Why Lane Kiffin was USC's best choice

Lane Kiffin registered a perfect 10.0 on college football’s Richter scale Tuesday night when he accepted the head coaching job at USC.

The move comes less than two weeks after he completed his first season as the head coach at the University of Tennessee. During his only year in Knoxville, the Volunteers went 7-6, ending with a 37-14 loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

There are so many different ways to dissect and analyze this stunning news that it will be hard to cover it all in one fell swoop.

When the news first broke on Friday night that Pete Carroll had agreed in principle to leave USC for the Seattle Seahawks, my mind immediately jumped to Kiffin as the natural replacement. It made more sense than anyone else, I thought.

Just like Carroll, Kiffin is the cocky, smooth-talking bottle of energy and enthusiasm that is required to be the Trojans’ head coach. They both are dynamite recruiters (Kiffin served as recruiting coordinator under Carroll at USC), making signing five-star recruits seem easier than inviting freshman girls to a frat party.

Kffin’s first full-time assistant coaching job was the tight end coach under Carroll in 2001. For the first six years of his career, he learned the tricks of the trade in the midst of the longest-running dynasty the sport has seen in decades.

Coaching college football and coaching at USC are two entirely different animals. Nowhere else can players go and party with B-list celebrities on a weekly basis. There is not another school in the country where Snoop Dogg makes routine appearances on your practice field.

Kiffin learned how to coach at USC, not anywhere else. Even when he took the job at Tennessee last December, it was clear he was taking a Carrollesque approach to the job. It worked in the short term as the Vols’ landed a consensus top-five recruiting class two months after he was hired.

That approach injected vigor into a program that was quickly losing its luster. In hindsight, it is now easy to see that Kiffin clearly had his eye in other places. Of course he did. To say that Los Angeles and Knoxville have anything in common is like saying William Chung is this generation’s Elvis.

He knew what he was doing. While he may not have expected to be in Hollywood so quickly, Tennessee was not a long-term solution for Kiffin. He was lucky to even be offered the Volunteers job in the first place at age 33 and with only a 5-15 record with the Oakland Raiders to claim as head coaching experience. He didn’t pick Tennessee; instead it fell into his lap.

And for everyone who calls this move Bobby Petrino-esque, think a little deeper. Petrino was at a second or third-tier school (Louisville) when he entertained an offer by a first-tier school (Auburn), although he was much too underhanded during the process. He then took an NFL job in Atlanta, and quickly realized it was not the place for him, when he left in the wee hours of the night to head to back to the college game at Arkansas.

The Petrino Way is widely known as one that moves from job to job all too frequently, just looking for the next big splash rather than establishing a solid program. Like Petrino, Kiffin left the NFL with a sour taste in his mouth and found a prime job in the SEC.

Unlike Petrino, Kiffin just landed the job of a lifetime. In other words, do not expect Kiffin to find a job any better suited for him any time soon. He’s not a vagabond; he is simply a guy who ingeniously crafted a career path that put him on the fast track to his dream.

If Kiffin had taken an assistant job with an NFL team, or even a big-time FBS program, it’s extremely unlikely he would be on his way to LA Wednesday night. The 2009 season served as a yearlong interview for the controversial young coach.

It’s a funny thing about controversy and coach Kiffin. The pair is never too distant. After challenging Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier on the recruiting trail in unprecedented and immoral fashion, several minor NCAA violations have been reported under Kiffin’s watch.

This leads to the biggest question surrounding this hire. Carroll left USC in a state of uncertainty and flux. Reggie Bush’s ongoing lawsuit is cause for concern for the Trojan program, which seems to be on the verge of NCAA sanctions. They are also in the midst of dealing with legal issues surrounding Joe McKnight, the running back whom last week declared for the NFL draft.

Reports say the McKnight situation won’t lead to any penalties from the NCAA, but the Bush issue could wreck the program for a significant amount of time. Postseason bans are possible while unlikely; the biggest hit will come in loss of scholarships.

Kiffin’s track record as a head coach clearly shows he is susceptible to run-ins with the NCAA. Looking back now, Bush was in fact recruited under Kiffin’s watch, and what’s to say he did not play a role in the cash benefit scandal involving the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner? At the very least, it’s not a stretch to assume he could have turned a blind eye to the situation.

Kiffin clearly values winning at all costs. He is willing to bend the rules enough to keep his team safe from punishment, while bringing in blue-chippers by the bushel.

It looks like he will be treading in deep water from the moment he sets foot in Heritage Hall on campus. The rumors are the seemingly inevitable sanctions could be laid down very soon, and it will be Kiffin’s mess to sort out.

If he is able to soldier through the era of probation, this will be a match made in Heaven.

He is assembling an all-star coaching staff already. He will bring his father Monte, one of the most innovative defensive minds in the history of the sport, to the staff from Tennessee. Also accompanying him from Knoxville will be Ed Orgeron, who coached the offensive line at USC in the early 2000s and is one of the most highly regarded recruiters in college football.

The biggest coup to Kiffin’s staff could be Norm Chow, also a one-time Trojans assistant. Kiffin actually replaced Chow as offensive coordinator in 2005 at USC when Chow left to take the same post with the Tennessee Titans. He is now back at cross-town rival UCLA, but ESPN’s Shelley Smith reports USC is working on a deal to bring him back to run the Trojans’ offense once again.

Chow has mentored some of the finest quarterbacks the college game has ever seen. He oversaw the Heisman-winning seasons from Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC, as well as Ty Detmer at BYU. His reputation as the Yoda of college quarterbacks is infamous, and Kiffin is smart in bringing him back to Dagobah, and giving him Luke Sywalker, er…Matt Barkley as his first pupil.

Barkley was one of the most decorated prep quarterbacks since John Elway, and came to USC in 2009 with sky-high expectations. If he can be taken under Chow’s wing for the next two, maybe three years, there’s your 2012 or 2013 first overall draft pick.

Barkley is the epicenter of what can help Kiffin save USC. Assuming the Trojans evade any postseason ban, Barkley can help lead a reeling program back to the top of the Pac-10, salvaging the program’s reputation as one the best in the country. If he can win one Pac-10 championship before leaving for the NFL, it should be enough to let Kiffin do the rest of the work, as the sanctions would soon be lifted.

For reason to believe that the right coach can succeed soon after being taken off NCAA probation, go take a look at that shiny new crystal football in Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban inherited a program that had been riddled with trouble and had just been freed from the NCAA’s grasp.

In three seasons, Saban restored the Tide and all its glory with the school’s 13th national championship. Saban was the right fit in Alabama (though he could probably win a load of games at Alabama-Birmingham), and Kiffin seems to fit the USC mold the same way.

Given the circumstances, USC made the best move they could in the long run. By hiring a Carroll disciple, one who clearly was willing to undergo intense criticism in order to take the job, the Trojans retain continuity to a program that really only knows a certain way of life.

Kiffin knows that way of life. It’s by rocking the world at any given time.


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