Lane Kiffin has suffered through the slings and arrows from media and fans during all three of his head-coaching stops, so the distinguishing aspect of USC's news conference on Sunday over his termination was that no one said anything bad about Kiffin.
Athletic director Pat Haden, who deemed it "disrespectful" to talk about his upcoming coaching search, started by thanking Kiffin and lauding his effort. He said he had received no complaints about Kiffin from assistant coaches or players. Interim coach Ed Orgeron said Kiffin was always receptive to him and said he would have handled the early-season QB controversy the same way. The players said they had been 100 percent behind Kiffin.
Haden also again noted that Kiffin had been handed a tough job. Severe NCAA sanctions undoubtedly made it more difficult to win like USC is accustomed to winning.
And yet ...
"I’ve said all along, we’ve graded on a curve," Haden said, "but we failed on the curve, too."
Haden said he made his final decision during the Trojans' 62-41 loss at Arizona State, but he also noted that "this has been brewing for a while. It hadn't felt particularly good, even since the Hawaii game."
Haden said he and Kiffin met for 45 minutes at the airport after the USC charter landed around 3 a.m. Haden admitted that Kiffin was blindsided and fought for his job.
"Lane was clearly disappointed," Haden said. "Lane is a great recruiter. He battled me. He really tried to keep his job and I respect that."
There will be changes with Kiffin gone. For one, Orgeron said QBs coach Clay Helton will take over as offensive coordinator and playcaller, though Orgeron added that he didn't think the offense would change much philosophically. Cody Kessler will remain the starting QB.
Orgeron also said USC will again open practices to the media.
"I want us to have some fun over these next eight games and let the chips fall where they may," he said.
Of course, the first question is whether Orgeron has a chance to become permanent head coach. Orgeron was head coach at Ole Miss from 2005 to 2007, so he knows the basics of running a program and he has a long history at USC, ranging back to the glory days under Pete Carroll. To this, Orgeron would merely say he is focused on the Trojans' next eight games, but he didn't seem to want to close the door on the possibility.
It will be interesting to see how the players react. Orgeron is as fiery a coach as there is in the nation, and his intensity works on players in practice, games and in recruiting. But can he re-motivate a team that is pretty media savvy when it comes to saying the right things to reporters at news conferences but that also seems pretty indifferent on the field?
We'll get our first impression when Arizona visits on Oct. 10, a Thursday night game.
Said Orgeron, "We're here to answer the bell."