Double shock: USC falls, and Pat Haden says Lane Kiffin to return
Outside, amid the swaying and chanting of thousands of fans in soggy blue ponchos, shock pelted the Rose Bowl like the cold rain.
Inside, in an equally stunning turn of events, Lane Kiffin was safe and warm.
In answering a question about his job security moments after an embarrassing 38-28 loss to UCLA on Saturday, the increasingly embattled USC coach said his position for next season had been assured and later told me to call Athletic Director Pat Haden to confirm.
I did, and he did, Haden delivering the news that will stun many Trojans fans as much as their formerly top-ranked team’s absorbing only its second beating by the Bruins in 14 years.
“Lane is my head coach, 150%, now and hopefully for a long time,” Haden said in a phone interview. “I see the future. I see the potential. I know what he’s been fighting through and I like what he’s done.”
Forget the deflated footballs and switched jerseys, is there anything more head-scratching than this? A struggling USC coach receiving a vote of confidence after a loss to UCLA? Just another day in the wonderful Land of Kiff.
“Were our expectations too high? Maybe,” Haden said. “But I see a lot of positives, a lot of things to build on, and I hope Lane and I are together a long time.”
It appears Haden gave Kiffin the news earlier this week. Good thing, because this game couldn’t have helped his cause. As usual, his team started without much intensity or focus, fell behind early, then watched a dramatic comeback thwarted by dumb penalties and silly turnovers.
When it ended, Matt Barkley was on the sideline in apparent pain, his USC teammates were slipping around the field in confusion, and the Bruins had become so empowered, their openly devout running back was finishing it with a gesture of nastiness.
Yes, that was a throat slash executed by Johnathan Franklin after he scored the clinching touchdown in the final five minutes on a 29-yard run around a handful of helpless Trojans tacklers.
Not since Paul Hackett was the coach have I seen a USC team so humbled by the Bruins. Never would I believe a 50-0 score — last season’s USC win — could turn around so far, so fast.
The biggest differences between the two seasons have been a quarterback and a coach. Here we all thought Kiffin and Barkley were this town’s star duo when, in fact, it has become The Scowling Jim Mora and The Unstoppable Brett Hundley.
Is it any wonder lots of us have been critical of Kiffin? Is there any surprise that, with the Trojans down 24-0 midway through the second quarter, folks were calling for him to be fired at halftime? Heck, after a bad loss in this game last year, the Bruins’ Rick Neuheisel was fired two days later. Before Saturday, the three bad USC losses, heaped on top of many distractions, led some university insiders to believe that Kiffin had to win his remaining games to keep his job.
Turns out, those predictions were as misguided as the two penalties and missed field goal that cost the Trojans their best chance to steal back this game during an ill-fated drive late in the third quarter.
Trojans fans can cry in their cardinal-and-gold Hawaiian shirts, but their coach isn’t going anywhere.
“Coaches live and die with wins, but athletic directors look at everything,” Haden said. “Lane has graduated 83% of his seniors so far. He has committed no NCAA infractions. He’s recruited tremendously. He’s been fantastic in many ways.”
While many alumni are furious about the sort of play calling that on Saturday had Barkley throwing to freshman Jahleel Pinner on an important fourth down — the kid tripped and the pass was incomplete — Haden talked about how Kiffin is still struggling to deal with the effects of a scholarship reduction of 10 per year.
“People don’t see how hard that is, not on game days, but during the week, when you don’t have those guys to compete at practice,” Haden said. “Not only aren’t those guys here, but they’ve gone to other schools to compete against us. So Lane is fighting through something that is fairly unprecedented.”
Then there’s the criticism that Kiffin is not an inspirational sideline figure, rarely showing any emotion as he walks up and down with his face buried in his play card like he’s studying an insurance policy. The Trojans don’t seem to connect to this persona, which seemed to hurt them Saturday against an emotional Bruins team that was flying from the opening kickoff.
Remember a couple of years ago when the Trojans bounced up and down in a giant huddle on the sideline, infuriating the overmatched Bruins? On Saturday, at the start of the fourth quarter, it was the Bruins doing the flash mob while the Trojans trudged separately down the field as if dreading the final 15 minutes.
“Lane is not going to be like Pete Carroll,” Haden said. “If you want Pete Carroll, well, that’s not Lane Kiffin. But he’s 37 years old and growing and learning all the time.”
Haden would not say whether there were any requirements for Kiffin keeping his job, but when I asked him if Kiffin would have to rearrange his coaching staff, Haden paused for just a second and said, “Yes, he’s going to evaluate that.”
My guess is that, in exchange for job security, Kiffin will have to finally divorce himself from his father Monte, a brilliant defensive boss who just doesn’t seem to be able to reach these kids. But who knows what happens next in the Land of Kiff, whose ruler admitted again Saturday that lots of this was his fault.
“We’re extremely disappointed in this season, we’re too talented to have this many losses, it falls on me,” Kiffin said.
Next week, Notre Dame. Next year, buckle up.
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.