TEMPE, Ariz. – Pat Haden knows Lane Kiffin is in a thankless position.
The USC athletic director has researched other schools that have been hit with severe scholarship reductions and knows it will be years before the Trojans are contending for national championships again.
He also knows that coaches of programs hit with rough sanctions usually don't see the light at the end of the tunnel when the sanctions are finally lifted. Someone has to pay when a proud program hits rock bottom, and in college sports that person is usually the head coach first, followed by the athletic director if the subsequent head coach fails to deliver.
If Haden admits that USC's 62-41 loss to Arizona State on Saturday night is the program's rock bottom -- and he really should -- he knows what he needs to do next.
Kiffin isn't the only reason the Trojans were blown out by the Sun Devils. There is a laundry list of reasons for that, but Kiffin is the one holding that list right now, and there's a responsibility and consequences that come with that.
Haden never wanted to make an in-season coaching change, but it has become increasingly clear that he has to do so to save this season, change the direction of a program spiraling downward and salvage a disappointing recruiting class that figures to only get worse as this season continues. As it stands now, USC's current recruiting class isn't even listed in ESPN's Top 40.
Before the season started, Haden recorded an online message that said Kiffin was not on the hot seat and that he was behind Kiffin 100 percent. That's probably what he thought and believed at the time. But there's no way he could have imagined USC's giving up 62 points (tying the school's most ever allowed) to Arizona State and losing its first two conference games.
Haden had always hoped Kiffin would rise to the challenge of the job even in the face of NCAA sanctions, and if not, that his eventual demise would coincide with the end of the scholarship limitations, so he could go searching for a premier head coach to take over a football program with a full slate of scholarships. Things, as Haden has learned on the job, don't always go the way you plan them, and desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures.
Although at this point, making a coaching change wouldn't really be viewed as a desperate measure by USC fans. It would be viewed as a move that probably should have taken place after last season's disappointing 7-6 season that began with a No. 1 preseason ranking.
Kiffin understands that the talk about his job status will ratchet up this week with USC having a bye week after its worst performance of the season.
"I'm fine with that," Kiffin said. "I have been dealing with that for 12 months. That's fine. That's the last thing I'm worried about. We have to find a way to coach better and play better and get our backups ready."
The problem is the Trojans simply have not improved under Kiffin's watch, and whatever adjustments he and his coaching staff are making at halftime don't seem to help much either. USC's offense has been shut out in the third quarter of six of USC's past eight games dating back to last season.
After Tre Madden scored on a 24-yard touchdown run to open up the third quarter against Arizona State and give the Trojans a 21-20 lead, the Sun Devils responded by scoring two touchdowns in less than a minute and outscoring USC 28-0. Arizona State led 62-34 with less than three minutes left before it put in its reserves and USC scored a late touchdown.
The performance of USC's defense, which had looked so good through the first four games of the season, was terrible and a bad omen for a team that will face offenses more potent than the Sun Devils later this season. Remember, this was an Arizona State team that lost to Stanford 42-28 just last week. USC made Arizona State look like Oregon. The Sun Devils' 62 points and 612 yards of total offense were not only their most ever against USC, but their most ever in a conference game in more than a decade.
"Unfortunately, a disastrous third quarter for us was a big part of the game," Kiffin said. "We are, obviously as you can see, an extremely beat-up team, so we'll need guys to step up and play like some guys did in the second half."
Haden and Dave Roberts, USC's vice president for athletic compliance, met with NCAA president Mark Emmert and other officials this week in Indianapolis after the NCAA decided to reduce sanctions levied against Penn State, looking to get similar relief. The NCAA took about 24 hours to turn that request down. Kiffin has often said he will not to use the scholarship limitations as an excuse while, well, using it as an excuse. Kiffin has recently started to highlight the injury risks of having fewer players available. The school went as far as to state "USC traveled to ASU with just 55 recruited scholarship players" in their postgame notes.
After the game, Kiffin said Marqise Lee probably wouldn't have been returning a punt in the fourth quarter of a blowout if Kiffin had another punt returner at his disposal. Lee injured his left knee on the play and was carted off the field. His status is unknown.
"It is what it is," Kiffin said of the scholarship numbers. "Everybody's got problems, and we're just trying to maximize the situation that we're in."
Under Kiffin, however, the Trojans have been unable to maximize the situation they are in, and it's only getting worse. It's time for Haden to realize that and make the move he knew he would have to make at some point to salvage this season and the future of the program.