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USC fires Lane Kiffin in the middle of the night

Lane Kiffin had few answers in a 10-7 loss to Washington State in the second game of the season and Pac-12 Conference opener at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

There was no singular moment. No play call that went awry or ill-advised timeout. No sideline blowup that prompted Athletic Director Pat Haden to fire Lane Kiffin as USC’s football coach.

Fans had been screaming for the coach’s head for weeks and he paid no attention. But when his gut told him the Trojans weren’t getting better and it was time to act, Haden didn’t hesitate.

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Early Sunday, less than six hours after a lopsided loss to Arizona State in Tempe, Haden fired Kiffin during a meeting at Los Angeles International Airport. He is the first Trojans football coach to be dismissed in the middle of a season, according to a school spokesman.

“It’s never the perfect time to do these things,” Haden said during an afternoon news conference on campus, “but I thought it was the right time.”

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USC’s 62-41 loss to Arizona State dropped the Trojans’ record to 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the Pac-12.

Kiffin, who succeeded popular Pete Carroll as coach in 2010, had been under fire since the end of last season, when the Trojans opened ranked No. 1 in the nation and tumbled to a 7-6 record. USC has lost seven of its last 11 games dating to last season.

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Kiffin, 38, compiled a 28-15 record at USC. His best season was 2011, when the Trojans finished 10-2. That glory had long faded in the minds of fans, who filled the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with boos this month during an upset loss to Washington State. Late in that game there were chants of “Fire Kiffin.”

That Haden did came as a surprise to Trojans players.

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“Rough,” said Marqise Lee, an All-American receiver. “My whole thinking was finishing out the season at least.”

USC film student Monica Rodman wondered what took Haden so long. “Wow,” she said while constructing a set on campus. “Finally.”

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Kiffin did not respond to a voice-mail message seeking comment.

Haden announced that Ed Orgeron, USC’s fiery defensive line coach, would serve as interim coach as the school seeks a permanent replacement for a program that has won 11 national championships and produced hundreds of NFL players. Orgeron formerly was head coach at Mississippi, where he had a 10-25 record.

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Haden declined to discuss whom he was targeting, but Texas A&M;'s Kevin Sumlin, Boise State’s Chris Petersen, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, Miami’s Al Golden and Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a former USC All-American and NFL head coach, have been mentioned as possibilities by college football pundits.

“Our history has been great,” said Haden, a national championship-winning quarterback and Rhodes Scholar for USC in the 1970s. “We need to be great again.”

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After Saturday night’s game, as USC’s team and traveling party boarded a plane back to Los Angeles about 1 a.m., Haden said he told Kiffin that he would like to meet upon arrival at LAX. They spoke about 3 a.m. for 45 minutes in a private room at the airport, Haden said.

Kiffin “was clearly disappointed and battled me,” Haden said. “He really tried to keep his job and I respect him for that.”

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USC then sent a text message to football players informing them that a change was being made and that a team meeting was scheduled for 11 a.m.

Haden met with Orgeron and then addressed players at the meeting. “Definitely surprised,” senior linebacker Devon Kennard said. “Now, it’s time to move on.”

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Kiffin was a USC assistant coach in the early and mid-2000s when Carroll revived USC into a national power. Kiffin left USC after the 2006 season to become head coach of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders but was fired midway through the 2008 season. He was hired by the University of Tennessee in 2009 but left the Volunteers after one season to take what he said was his “dream job” at USC in January 2010.

He returned to campus six months before the NCAA, the governing body for major-college sports, hit USC with some of the most severe penalties in college football history. The penalties were for rules violations related to former Trojans running back Reggie Bush, and they included a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years.

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Haden appealed to the NCAA last week to restore some of the scholarships. The request was denied.

Haden said Kiffin “did a lot of things well under some very difficult circumstances” but also noted that college sports is “a winning business.”

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Kiffin’s firing comes during a break in the Trojans’ schedule. USC does not play until Thursday, Oct. 10, against Arizona. “That made it a little bit easier,” Haden said. “The fact that we could just take a little bit of a deep breath, exhale and have this bye week to gather ourselves.”

The timing also has ramifications for USC recruiting because some top high school players in Southern California reportedly were concerned about Kiffin’s status.

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Orgeron said quarterbacks coach Clay Helton would serve as offensive coordinator and replace Kiffin calling plays. He also indicated there would be other changes. “Kind of circle the wagons a little bit,” he said, “have some fun for these next eight game and let the chips fall where they may.”

Haden’s action to fire Kiffin came eight months after Kiffin’s father, Monte, resigned as defensive coordinator, and three months after Lane Kiffin announced that he would not give up play-calling duties, a lightning rod for criticism against him.

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Kiffin was hired by former athletic director Mike Garrett, inheriting a program that had lost its recruiting edge in the final years under Carroll. But sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley and freshman receiver Robert Woods helped the Trojans finish 8-5 overall and 5-4 in conference play in Kiffin’s first season.

In 2011, the Trojans added Lee and USC put together a 10-2 season that included victories at Notre Dame and Oregon and finished with a 50-0 rout of rival UCLA. The Trojans finished first in the Pac-12 South Division but were ineligible to participate in the conference title game because of the Bush sanctions.

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The 2011 season raised expectations and seemed to prove that USC could be successful despite NCAA penalties. Barkley decided to stay in school rather than make himself available for the NFL draft, saying he and the Trojans had “unfinished business” to attend to in 2012.

USC was rated No. 1 in preseason polls but lost four of its last five regular-season games to become the first top-ranked team in nearly a half-century to tumble entirely out of the ratings.

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After a 38-28 loss to UCLA, Haden said he supported Kiffin “150%.” With Barkley injured, the Trojans lost the regular-season finale against Notre Dame and then lost to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

The season also was marked by off-the-field distractions. After being told that Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez had voted the Trojans No. 1 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, Kiffin said he would not have done that. USA Today then revealed that Kiffin had voted the Trojans No. 1. Kiffin subsequently gave up his vote in the poll.

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Kiffin also banned a reporter from practice for reporting that kicker Andre Heidari had undergone surgery. The reporter was reinstated when it was shown that he had not violated USC’s policy about reporting injuries that occurred during practice.

Kiffin and his staff came under scrutiny after a player switched jerseys during a game against Colorado. And USC was fined $25,000 after it was discovered that a student manager had deflated footballs against Oregon.

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After the season-ending loss in the Sun Bowl, players reportedly argued in the locker room.

The embattled Kiffin closed practices to the media this season, a policy that Orgeron indicated would change.

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However, some things apparently don’t change.

John Robinson, who served two stints as USC’s coach and also coached the Los Angeles Rams, said Kiffin did everything he could.

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“If you’re a football coach,” Robinson said, “you get fired. That just goes with the thing.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

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Twitter: @latimesklein


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