Commentary

Does USC deserve better?

Latest loss, like the four previous, goes to show Kiffin is not a great coach

Updated: November 26, 2012, 2:32 PM ET
By Arash Markazi | ESPNLA.com

LOS ANGELES -- The room Lane Kiffin uses to conduct his postgame news conferences, much like the rest of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, is old.

It's a small space between the home and visiting locker rooms that reporters crowd into after games. While reporters sit in plastic folding chairs in front of a makeshift dais, Kiffin rattles off as many clichés as he can in less than 10 minutes.

On most nights it's quiet enough to hear Kiffin flip through the final game statistics in front of him.

After USC's 22-13 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday, it was so loud in the room it was hard to hear Kiffin speak. The thin walls separating the visiting locker room and the media room were no match for Notre Dame's singing, chanting and dancing after the game.

It was a seemingly nonstop celebration throughout Kiffin's news conference.

Notre Dame, which began the season unranked, finished as the undefeated No. 1 team in the country and were headed to the BCS National Championship Game. It was everything Kiffin dreamed he would be celebrating with his team. Instead, he was trying to make sense of an inexcusable 7-5 season, during which USC became the first team since Ole Miss in 1964 to start the season as the No. 1 team in the AP poll and completely fall out of the rankings by the end of the season.

"It's very difficult for everyone in our locker room with so many things not going well this season," Kiffin said. "I was hoping today we could finish different with a backup quarterback and be part of history in knocking them off and knocking them out of the national championship game."

That's essentially what this season devolved into for USC: trying to spoil other teams' seasons. They couldn't even do that well, losing to every ranked team they played and failing every big challenge with which they were faced.

Every team USC defeated this season had at least five losses, three had at least nine losses and the combined record of the teams they beat was 32-51.

It doesn't take a great coach to beat up on inferior competition and rack up seven wins. It takes a great coach to win the other five games in tangling with top-ranked Oregon and Notre Dame at home and facing Stanford, UCLA and Arizona on the road.

Kiffin has shown time and time again this season that he is not a great coach.

The numbers certainly bear that out over the course of his career as a head coach. He is now 37-32 as a head coach with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Volunteers and USC. He is the first USC coach since Paul Hackett to lose at least five games in two of his first three seasons and the first since Larry Smith 20 years ago to lose his first two home games against Notre Dame.

It's one thing to fall short of the national championship at USC, but it's quite another to lose to UCLA and Notre Dame. USC hasn't done that in the same season since 1995.

Some within the program were quietly surprised when Pete Carroll got a standing ovation last month when he was included in a video montage congratulating Matt Barkley on setting the all-time school and conference touchdown record. They wondered if there would be any hard feelings from fans after Carroll left USC before the football program was hit by severe sanctions.

Any ill will, however, was seemingly overshadowed by Carroll's record at USC, which included just two combined losses to Notre Dame and UCLA in nine seasons. Kiffin already has three in just three seasons.

Kiffin's defenders will point to how well he has navigated the program through the troubled waters of NCAA sanctions, which included a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three seasons.

While Kiffin has excelled as a recruiter, he hasn't exactly excelled as a coach. Others have fared far better in similar or more difficult situations. Urban Meyer led an Ohio State team dealing with a bowl ban and scholarship reductions to an 11-0 record this season, while Bill O'Brien, against all odds, led Penn State to an 8-4 record after nearly having the program shut down for a season due to scandal.

Prior to the Notre Dame game USC athletic director Pat Haden said Kiffin's job was safe next season, and there's no reason to think he'll go back on his word. But Kiffin's employment next season will likely mean the unemployment of several of his assistant coaches, most notably his father, Monte Kiffin, who led USC's defense to a historically poor season. His defense gave up the most points, touchdowns and yards in school history against Oregon and allowed an average of more than 500 yards per game in their five losses.

Monte's "Tampa 2" defense looked as out of place in the college game as Hackett's West Coast offense was before he was run out of town.

While USC's defense has been dreadful this season, it was actually Kiffin's play calling on offense that drew the ire of Trojans fans late in their loss to Notre Dame and encapsulated the season. With four tries from Notre Dame's 1-yard line, USC couldn't score; failing on two quarterback sneaks, a handoff and an incomplete pass.

As Kiffin finished his final news conference of the regular season, he became emotional when talking about Barkley, who missed the chance to play in his final game at the Coliseum with a shoulder injury he suffered in the loss to UCLA.

Kiffin gave Barkley a big hug before his quarterback walked onto the field for the last time, sans the helmet and pads he had worn as a starter since he was a freshman. The two had embraced when Barkley bypassed a chance to play in the NFL to come back for his senior season to take care of "unfinished business." This was not the way Barkley was supposed to end his collegiate career.

"It's just wrong; that shouldn't happen to that kid," Kiffin said. "He had already kind of lost it earlier in the day at one point. I just felt for him. My heart just felt for him. I can take it. This is my job. That kid didn't deserve for it to end like that. It's really sad."

Sad is probably the best way to describe USC's season. Most would agree with Kiffin that Barkley and the Trojans deserved better. Time will tell if Haden feels the Trojans deserve better than Kiffin moving forward.

Arash Markazi

ESPNLosAngeles.com