Column: In Kliff Kingsbury fiasco, USC’s Lynn Swann again shows inexperience as athletic director

USC athletic director Lynn Swann makes another blunder, this time with the Kliff Kingsbury hiring.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Kliff Kingsbury said the USC job was “calling my name.”

He said the USC job “is where I wanted to be.”

Asked whether he was at USC to stay, he said, “That’s the plan.”

Asked about the NFL, he said, “I haven’t even thought about it, honestly.”

Kingsbury said these things about two weeks ago in an interview with ESPN’s Shelley Smith. Their conversation took place about two weeks after he was hired as USC’s offensive coordinator and the team’s most important offseason acquisition.

That Kingsbury bolted Heritage Hall after one month and accepted the head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals on Wednesday makes him look like a con man.

But, perhaps worse, it makes the USC athletic department look like fools.


In their third coaching fumble since the departure of Pete Carroll — they haven’t gotten it right since — the Trojans were swindled like a hayseed sitting at a street corner shell game, and they have nobody to blame but themselves.

Pictures in the News | Wednesday Jan. 9, 2019 »

An experienced athletic director would never have hired someone with Kingsbury’s celebrated cachet without some contractual assurances he would stay.

Lynn Swann has shown again he is not an experienced athletic director.

A savvy college administrator would have understood that without those contractual assurances, Kingsbury would be vulnerable to the several head coaching openings that pop up in the NFL every January. He would have known that everyone would be looking for Sean McVay clones like Kingsbury, and he would have waited until Black Monday cleared up before trying to hire him.

Swann, while a seasoned politician, is anything but a savvy college administrator.

A tough and decisive leader of USC’s most visible department would have made certain this was never an issue by simply hiring quarterback guru Kingsbury to replace Clay Helton as head coach.

But Swann didn’t want to get his hands dirty, and now the place is really a mess.

Instead of firing Helton, which would have been the merciful move and one that was endorsed by most of Trojan Nation, Swann figured he could quiet critics by bringing in the hottest coaching candidate on the market, but he didn’t think it through, and now he has just made the problem worse.

Last month, the Trojans won that moment, but now, once again, they’ve lost the day.

Now, not only does Helton seem like a lame duck, but he’s a lame duck running an offense his bosses have proven they don’t trust.

Now, knowing that USC cannot hire and keep a top coach for even a month, recruits have to wonder whether the entire staff is one lame duck.

Have you checked out their schedule next season? Their first six games? They are against Fresno State, Stanford, at Brigham Young, Utah, at Washington and at Notre Dame.

Looking at how those teams finished this season, the Trojans could reasonably start 1-5, and, with Helton on the hot seat, and no heir apparent, what happens next?

The support of their wonder-boy quarterback JT Daniels will also be more fragile after Kingsbury declared the job would be open during spring football. Now that Kingsbury is gone, even if Daniels is reinstated as the permanent starter, folks will point to the guru’s observations and wonder.

Stepping back from this smoking wreckage, nothing is more tenuous here than the continued contributions of USC’s generous football donors. Some are surely looking at Swann and wondering how much money they want to keep pouring into a program, especially the ongoing Coliseum renovation, for a team that has again fallen into chaos under his leadership.

His one job — face it, his only job — is to hire and handle the USC football coach. He didn’t do his job when he failed to act on Helton. Then he did an even worse job when he tried to use Kingsbury’s hire to sugarcoat his failings.

As for Kingsbury, give the con man credit. He played his mark like a pro. Remember, before he joined the Trojans, he was out of work. Texas Tech had fired him. He probably realized he would have more contract leverage if he were employed, so he grabbed the Trojans job.

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It would be one thing if Kingsbury really intended to stay at USC and was surprised by the NFL offer and felt compelled to jump at it. That’s understandable. But considering NFL rumors were swirling around him even before he arrived, and considering he worked for the Trojans for only a month, the only reasonable conclusion is that he used USC for all it was worth.

And what did it cost him? A reported buyout of only $150,000? The Trojans walked away from that shell game not only without their wallet, but without their pants.

There is shame on Kingsbury, certainly, but that’s apparently who he is. A bigger shame falls to USC and Swann, who has turned a smart, sophisticated and historic football program into a trending punchline.

They should be better than that. They must be better than that.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke