case were more physically talented than the guys on the other side of the field.
Did USC have depth issues due to scholarship reductions? Sure. But that didn't change the fact that the area where USC consistently seemed to be most lacking was coaching, in terms of preparation, motivation and execution. And the offensive play calling, which Kiffin refused to give up despite pointed criticism, was fundamentally flawed in one simple way: The plays Kiffin called more often than not didn't work.
He too often tried to be clever or tricky. He also seemed to react poorly when things weren't going well. An early sack or turnover would seemingly spook him into an overly conservative plan. His complicated schemes seemed simplistic and predictable in execution compared to simpler schemes from other Pac-12 programs that seemed more imaginative and effective.
Further, USC had been eclipsed not only in the Pac-12 by Oregon and Stanford, it also had lost ground to its previously struggling rivals, UCLA and Notre Dame. Trojans fans are demanding as a whole, but losing to the Bruins and Fighting Irish is a deal-breaker.
Kiffin was most consistent as a recruiter, even with scholarship limitations. But the downturn even caught up with that. The Trojans presently have only seven commitments, and they are not ranked among the nation's top 40 classes.
USC remains one of the nation's best college coaching jobs. The high school talent in the surrounding area is among the best in the country. The school also has the resources to make the next coach among the nation's highest paid.
Athletic director Pat Haden likely decided to make a decisive move now so he could get a head start on his search. No sense in allowing the ship to continue to sink. He'll immediately start getting back-door feelers from NFL and college head coaches and top assistants -- many probably already have made inquiries. Lots of names will circulate, from Boise State's Chris Petersen, to St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, to Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, to Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, to Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.
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.
While he flickered potential during the 2011 season, his ultimate downfall was this: His teams never consistently looked like USC should. And he never consistently looked like a guy who should be fronting USC.