Lane Kiffin was doomed from the start

USC Coach Lane Kiffin directs his players during summer camp, when the Trojans were ranked No. 25 in the nation in a preseason poll.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Lane Kiffin was never the long-term solution for USC football.

He was an eleventh-hour poker play in 2010 by former athletic director Mike Garrett, a desperate short-term move to save a program from the NCAA sanctions that were about to be handed down under Garrett’s arrogant watch.

Garrett fooled us all by hiring a coach under NCAA investigation at Tennessee to a school going on NCAA probation.


How brilliantly sinister!

Never mind Kiffin lacked the credentials or the pedigree, he was a not-too-distant member of Pete Carroll’s old glory guard.

Kiffin, a former Carroll assistant, was a stopgap brought in to save Garrett and, more important, a recruiting class.

One out of two wasn’t bad. One scouting service touted in Kiffin’s USC media guide bio: “To the recruits and parents we’ve talked to, USC hired Vince Lombardi.”

Garrett’s career was not salvageable, but Kiffin seemed reasonably qualified to hold together the center.

The weak premise held all the way through halftime of Saturday’s debacle against Arizona State. USC trailed only by six, 20-14, remember?

The final was 62-41, and no USC coach, no matter how unfair the conditions, survives giving up that many points to a mid-level Pac-12 team.

Even Athletic Director Pat Haden, who put his own reputation on the line in his unwavering support for Kiffin, had to relent.

The deed was so dirty it was done surreptitiously, in an airport holding room before dawn’s early light.

Everyone must know by now that Kiffin was set up to fail by Garrett first and then by the scholarship losses that ultimately bled the program dry. The NCAA doesn’t rip you of 30 bodies over three years because it wants you to win the Pac-12 title.

The collapse came like a dam break, as USC’s training staff kept hauling Trojans players off the field at Sun Devil Stadium. It got so bad the Trojans had to play Robby Kolanz, who worked in the school’s sports information office last year, at wide receiver.

USC took only 56 scholarship players to Saturday’s game, well short of the NCAA maximum of 85.

“He really worked under some very difficult NCAA sanctions,” Haden said Sunday of Kiffin. “No doubt about it.”

I always thought Kiffin was a suitable interim answer to an impossible situation. No coach was going succeed with the limitations set forth by the NCAA. At least Kiffin was energetic, worked hard and could recruit.

His job would be to hold the fort through the sanctions until a bigger name became interested.

Going through what Kiffin did doesn’t look good on one’s legacy resume.

The smart ones know how to play it.

Alabama was hit with similar NCAA sanctions in the early 2000s that were aimed at setting the program back a few years. And they did.

In Tuscaloosa, poor Mike Shula got the job of being booed during the down years.

Nick Saban was smart enough to know Alabama was going to be Alabama again someday. He became the head coach just as scholarship restoration was taking hold.

Saban would need only one hardship year, in 2007, when he lost to Louisiana Monroe at home and ended up 7-6.

Saban has never won fewer than 10 games in a season since, earns more than $5 million a year and has led Alabama to three national titles. A statue of him stands not far from Bryant-Denny Stadium.

USC is Alabama in 2004. Lane Kiffin is Mike Shula, aka “The Caretaker Coach.”

Shula fooled Tuscaloosa through a 10-2 year in 2005. Kiffin did the same at USC in 2011.

In a few years, we’ll look back and say Kiffin did as well as you could expect for someone who, in ordinary times, should not have been USC’s coach.

Kiffin saved recruiting classes that included great players such as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

Despite crippling sanctions, Kiffin incredibly produced hope that led to a No.1 preseason ranking in 2012.

Then reality stepped in and led the Trojans all the way to a Sun Bowl loss.

It was still shocking that Haden, the coach’s biggest defender, would fire Kiffin before a rooster’s crow. That is something you would expect from Garrett, but not from an affable, fair-minded Rhodes Scholar from La Puente Bishop Amat High.

It took an extraordinary set of circumstances for Haden to act so brazenly. It happened in the form of one of the ugliest second halves in the history of Trojans football.

Losing to Washington State by a field goal was one thing. Being stomped on by Arizona State, a team that hasn’t won a Rose Bowl since 1987, was not negotiable.

The irony is Kiffin’s inept offense, the trigger for so much booster anger, amassed 542 yards and 41 points against Arizona State. Kiffin’s “Denny’s menu” play card actually produced some “grand slam” scrambles.

It was his defense, ranked No. 4 nationally, that did him in.

Ah, but enough of this first-draft, Shakespearean rewrite.

Longtime assistant Ed Orgeron, who was 10-25 at Mississippi, takes over as interim coach as USC plays out an eight-game string. “Nothing’s changed about USC,” he promised.

What was inevitable simply came to pass.

Kiffin should not be seen as a victim. Just a victim of circumstances.