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Lane Kiffin adds to the mystery: Why is it hard to win consistently at USC?

USC is regarded as one of the best and most coveted coaching spots in college football. But if that's the case, why have so many coaches struggled to win consistently there?


The end came in three minutes and 58 seconds.

After a thin, banged-up USC squad took the lead, 21-20, on Arizona State early in the third quarter, head coach Lane Kiffin was grinning on the sideline, and things were beginning to look up. The Trojans had survived some first-half adversity and gone 75 yards in two plays, and if Clancy Pendergast's good-to-date defense could rebound after a tough first 30 minutes, the Trojans could be on their way to a 2013 rebound as well.

Two plays after Tre Madden's touchdown gave USC the lead, ASU took it back with a 74-yard strike from Taylor Kelly to D.J. Foster. Two plays after that, ASU's Alden Darby picked off a Cody Kessler pass and took it 46 yards for a touchdown.

USC went three-and-out, and on the sixth play of the ensuing drive, Kelly found Marion Grice for an eight-yard touchdown with 9:55 left in the third quarter. In fewer than four minutes, USC's season, and Kiffin's tenure, went from semi-hopeful to done. Kiffin was relieved of his duties a few hours later in the bowels of LAX, and now we get to speculate for a couple of months about who might replace Kiffin for the 2014 season.

One doesn't have to search very hard to find all sorts of happy adjectives to describe the USC job. Coveted. Great. One of the best in college football. And all of these descriptors are at least reasonably accurate.

But for one reason or another, the USC job is far from a slam dunk. Pete Carroll's success skews the averages quite a bit, but omitting Carroll from the equation, the five hires USC has made since John Robinson left (the first time) went 26-20-1 (Ted Tollner), 44-25-3 (Larry Smith), 37-21-2 (Robinson's second tenure), 19-18 (Paul Hackett), and 28-14 (Kiffin). Everybody but Hackett experienced solid success for at least a season or two, but none could maintain it. These men combined to basically average what amounts to a 7-5 season each year.

No job is a guaranteed success, of course. Alabama's three hires before Nick Saban were Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula. Texas' three before Mack Brown were Fred Akers, David McWilliams, and John Mackovic. Oklahoma's three before Bob Stoops were Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger, and John Blake. And of course, Notre Dame's three before Brian Kelly were Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis.

Not every hire is a pure success or failure. Some succeed for a little while or perhaps establish a high (but not high enough for spoiled boosters) level for a few years. But the Trojans have finished unranked in seven of the last eight (and 10 of the last 13) non-Carroll seasons. Is there something to the USC job that makes it more difficult than most blue-blood positions?

To look into that answer, let's walk through USC's post-Robinson hires. Are there any specific trends or missteps the program has taken through the years?

Ted Tollner, 1983-1986

When John Robinson left following the 1982 season, USC was on an incredible string of success. John McKay's 1967 national title kick-started a run of 16 consecutive seasons with top-20 finishes. And beginning with McKay's 1962 national title, the Trojans had finished in the top 10 12 times in 21 seasons. That Robinson finished 11th, 14th, and 15th in his final three years (1980-82) was a clear sign of regression.

When Robinson left, USC was beginning to feel the effects of NCAA sanctions instituted early in 1982 as a result of ticket schemes, cash funneled to players, academic fraud, improper employment, etc. Still, Robinson's aura was strong and positive enough that the need for a new coach with USC connections was a given, and Ted Tollner, Robinson's 1982 offensive coordinator, ended up getting the job. Tollner had established his offensive bona fides by spending eight seasons as San Diego State's offensive coordinator and a year as BYU's quarterbacks coach. In 1982, the Trojans' offense improved from 24.5 points per game to 27.5. Tollner was still reasonably young (43) and had no NFL experience, but he had a solid, West Coast-friendly résumé overall.

In the end, it seems that what did Tollner in as much as anything was talent, or an inability to attract quite as much in the wake of a two-year bowl and television ban. In Tollner's first season, with Sean Salisbury at quarterback, the Trojans lost to unranked Kansas and UCLA at home and finished 4-6-1. In Tollner's second season, in what would become a trend, USC surged. The Trojans took down No. 1 Washington early in the season and No. 6 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl; losses to unranked Notre Dame and UCLA squads ruffled feathers, but it still seemed like USC was in the process of bouncing back.

Ranked sixth to start 1985, however, USC faltered. The Trojans went 6-6, then 7-5, and Tollner was done.

Larry Smith, 1987-1992

The author of six straight winning seasons at Arizona and a No. 11 finish in 1986, Smith was the "first person with no connection to the school to get the head coaching job since Howard Jones was hired in 1925." USC reportedly considered everybody from former Robinson assistant Paul Hackett (then an assistant for the Dallas Cowboys), to Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs to Baylor head coach Grant Teaff to Iowa head coach Hayden Fry.

Smith did quite well for a while. For each of his first four seasons, USC basically lived up to preseason expectations (and when it comes to USC and preseason polls, aggressive optimism is omnipresent) -- the Trojans started 19th in 1987 and finished 18th. They started sixth in 1988 and finished seventh. They started fifth in 1989 and finished eighth. And in a bit of a disappointment, they started ninth and finished 20th in 1990.

Smith was engaging, irascible, and emotional, but while he didn't burn bridges in recruiting, he seemed to struggle to prevent infrastructure damage. His program was somewhat defined by quarterback Todd Marinovich, who left USC in a huff, basically, following the 1990 season. And as elite talents like Marinovich and Junior Seau (final season: 1989) left, he struggled to maintain the same level. USC lost to Memphis to start a crippling 3-8 season in 1991, and the boosters turned on him after that.

Smith had the Trojans in the Rose Bowl his first three seasons on the job, but mostly with Ted Tollner's recruits. U.S.C. went 3-8 in 1991 and the coach argued with players over such matters as whether they could wear earrings and beepers.

Then, early in 1992, Jon Arnett, an influential U.S.C. alumnus, circulated a letter criticizing Smith's play selection, management style, teaching and recruiting. When the Trojans dropped four of their final five games this season and finished 6-5-1, Smith was out of luck.

-- January 2, 1993

USC beat No. 13 Oklahoma in 1992, barely lost at No. 1 Washington, and got to 5-1-1 and 11th in the country, but the Trojans lost four of five to finish the season and lost tight battles to both UCLA and Notre Dame, and Smith resigned.

John Robinson, 1993-1997

Robinson is popular among wealthy alumni of the private school who remember his winning percentage of 81.9 percent. But his previous U.S.C. career was not without problems. The Trojans were on probation in 1980 because of a junior-college transcript scandal that affected U.S.C. and five other Pacific-10 Conference schools.

-- January 4, 1993

After nine years as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and one as a broadcaster, John Robinson came back to USC to wake up the echoes, or whatever they call it there. USC hadn't fielded a national-title contender since he had left (though there were still three top-10 finishes), and in an attempt to simply rewind the clock to a happier time, boosters quickly helped to get Robinson rehired just days after Smith's resignation.

And after some first-year struggles (USC was inexplicably ranked 18th in the preseason but lost to five ranked teams and finished 8-5), it looked like Robinson might indeed get the job done. USC went 8-3-1 in 1994 and destroyed Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl, then went 9-2-1 and handled upstart Northwestern in the Rose Bowl in 1995. But after starting 1996 seventh in the country, the Trojans fell instantly. They lost to No. 11 Penn State by 17 in the opener and lost four of five down the stretch before rallying to beat No. 10 Notre Dame and finish 6-6. In 1997, they were once again ranked in the preseason -- of the last 11 times that USC has finished a season unranked, the Trojans have been ranked in the preseason the next year eight times -- but began the season 0-2, got whipped at Arizona State and No. 7 Washington and lost by seven to unranked UCLA to finish 6-5.

At this point, Robinson was still considered a USC legend, and it was inconceivable to many that he would be fired. But when he refused to resign, citing late-season improvement in 1997 (they went 4-2 down the stretch), he was fired via voicemail by athletic director Mike Garrett.

Paul Hackett, 1998-2000

The quarterbacks coach under Robinson from 1976-80, Paul Hackett made sense in some ways as Robinson's replacement. He had USC ties, and he was seeing quite a bit of success as an NFL assistant. After Pete Carroll turned down an offer, Garrett turned to Hackett, and after the incredibly awkward firing of Robinson, boosters were rather unimpressed.

Hackett encountered a quarterback controversy from Day 1 (Mike Van Raaphorst vs. blue-chipper Carson Palmer), and while there were missteps -- a 34-17 loss to No. 3 UCLA, 30-10 to No. 10 Florida State, 32-31 to a pretty bad California team -- the team rallied to finish 8-4 before a disappointing Sun Bowl loss to unranked TCU. And any hope for 1999 went out the window when Palmer was lost to injury.

Ranked 19th in the preseason (of course), USC lost six of seven midseason games, all to unranked teams and had to whip No. 25 Louisiana Tech in the finale to get back to 6-6. Ranked 15th (!!) in the preseason in 2000, USC crushed No. 22 Penn State and reached No. 8 but again lost six of seven and finished with just its third losing season in 39 years.


Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Pete Carroll, 2001-2009

The most successful USC coach in the last 30 years was perhaps its least popular hire. After just three seasons, Hackett was gone, and Garrett was finding it difficult to land an interested coach with the announced prerequisites.

When Hackett was fired, Athletic Director Mike Garrett said he wanted a coach who was a proven winner at the collegiate level and immediately took steps in that direction.

But Oregon State Coach Dennis Erickson and Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti both signed contract extensions at their respective schools within a week of Hackett's firing, taking themselves out of the running.

Since then, San Diego Chargers Coach Mike Riley, an assistant at USC from 1993-96 and head coach at Oregon State in 1997-98, was believed to be the leading candidate.

The two sides, however, were unable to complete a deal, and the Chargers didn't make it easier by saying they wouldn't allow Riley out of the final three years of his contract, at least before the end of the NFL season Dec. 24.

-- December 16, 2000

Garrett said the only person he offered the job to previously was Erickson, and admitted he has received a lot of angry calls regarding the possibility of Carroll's hiring.

When asked what he would tell those who disapprove, Garrett smiled and said, "Have faith."

-- December 15, 2000

Though not the first, second, or potentially even third choice, Carroll ended up being the right one. After a 2-5 start in 2001, which included four losses by five points or less (three to ranked teams), USC took off in a way that it hadn't since John McKay was roaming the sidelines. After a 27-16 loss to Notre Dame on October 20, 2001, the Trojans would go 86-10 through the end of the 2008 season. All 10 losses were by a touchdown or less. USC finished in the AP top 4 every year from 2002-08.

Carroll is the modern model for a USC coach, though it obviously bears mentioning that, under his watch, USC was placed under heavy NCAA probation, complete with bowl bans and draconian scholarship reductions. The 86-10 record referenced above is actually 72-10 thanks to wins vacated in 2004-05. Rivals can quickly respond to Carroll's success with a terse "He had to cheat to do it," and they're not entirely wrong.

Lane Kiffin, 2010-2013

The scholarship limits imposed on USC meant that Carroll's replacement would be fighting an uphill battle. In order to continue whatever good feelings remained from the Carroll era, however, Garrett brought in Carroll's former offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, to run the show and save recruiting.

And he did just that. Despite scholarship limitations, USC's recruiting class still ranked No. 1 in 2010 (according to, No. 4 in 2011, and No. 8 in 2012. The 2013 class ranked 13th because it was tiny, but on a per-recruit basis, it was the nation's most highly ranked class in years.

Kiffin almost made a mistake with his second-year success. USC went 10-2 and finished sixth in the country in 2011; the Trojans knocked Oregon out of the national title hunt with a 38-35 win in Eugene, then finished the season with a 50-0 pasting of UCLA. It was lightning in a bottle, however; ranked first to start 2012 (of course), USC lost to Stanford early, then dropped five of six to finish the season.

A home loss to Washington State early in 2013 portended the end, which then came a few weeks later following four minutes in Tempe. A combination of sketchy coaching and sanctions-related depth issues did Kiffin in, but there was enough of the former to negate the redeeming effect of the latter.

The second-year surge

One thing about landing the USC job: You're probably also going to inherit a tremendously talented roster. USC sells itself, more or less, and a replacement-level recruiting class would still rank pretty high.

But what happens in 2016?

As a result, five of the six coaches listed above saw early success at USC. Tollner went 9-3 and finished 10th, Smith 10-2 and seventh, Robinson 8-3-1 and 13th, Carroll 11-2 and fourth, and Kiffin 10-2 and sixth. So go ahead and chalk USC up for 10 or 11 wins and a lovely finish in 2015 no matter who's hired.

But what happens in 2016? If there is a problem with the USC job itself, it seems to unfold over time. After the second year, Tollner went 13-11, Smith 26-19-3, Robinson 21-13-1, and Kiffin 10-8. Carroll overcame these issues with incredible (and perhaps shady) recruiting -- USC's classes ranked first according to Rivals in 2004, 2005, and 2006, and ranked second in 2007. But over time, some combination of silly expectations, both internal and external (the only thing more powerful than our urge to proclaim Notre Dame or Nebraska "back" in any given year is our urge to do the same for USC), booster meddling, NCAA investigations, and just plain mediocre coaching has done a lot of men in.

Returning USC to the promised land once appears pretty easy. Doing it twice is so difficult that only one man has done it in 30 years. To experience an extended run of success in Los Angeles, you not only have to have coaching prowess and charisma, but you must maintain the endless charisma and energy of Carroll and (the first time around) Robinson. It would make sense, then, that Bruce Feldman's initial candidates list seemed perhaps unintentionally centered around mostly young, magnetic figures like Kevin Sumlin, James Franklin, and to a lesser extent Steve Sarkisian or Pat Fitzgerald.

Eric Francis, Getty

There's only room for one of us

Though it's a chicken-versus-egg situation, there's one other factor that might be having an impact on USC: UCLA. In the last 50 seasons, since USC's 1962 national title, both USC and UCLA have finished ranked in the same year just 13 times. They have finished in the top 10 at the same time in just three seasons (1965, 1984, 1988). In the 16 seasons in which USC finished in the top 5, UCLA averaged just 6.6 wins and finished ranked just five times (never higher than 13th). And in the 10 seasons in which UCLA finished in the top 10, USC averaged just 7.7 wins and finished ranked just six times (17th or lower three of those six times). UCLA has finished ranked 20 times in five decades; among those 20 seasons come eight of USC's 16 unranked finishes.

Southern California has some of the most fertile recruiting ground in the country, but there evidently is not much room for both UCLA and USC to land and field elite talent. Since 2002, USC has landed a top-5 recruiting class (again, according to Rivals) eight times; UCLA's average class ranking in that span: 28.6. But UCLA's average ranking surges to 10.8 in the four years in which USC's own class ranks eighth or worse.

We don't know what comes first here. We don't automatically know if UCLA's own success dings USC, or if USC's own failures open a door for UCLA. But we do know that Jim Mora's two UCLA recruiting classes have ranked 13th and eighth. And we know that while USC has played poorly enough in 2013 to get its coach fired before the end of September, UCLA has played better than all but three or four teams in the country so far this season. The second-year surge for new USC coaches is great, but Mora and the Bruins might have a say in just how much of a surge Random New USC Coach pulls off.


As for Kiffin, it's almost impossible to know what comes next. He is still a solid (though clearly not elite) coach with major recruiting aptitude and recent offensive success, and he's still somehow just 38.

But for someone who has seemingly fallen up for much of the last decade -- land the Oakland Raiders head coaching job, go 5-15, and land the Tennessee job; go 7-6 in just one season in Knoxville and end up with one of the two or three most grand positions in college football -- that's clearly not going to happen this time around. Does he end up an assistant at the pro level? Does he go the Petrino route and attempt to land at a smaller FBS school? (Hell, knowing Petrino, his Western Kentucky job might be open in a couple more months.) Does he somehow ride his recruiting prowess to another major-conference head coaching job?

All we know about Kiffin at this point is that, while most big-name head coaches are far from media-friendly, his vinegar-over-honey style and generally morose, half-matured presence on camera made him perhaps the most disliked coach in college football. He was so disliked that fans who had no reason to root against him (i.e. fans of schools other than USC and, especially, Tennessee) found glee in his demise. He will land another job, then land another one after that. But for now and the foreseeable future, his days as the head coach of a blue-blood program have ended.

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