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Recruiting defections: the price of uncertainty

2/6/2013

If you find yourself wondering about the future of Lane Kiffin a lot these days, imagine if you were about to entrust your teenage son to him for the next four or five years.

Now, imagine if you were that teenager, about to embark on the most exciting, difficult challenge of your life.

If you were that parent or you were that kid, wouldn't you want to have at least a sliver of certainty about what you were signing up for?

Wednesday, the haze around USC's football program started to have a corrosive effect. It sent young football players scrambling for daylight. USC tried to clear up the fog, to little effect. Athletic director Pat Haden said repeatedly he was behind Kiffin in the final days and weeks of a painful 7-6 season. The public never seemed to buy it and, it would seem, neither did the people with so much more at stake: the big-name recruits.

The Trojans' recruiting class took a pretty punishing tumble in the past few weeks that is reminiscent of the final few weeks of the season, from No. 1 to No. 8 to No. 14. That's where it stood, according to the ESPN recruiting guys, on Wednesday, after all the faxes had landed on national signing day. Blue-chip recruits whom the Trojans coaches were on chose to disperse all around the country -- to South Bend, to Kentucky, to -- worst of all, from the perspective of the USC football offices -- Westwood. Yeah, there's that -- UCLA had a better-regarded recruiting class than USC, even if the comparison is absurd since the Bruins signed twice as many players.

Whoop-de-doo, right? The Trojans still landed plenty of quality players, experts tell us. ESPN's guys said 12 of the recruits rated four stars, saying, "the quality in the Trojans' class is as good as any in the country." USC loaded up on defensive talent and, if you watched more than five minutes of any game this season, you're probably not surprised that was the focus. If five of them turn out to be great and five of them turn out to be contributors, the program could be just fine in the next few years. Plus, the Trojans were able to stash a few extra scholarships for 2014.

If recruiting is such an exact science, why does Oregon finish out of the rankings every year and yet dominate the Pac-12?

I'll answer that. It's coaching, not just X's and O's, but the fostering of a stable, thriving program, which kind of brings us full circle. This public perception of uncertainty around Kiffin is becoming unbearable. If you think Haden is tired of answering reporters' questions about Kiffin, imagine how he must feel at cocktail receptions with big-money boosters. Those scenes are probably three times as grueling for Haden to navigate.

It's pretty clear Kiffin is here for the 2013 season, his fourth. To dismiss him now would be unfair to the players who just signed letters, against a riptide pulling away from USC. It would create the impression Kiffin was being held in lame-duck limbo just until the ink dried on Wednesday's class. It wouldn't give the Trojans much time to find a good replacement.

So, disgruntled USC fans may as well face it: They're stuck with this guy for a while. And look on the bright side: If things go poorly next season, they'll get their wish and Haden will finally pull the trigger. If things go well, things will have gone well. It's a win-win, in a weird way.

So, for now, Wednesday was just another sign. Times aren't stable for USC football and they're certainly not thriving.