Watch enough football for long enough, and eventually you'll see everything. I believe this: In this calendar year alone we've seen a one-point safety, a Heisman finalist cop to having an imaginary girlfriend, and a 300-pound left tackle score on a hook-and-lateral, among other improbable feats. And I believe that, at some point, we will see a head coach whose tenure is so far past its expiration date, whose team has so visibly checked out on him, that his bosses abandon all pretense and have him physically escorted from the stadium by security while a game is still in progress. I'm convinced this will happen, because I watched Washington State's 10–7 upset over USC last Saturday in its entirety, and I'm convinced Lane Kiffin nearly became that coach.
The fact that Kiffin's boss, athletic director Pat Haden, felt compelled to respond to the debacle with (yet another) call for patience only reinforces the siege mentality that has gripped the program. After last year's free-fall from the polls over the second half the season, what else is left to see? Saturday was the home opener on the heels of a lackluster debut at Hawaii, and the scene at the L.A. Coliseum simmered with the nervy discontent of a revolt in the making. I wasn't there, but I imagine the air smelled of spent gunpowder, and that all along 34th Street, students were making barricades out of overturned bunk beds and Yaffa Blocks and their parents' S-Classes.
The boos broke out in the first quarter. The offense, which Kiffin fought to keep under his control in the offseason, was conservative to the point of farce. The quarterbacks, both Kiffin recruits, were too inept for it to be anything else. The diminished crowd that remained after the game, having just witnessed the mighty Trojan offense complete a single pass for a first down against a team it had bombed for 45 points per game over the previous decade, responded in the only rational way, by chanting "FIRE KIFFIN!" (Outside, someone amended the Coliseum parking lot appropriately.) Even in a vacuum, anyone on hand who had arrived knowing nothing about recruiting rankings, or the internal rifts that accompanied the collapse of 2012, or the rampant rumors about Kiffin's personal life, still would have grasped fully the depths of his failure.
Since we don't live in a vacuum, we know that this is how it often goes for embattled coaches when they cross the point of no return, as the scales tip irrevocably in favor of the critics. After anger, other phases will follow: Depression as the team fails to pull out of the malaise, bargaining over possible successors, eventually acceptance and probably even some relief when the axe falls. At USC, we've already seen the obligatory staff purge. Now comes the part where frustrated players decide to take things into their own hands. These things can be surprisingly emotional, but in themselves they rarely catch anyone by surprise.
Almost never, though, have so many people seen the disintegration coming from so far away. Before Kiffin coached his first game at USC, there was open speculation about where his abbreviated, hastily abandoned tenure at Tennessee in 2009 ranked among the worst major coaching hires of the decade, enshrining him alongside the likes of Tyrone Willingham at Washington, Greg Robinson at Syracuse, and Mike Price at Alabama for long-term well-poisoning of historic magnitude. (Vol fans nearly rioted following his abrupt, overnight departure for his "dream job" in L.A., but within two years Kiffin's only recruiting class in Knoxville had effectively evaporated, and the athletic director who'd hired him had been forced out. Kiffin's hastily appointed successor, Derek Dooley, went out last year as the first coach to leave Knoxville with a losing record overall since the early days of the Tennessee Valley Authority.) Prior to that, Al Davis had kicked Kiffin to the curb with extreme prejudice just a few weeks into the 2008 season, calling him "a flat-out liar" less than two years after ignoring his utter lack of NFL experience—Kiffin spent the 2000 season as a 25-year-old "quality control" coach with the Jaguars—to make him the youngest head coach in NFL history. At the time, Kiffin looked like the apple-cheeked victim of a terrible ogre and his football politburo. In retrospect, dumping Kiffin was the sanest thing Al Davis did in the last decade of his life.
The challenges to Kiffin's credentials for the most coveted job in college football began before he set foot on the tarmac in Los Angeles. At that point, he was already regarded as a kind of villain, in a playful "I poach recruits, I've been reprimanded by the SEC on multiple occasions, try and stop me" sort of way. He was impulsive and entitled, a frat-boy trust-funder who gave sullen, studiedly bored performances in press conferences as if to convey just how little he needed this media shit. He had already managed to parlay a meh resumé into not one but two high-profile gigs, both of which he seemed to take for granted. Tennessee gave Kiffin everything he wanted. The school made his father, Monte, the first million-dollar college coordinator. After the debacle in Oakland, UT went way out on a limb for Kiffin, stood by him through an uninterrupted series of controversy and petty embarrassments, only to watch him bail at the first available opportunity, having proven nothing.
It's fitting that Kiffin's 2012 USC team began the season ranked No. 1. Unearned privilege has always been his thing. And in any case the best measure of Lane Kiffin is the height from which he falls. (Even before the fall, we were given the spectacle of Kiffin forfeiting his vote in the coaches' poll for lying to reporters about voting his own team in the top spot—he said publicly he had not, until it was revealed that, in fact, he had.) The 2012 Trojans failed to beat a ranked opponent, dropped five of their last six games and became the first team since 1964 to begin the regular season ranked No. 1 and end it outside of the polls altogether. The offense finished dead last in the conference with 34 giveaways. The defense, still overseen by the elderly Monte Kiffin, was ripped for 62 points by Oregon in the worst defensive performance in USC history. At one point, when USC's season began to turn south, even a handful of opposing coaches lined up to take anonymous potshots at Kiffin. In the same article, Kiffin was forced to admit, "With the players we have, we should not be 6-3." It's been all downhill from there.
Has any coach in recent memory managed to accomplish less with more? Every school has its reigning pariah coach, the cautionary tale who looms as a measuring stick for futility by which his successors will be judged after nearly every loss. But very few of them were ever bequeathed a roster remotely of the caliber of USC's, and the ones who were—Larry Coker at Miami, maybe Frank Solich at Nebraska—were at least able to get a couple of BCS bowls out of it before they lost the thread. Alabama, while cursed by a decade of underachievement and unloved coaches between Gene Stallings and Nick Saban, had not yet built the monolithic recruiting empire in those years that it's imposed under Saban. The roster Rich Rodriguez inherited at Michigan was ravaged beyond recognition by attrition; Louisville, despite plummeting from a BCS bowl under Bobby Petrino to last place in the Big East under his successor, Steve Kragthorpe, has never enjoyed first-rate talent even in fat times. Even the despised Charlie Weis coaxed back-to-back BCS bids at Notre Dame out of players recruited by Tyrone Willingham, who was fired in large part for being an indifferent recruiter.
USC, on the other hand, remains as loaded as ever: The one aspect of the job in which Kiffin clearly measures up to his mentor, Pete Carroll, is recruiting. Despite scholarships restrictions, Rivals.com has ranked each of USC's last four recruiting classes from 2010–13 in the top 15 nationally. No team in that span has signed more five-star headliners, including Alabama. Out of 22 starters against Washington State, all but two (offensive linemen Chad Wheeler and Marcus Martin) arrived at SC with at least four-star ratings, compared with one four-star talent (wide receiver Gabe Marks) on Washington State's entire roster. That number includes the highly touted quarterbacks, Max Wittek and Cody Kessler—both in their third year in Kiffin's system—who would have been more productive against Wazzu if they had replaced every passing play with a kneel-down. (At least then Washington State would not have scored a touchdown.) If last year was a clinic in how to blow a golden opportunity, last weekend was a clinic in how to prevent an ostensibly blue-chip lineup from even having a chance.
"We've played two games," Pat Haden reminds us. There is still plenty of time to turn it all around, he says. There is not. Between the Sun Bowl debacle on New Year's Eve and the Washington State debacle, Kiffin and his revamped staff had eight months and several dozen practices. On the other side, every indication from the first two games is that the rot that ate away at last year's team has only settled in deeper. There are 11 games left in 2013, all of them carrying a higher degree of difficulty than does a visit from Washington State, and all that looks like from here is 11 opportunities to make the elusive sideline firing a reality.