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Lane Change for Trojans

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I found myself reading Scott Wolf’s tweets yesterday. That’s how strange the USC head coaching job search had become. I realized I was actually interested in his nonsensical flip-flopping and reporting of false leads. I spent the day instant messaging my friends with ties to Heritage Hall along with LAist Sports Editor Jimmy Bramlett, seeing who had heard what.

We knew Mike Riley was out. Apparently Corvallis, Oregon is just too damn awesome to leave. Former USC players and current NFL big names Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio both passed on a chance to grab the reins of Trojan Nation. I had even heard Jon Gruden was close to coming on board. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a bombshell was dropped.

Lane Kiffin was hired to be the new head football coach at USC. My first reaction as a sports writer was confusion. My first reaction as a USC alum was disappointment.

I started recounting everything I knew to the best of my ability. Reggie Bush allegations still loom years after the fact. Tim Floyd pays one of O.J. Mayo’s handlers. Tim Floyd resigns. Joe McKnight gets caught in an expensive car. It’s rumored to be foul play. He claims it was his girlfriend’s ride. USC basketball self-imposes sanctions that, among other penalties, bans them from postseason play for one year. Pete Carroll and Mike Garrett’s already poor relationship deteriorates further. An NCAA sanctions hearing in Tempe, Arizona comes to light, set to take place in a couple of months. Overtures that Pete Carroll has been lured back to the NFL. Carroll is gone in a heartbeat. He claims he is leaving for the challenge of turning the Seattle Seahawks into Super Bowl champions. USC is a headless monster. Recruits are starting to waver. A long list of possible replacements balk at the idea of taking the controls of the machine that Pete built.

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Then silence. Then Kiffin?

USC hired the same Lane Kiffin that had not one, but six minor NCAA recruiting infractions in his single year at the helm of the Tennessee Volunteers. The same Lane Kiffin who gave his son the name “Knox”, presumably after the city of Knoxville. The same Lane Kiffin who had become the Darth Vader (minus the Force and the black helmet) of the SEC, a conference of big, bad and unlikable personalities. This is the guy we want to guide us through the maze of NCAA hammers about to drop?

Apparently so.

Let’s try to break this down. I am inclined to believe that USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett is now a lame duck. Whether he pushed Uncle Pete out or not, when a program gets dirty, the AD is in the cross-hairs. That said, it’s probably true that USC trustees Ed Roski, Pat Haden and Lakers owner Jerry Buss were behind the Kiffin hire. Let’s assess why. Well, at least let's try to.

One thing that Kiffin can unquestionably do is recruit. At a time where USC is facing sanctions that could potentially limit the number of scholarships they can offer, this current recruiting class is vital to stock the cupboards for what might be a long (or potentially nuclear) winter. Not only is Kiffin well versed with Pete’s old recruiting trail, he has been successful in his limited time at Tennessee. In fact, his current class was ranked in the nation’s top ten. USC needs to lock down it’s current recruiting class, and Kiffin appears poised to do so.

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While Kiffin’s records at Tennessee and with the Oakland Raiders were less than stellar, he does bring with him a talented package of coaches. His father, Monte Kiffin, a widely-respected defensive guru, will take over as Defensive Coordinator. His Tampa 2 defense should utilize USC’s talented athletes and shore up a defense that was clearly the Trojans’ Achilles’ heel last season (forgive the irony, pun and/or combination of the two).

Kiffin also brings defensive line coach and uber-recruiter Ed Orgeron, another disciple of the Carroll era. Orgeron was instrumental to creating the standard of talent that later became commonplace at USC. He is back, which is a big win for USC and a good indicator that their talent pipeline will remain open.

The best may still be yet to come. There are rumors and reports that USC is close to bringing back Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow. Not only would he be a coup over cross-town rival UCLA, he would also reinvigorate an offense that has never come back to full strength since his departure.

Assuming Chow comes on board and assuming Kiffin can work together with his coaching staff (these may be big assumptions), USC is poised to have strong schemes and strong coaches enforcing them. They will recruit well. It isn’t certain they will perform, but the pieces should be there.

With sanctions looming, I have to think this was a rushed hire. USC really needed someone who knew about the sanctions, wanted the chance to guide the ship through the fog and keep the program as strong as possible in the interim. No one with the cache of, say, a Jeff Fisher would take a job surrounded by so many dangerous possibilities. Kiffin knows the landscape and clearly relished the opportunity to run Troy, whatever the possible pitfalls. Given the climate at Heritage Hall, this was probably the best USC could do.

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I’m not so sure this staff is right for the task of facing the NCAA and the impending sanctions. Kiffin is a piss and vinegar kind of guy. He’s a crusader, not a pragmatist. In a time where a delicate touch may be necessary, USC hired a man with chainsaws for arms. I am sure you have heard this before, but I am already scared-slash-excited for his interactions with Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. Their future media battles will literally feel like Wrestlemania circa 1991.

For the time being, USC has it’s man. Recruits appear to be returning from the badlands. Spring practice looms along with an NCAA hearing. Kiffin is setting up his new office. Football will go on at USC, so it would seem. Somewhere in Knoxville, Orangebloods are drawing inappropriate pictures and phrases on that giant rock. Somewhere in Seattle, Pete Carroll is looking at film in his new neon green polo shirt, wondering if his two championships will stay on the books. There’s only one question left unanswered for me:

Does Lane Kiffin have any idea what he’s gotten himself into?