Commentary

Haden couldn't support a sinking ship

Originally Published: September 29, 2013
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

The stories will say that Lane Kiffin had lost a fan base, lost his team and lost too many games by too many points. And the stories will be true -- Kiffin's biscuits had been burning on the coaching hot seat for days, weeks, months.

But if we're going to put on our truth helmets, the stories should also say that Kiffin was fired because an athletic director lost his resolve. He was fired because USC alums and boosters, almost prideful in their arrogance, think a roster of 56 scholarship players -- oops, make that 55 with the loss of the team's only true star, wide receiver Marqise Lee -- shouldn't affect the Trojans' program.

[+] EnlargePat Haden
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesPat Haden said earlier this season he was fully behind Lane Kiffin. Obviously that's no longer true.

Pat Haden, the AD who just two months ago said he was "100 percent" supportive of Kiffin, decided he was zero percent behind his coach after Saturday evening's 62-41 loss at Arizona State. This is the same AD who said he would judge Kiffin not just by wins and losses, but by other factors, including academics, NCAA compliance and the character of his players.

"And Lane Kiffin gets very high marks in all of those areas," Haden said at the time.

What a joke. Of course it was about the wins and losses. It's always about the wins and losses at USC -- and, to be fair, at almost any other major college football program.

Haden is a lovely guy. Smart and engaging and he cares deeply about his alma mater. But he saw too many empty seats at the Coliseum and heard too many criticisms of Kiffin from the USC constituency. So he buckled to the pressure and fired the coach five games into the season.

Make no mistake: Kiffin is a polarizing figure. He was comfortable within the confines of the football facility cocoon, but not so comfortable with the politics and the schmoozing required at a place such as USC.

Kiffin knew his job was on the line. He knew it when we spoke for nearly two hours this past January. He said then that he had to win eight or nine games this season -- and they had to be the right eight or nine games.

"When you're a sports figure and people dislike you, they're going to look for the negatives," Kiffin said. "Once you start rooting against somebody, you're always going to look for the negative in everything they do."

Haden found the negatives. USC lost the home opener to Washington State. It lost big to ASU. The program, in his eyes, had become inert. But you can't have it both ways. In the same seven-day span, you can't plead with the NCAA to reduce the severe scholarship sanctions that cripple your program and fire your head coach. That's hypocrisy. And that's what Haden did.

Kiffin had his many flaws, but he also had, through no fault of his own, those many scholarship limits. The cumulative effect of those sanctions (2015 will be the first season USC can have the full complement of 85 scholarship players) severely affected the depth chart. The Trojans have talent, but not enough of it, especially in the difficult Pac-12.

Don't believe me? Ask Alabama coach Nick Saban what it was like to deal with NCAA sanctions when he was at Michigan State. They make a difference.

Of course, USC followers don't want to hear this. They just wanted Kiffin gone.

In retrospect, the worst thing Kiffin ever did was go 10-2 in 2011 while under those NCAA penalties. Ranked No. 1 to begin the 2012 season, USC started 6-1 and finished 1-5 -- and out of the rankings altogether. It was a spectacular fall and it left Kiffin vulnerable and isolated. Haden stood by Kiffin -- and then he didn't. He reacted to the boosters, to the attendance figures, to the success of crosstown rival UCLA and to a loss in the desert.

Kiffin was never going to win a national championship this year. But he could have reached a bowl game. He could have won seven, possibly eight games. Given USC's roster limits and USC's list of injuries, that would have been a season worth admiring.

Instead, Kiffin is out and assistant Ed Orgeron is in. The ridiculous expectations remain the same.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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