Lane Kiffin's story quickly went from Coaching Phenom to flop
I knew Lane Kiffin was having a bad weekend when Sunday evening rolled around and the New York Giants tried to fire him. Then Congress prepared to shut down and blame him.
Does Lane Kiffin even exist? Are we sure? I mean, yeah, we've seen him on television, and I recall sitting in the same room with him once, but it was during a press conference, and I've learned not to trust anything behind a podium. He may just be a fictional character that we praise and destroy for our own entertainment.
You will hear a lot of people say Kiffin was an utter disaster at Southern California, which is not quite fair. You may hear a few others say he didn't really have a chance, which is not really true. But Kiffin's coaching career is not really about Kiffin's coaching ability.
It is about the coach as a story. From the moment we heard of him, Kiffin was not really a man doing a job; he was a product that we were enticed to purchase. Early in his coaching career, people could not buy enough Lane Kiffin. By the time USC athletic director Pat Haden decided to fire him, investigators had found traces of lead poisoning in various shipments of Lane Kiffin -- you couldn't find a box of Kiffin on store shelves anywhere.
Kiffin looked the part of a bright young coach: Handsome but serious, and clearly confident. He had worked for Pete Carroll and was raised by renowned NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and sports fans believe strongly in greatness by association. That is why we believed in Bill Belichick disciples Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels.
You didn't want to miss out on Kiffin. Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was so smitten with the Kiffin story that he asked Kiffin to make the preposterous leap from college offensive coordinator to NFL head coach. Davis was not so smitten with Kiffin the man -- when he fired him, he called him "a flat-out liar" who brought "disgrace to the organization."
Even then, the story did not change. Kiffin landed one of the top 20 jobs in the country, at Tennessee. It was easy to blame Davis for the Raiders debacle. Then Kiffin made a mess at Tennessee -- he famously mouthed off when he had no idea what he was talking about, and he alienated people in and around the program.
And yet ... well, I don't have scientific proof of this, but I think most college football fans still believed he would win there. I did. He seemed to be recruiting well. That turned out to be a mirage -- some of his best recruits got in legal trouble, which should really be called illegal trouble, if you think about it. But at the time, the recruiting looked good. Tennessee was not that far removed from Southeastern Conference contention.
Mostly, though, Kiffin just seemed like the kind of guy who won. You might not like his personality, but he looked like success.
Then he ditched Tennessee for USC, and that's when the story changed. And after that, beating up Kiffin became something of a sport. Everybody could play. Whenever he did something squirrelly, we pounced on him. (I include myself in this.) He deserved a lot of it. But the story of Lane Kiffin, Coaching Phenom had quickly given way to Lane Kiffin, Flop, and that story was so irresistible that we did the same thing we did with Kiffin in the first place: We ignored any evidence that did not fit the narrative.
We pretended not to notice that he went 10-2 in his second season. We ignore the fact that USC is facing severe scholarship limitations. We will mention that every time we talk about Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, but don't you dare use it to put Kiffin's record in context.
PHOTO GALLERY: The good, bad and ugly of Lane Kiffin
And please, please, please do not point out that Kiffin's public behavior has been pretty civil and even humble in the last year or two. He has repeatedly admitted he made mistakes and said stupid things. There aren't many football coaches who do that. But Kiffin continued to make enough mistakes that we could rip him for those and ignore everything else.
USC tried to sell the story for as long as it could. The beginning of Kiffin's official bio is telling:
USC head football coach Lane Kiffin is regarded as one of the game's brightest young coaches. At just 37 (he is the seventh youngest current FBS head coach), he already has been a head coach at football's top levels, both professionally and collegiately.
Yup: He is young, and so youthful, and he has coached in the NFL and college with a record of (redacted), so what a future this young, youthful man must have ahead of him.
We loved that story for a while. Kiffin didn't really fall upward. He fell and we pushed him upward.
At some point, a coach must actually coach, and Kiffin did not do that so well. He looked even worse than he was, largely because he had to follow Pete Carroll, who was one of the most successful coaches in USC history.
The next USC coach will be luckier. He will follow Kiffin -- or put another way, he will follow the story of Lane Kiffin, Flop. When Kiffin looks back on his USC career, that will be just another way to determine people were out to get him. Kiffin got to coach USC, but he didn't get to follow Lane Kiffin. Poor guy.