Lane Kiffin is gone, but the road back to the top won’t be easy for USC

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Ok, let’s get two things out of the way, right away (ok, maybe it’s technically three).

1. By now, you’ve almost certainly heard that USC fired football coach Lane Kiffin early Sunday morning. Depending on who your “sources” are (yes, your “sources,” Random Message Board Guy 7,472) the firing either happened at the airport after a Saturday night loss to Arizona State, or at a late night pit stop at iHop; the players are either elated or mortified; the bus back to campus either waited for Kiffin on the tarmac or tried to run him over peeling onto the highway.

2. Now that that’s out of the way, let me say this: I don’t think Kiffin should get fired. Not when he’s never had a losing record in four full seasons as a coach, not when he was above .500 this year (even if it was trending downward rapidly), and most importantly, not when he inherited a team stripped down to its bare bones by NCAA sanctions. You all know about those sanctions, so I won’t get into them here. What I will say is this: There isn’t a single coach in football- not Nick Saban, not Pete Carroll, not Vince Lombardi- who can win, and win big (the only expectation at USC) when he’s got 20 less players than his opponent. It just…ain’t…happening.

To put it another way, think about it like it like this: When Marqise Lee got hurt Saturday night, it left USC with two scholarship receivers, dressed and healthy for the Trojans. TWO.

(Excuse me while I pause, catch my breath, and….)


But hey, let’s lay all the blame on the coach!

3. The third, and most important point of my opening argument is this: Ultimately my opinion on Kiffin doesn’t matter (crazy, I know!), and ultimately, I’m not surprised that USC athletic director Pat Haden fired Kiffin. He stood by his man as long as he could, but it was getting to the point that Haden himself was starting to feel the effects of Kiffin’s hot-seatedness. If Haden didn’t make a move on Kiffin soon, somebody was going to start looking to make a move a move on him. And no, I’m not talking about the good kind of moves that get made at last call at the bar. I’m talking about the bad kind of moves that leave you unemployed, and watching The View at 10 am on a Tuesday because you have nothing better to do.

Regardless, the move has in fact been made, and now finally, mercifully, USC fans can rejoice. I’m not necessarily cool with so many people finding so much joy in one man’s misfortune, but now at least both sides can move on. Like a bad relationship, sometimes it really is best to just start from scratch.

In terms of Kiffin, I think he’ll be fine in the long-term. I suspect he’s sitting on a fat little buyout (because USC is a private school I don’t suspect they need to release those numbers) and can probably take some time away from coaching if he so pleases. Maybe he’ll do some TV work, maybe he’ll lay on the beach and drink tropical beverages with umbrellas in them. I don’t know. But a few months away from football might not be the worst thing for the guy.

At the same time, I find it hard to believe his career is done. He’s too young, with too much success as an assistant, that someone, somewhere, will give him a chance as a coordinator, at some level.

I also find it laughable that some are saying he’ll never get a shot another head coaching gig again. The dude is 38-years-old. 38! Think about it like this: Pete Carroll was 11 years older than Kiffin when he took the USC job, and like Kiffin, had been fired twice before he got it. It might not be today. It might not be next year. But someone, at some point will give Kiffin another opportunity to lead a program. In terms of his time at USC, it was probably too much, too soon, for a guy that was too young for what came with the job. It happens. Again, it’s better both sides move on.

Of course nobody cares about Kiffin’s future today so much as USC’s.

For ‘SC fans, it’s a time to rejoice. A time to look ahead. A time for Random Message Board Guy 7,472 to pop that bottle of bubbly he’s had sitting in the fridge for so long. After all, now is the opportunity for USC to right its wrongs, find the next Pete Carroll and ride off on a white horse (pun, totally intended) into a sunset filled with Song Girls and a never-ending supply of college football National Championships.

It’s that simple for USC fans. Unfortunately, reality is never as fun as fantasy. Especially in college football, where there are about 25 other fan-bases which believe that they are owed the same inherent rights that ‘SC fans are, and are willing to make the same sacrifices to get back to the top.

It’s also not that simple when you consider all the variables that are currently blocking the road on the Trojans’ path back to the top. I don’t mean to reign on anyone’s parade (again, pun totally intended) but it ain’t 2002 and this thing ain’t nearly as easy as most think it’ll be.

Of course that’s not to say USC can’t get back to the top of the college football world. But it ain’t gonna be as easy as simply firing Lane Kiffin and bringing in the next guy.

Let’s start with that “next guy” and start with the slew of names that are being thrown around. There’s Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin. There’s Chris Petersen at Boise and then a few guys with obvious USC ties like Steve Sarkisian and Jack Del Rio. All are reportedly on USC’s radar. The question becomes if USC is on theirs.

Frankly I’m not so sure. And if USC is not on their radar, I don’t think it has anything to do with the job itself, so much as how much college football has changed through the past few years. Because if you’ve been paying close attention, guys aren’t willing to jump between jobs as fast and furiously as they have in the past.

Ironically, the best example of that may be Kiffin’s old stomping grounds in Knoxville, Tenn. That job opened up last winter and if you asked UT fans, it was a matter of “which” blue-chip coaching prospect would take that job, not if one would. Then Jon Gruden (reportedly) turned them down. Followed by Mike Gundy and Charlie Strong. Tennessee eventually settled for a guy who was no better than their fourth choice publicly, Butch Jones.

While it wasn’t a pretty coaching search, it’s hard to totally blame Tennessee fans for reaching for the moon, even if they did run out of jet fuel halfway up to the top. After all, this was Tennessee; why wouldn’t a guy at Louisville or Oklahoma State jump at the opportunity to take their talents to one of the top programs in college football history?

The answer is that the college football game has changed too much. There is too much money involved and too many people’s livelihoods at stake, for the head coach of a major football program not to be successful.

It also left Gundy and Strong in a very peculiar situation: Why walk into a situation where the expectation is to win, win big and win right away at Tennessee (or Auburn, or Arkansas, or Texas, or whatever job opens up next) when you’ve got a good thing going where you are? Why risk being unemployed in three years, when you can keep riding the wave you’re currently on?

It’s also why I’m curious to know who exactly is going to jump at the opportunity to coach at USC? Sure, all things being equal, this is one of the five best jobs in college football.

The problem is, all things aren’t equal, and here are three realities that the next USC head football coach has to face:

A. Because of the seemingly never-ending NCAA sanctions, the next head coach at USC will only have 15 scholarships to give out in his first recruiting class. Meanwhile, the team’s he’s trying to beat (UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, etc.) will all have 25. So yeah, good luck with that, next coach.

B. Even though USC can start handing out a full 25 scholarships in the 2015 recruiting cycle, it will be no sooner than their third year (the fall of 2016) that they will start to have somewhat of a semblance of a complete roster. And that’s just to get back to the 85 scholarship baseline that everyone else has. Not to be competing for titles. Not to be blowing away the competition. To simply get back to the baseline everyone else is dealing with.  

C. When that coach does get back to the baseline, he’s going to have a team filled with freshmen and sophomores. It also means that it’s going to be another year or two before he will actually have a roster filled with the normal number of upperclassmen, and capable of competing with everyone on an equal playing field.

So seriously, go ahead and think about that for a second.

No, seriously… think about that hard.

We’re talking three years before the next coach will simply be on an equal playing field with the competition and five (realistically) before they can truly compete. With what just happened to Kiffin- the dude just won 10 games TWO years ago- you think said coach is actually going to get five years at USC to figure things out? Does any coach anywhere get five years to figure it out anymore?

So when you think about it like that, who exactly is going to be in a rush to come to USC? Maybe Sumlin and Franklin will be interested, and maybe they want to be the guy to make USC great again. Then again, don’t they both already have great things going right now? Why would they be in a rush to leave that? And maybe Petersen or Sarkisian would be interested, but then again, are either of those the “can’t miss” hire every USC fan is looking for? Petersen’s star has faded a bit since Kellen Moore left Boise, and there was talk Sarkisian was on the hot seat HIMSELF before the season. Now Sark is suddenly the answer to all of USC’s woes? Give me a break.

While we’re here, let’s also look at one other thing: The fact that even if all things were equal (which again, they won’t be for five years), the Pac-12 that the next coach will walk into isn’t the same one that Pete Carroll did 10 years ago. For that matter, it isn’t the same one Kiffin did back in early 2010. Not a little bit. Not even close.

No, no, no, this conference changed forever a few years back when the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 and signed a MASSIVE TV contract. I’ll save you from the boring semantics, but just know this: Prior to that deal, TV money was heavily weighted towards the teams that actually appeared on TV. Simply put, if you were on TV, you got more than your fair share of the money. Well, with USC in LA and winning a crap-ton of games, guess who was on TV all the time? USC!! Guess who suffered? Just about everyone else in the conference.

Except that all changed when the TV deal did in 2010. All of a sudden, a lot more money was divided up a lot more evenly…which also brought an insane amount of parity to the conference. All of a sudden, USC wasn’t the only school who could spend $3 million on a head football coach. They weren’t the only ones who could give high six figures to assistants. All of a sudden everyone could spend on coaches, spend on assistants, spend to upgrade the facilities, spend on pretty much whatever the hell they wanted.

Well, just a few years later, look at the results: Basically everyone in the conference is improved! The money has created nothing but parity. I mean seriously, look around the conference. Stanford and Oregon are perennial National Championship contenders. UCLA is vastly improved. Washington is vastly improved. Arizona and Arizona State are on the way up. Shoot, even Washington State- Wa-freakin’Zu- just went out and spent a crap ton of money on their coach two off-seasons ago.

I mean seriously, look around the conference right now and name me one program outside of USC who is fundamentally worse now than they were three or four years ago? The only one that comes immediately to mind is Utah, and even that’s not totally fair. The Utes may be worse off on the field, but in the grand scheme of things are in a much better place out of the Mountain West and into the Pac-12.

It also means that whoever is the next USC head coach has their work cut out for them. USC still has the same expectations for itself, in a much tougher conference and a much tougher landscape overall. And they’re going to battle with two dozen less players than the competition.

But yeah, they’re still supposed to compete for National Championships all year, every year.

So to the next coach, good luck.

Whether anyone realizes it or not, you’re going to need it.

Aaron Torres is a writer for the TV show Fox Sports Live, contributor to and an avid college football fan in his free time. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.