Lane Kiffin deserves most of blame for USC's disappointing season
The preseason No. 1, USC already has three losses and is in fifth place in Pac-12
Defense has been putrid, giving up 1,328 yards in losses to Arizona and Oregon
Opposing coaches said Kiffin is problem and talent hasn't matched performance
LOS ANGELES -- A USC team manager backed up Lane Kiffin's black Mercedes S550 and parked it about 10 feet from the door to the USC locker room late Saturday night. The sleek sedan, with tinted windows, was perfectly positioned to be Kiffin's getaway car after a bad night for the Trojans.
There's plenty to run from this season as USC has imploded from the AP's preseason No. 1 to a three-loss disaster. The Trojans set historic lows against Oregon on Saturday night for both yards (730) and points (62) allowed. And after one of the ugliest nights for a program that began playing football in 1888, the Trojans are in fifth place in the Pac-12, ranked behind rival UCLA in the BCS and appear destined for the Holiday Bowl.
When asked by SI.com how much of the blame is on him and his coaching staff, a subdued Kiffin said, "All of it."
SI.com spoke with 10 opposing head coaches, assistants and NFL personnel types over the past week to examine what's gone wrong at USC. Many of the people interviewed put the blame squarely on the 37-year-old Kiffin, whose team's performance hasn't matched its talent.
"There's no excuses with the players they've got," said a coach who faced USC earlier this season. "It's an embarrassment of riches. You've got to find a way with those guys."
To be fair, Kiffin has had to deal with harsh NCAA sanctions from the Reggie Bush scandal, including a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years (this is the first season the scholarship restrictions kick in). But even Kiffin knows that with the talent flowing through his program he should have had more success.
"With the players that we have, we should not be 6-3," Kiffin said on his Sunday conference call with USC beat writers. "There's only one person for that to fall on -- that's me as the head coach."
In six seasons as a head coach in the NFL (with the Raiders) and college (Tennessee, USC), Kiffin has one signature win -- last year's 38-35 victory at Oregon after the Ducks missed a potential tying 37-yard field goal on the game's final play -- and a handful of bad losses. Kiffin is 0-3 against Stanford, the most inexcusable defeat coming this year. The Trojans also lost to an Arizona State team last season that fired its coach and earlier this season fell to an Arizona squad that UCLA beat 66-10 on Saturday.
Kiffin's star quarterback, Matt Barkley, doesn't appear to be improving, and his draft stock is falling according to NFL executives. The defense that Kiffin's father, Monte, runs (he's the defensive coordinator and reportedly gets paid $1.5 million per year) is historically awful. And the team that Lane himself voted No. 1 in the preseason is now ranked 21st.
Along the way, the immature and embarrassing antics that defined Kiffin's tenure at Tennessee have returned. Already this season he's admitted lying about his coaches' poll vote, pulled off a duplicitous number change to trick lowly Colorado and banned a local beat writer for accurate reporting.
"I think at this stage [Washington coach] Steve Sarkisian is a better coach," said an NFL personnel director. "When those two came out there were Golden Boy 1 and Golden Boy 2. I think Steve is the better coach."
It all adds up to a hot mess in in L.A. With a career record of 36-31 in six seasons as a head coach and a 3-8 record against ranked opponents as a college coach, some are still wondering how Kiffin got here.
So what's gone wrong this year? Everything.
For all his star studded recruiting classes and creative ways he's handled USC's scholarship restrictions, Kiffin lacks the coaching acumen to match his recruiting prowess. No coach interviewed said that the Trojans lacked talent. But many pointed to the lack of discipline, as USC's 9.44 penalties per game lead the nation by a landslide, even after committing just three against Oregon. (UCLA is next with 8.89). Multiple coaches pointed to two other weaknesses of Kiffin -- poor game management and the appearance that Kiffin goes for style over substance. USC poorly managed the clock in its loss to Stanford last season and couldn't hold a 15-point lead deep into the third quarter against Arizona. Kiffin was also criticized for not spiking the ball on a last-ditch drive at the end of the Arizona game, a 39-36 loss.
"Don't get me wrong, he's a bright, young guy," one coach said of Kiffin. "He really is, but he doesn't have the patience, I don't think, or the maturity to understand that if you win 7-6 that's just as well as winning 70-6, and your guy doesn't have to break every record in America. He's out of the Heisman business. Go about your business winning games."
On his headset Saturday night, as USC failed to force Oregon to punt until the game's waning minutes, Monte Kiffin said he heard consistent pleas from his son.
"Can we get a stop here?" Monte recalled Lane asking him. "Can we slow these guys down?"
USC never did. In back-to-back weeks, the Trojans have given up a combined 1,318 yards to Arizona and Oregon. Long after Saturday's game ended, Monte Kiffin's voice was hoarse and he appeared overwhelmed after the worst consecutive weeks of a coaching career that spans nearly a half-century.
"It's mind boggling," he said. "I've never heard of that many yards. It's mind boggling."
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