Less than a week ago, I mused about whether USC head coach Lane Kiffin’s job was in trouble after their debacle at Arizona last Saturday. The loss was an ugly one that knocked the Trojans out of contention for anything but the Pac-12 title and maybe an at-large BCS berth if they don’t win the conference.
I obviously wasn’t the only one speculating because USC Athletic Director Pat Haden decided it was necessary to publicly endorse Kiffin this week.
Usually, this is the kiss of death for any embattled head coach. Based on that, one would expect the speculation about Kiffin’s job security to only get louder going forward. This is especially true if USC gets blown out by Oregon Saturday or if the mistakes that cost them the Arizona game also cost the Trojans a win against a top five opponent.
But what also makes this unusual is the way Haden endorsed Kiffin. He endorsed the coach, saying he believes Kiffin is the right guy for the job and that he has a “big future” at USC. Pretty standard stuff from an athletic director regardless of whether this is really the preamble to driving him down Highway 101 and shooting him in the back of the head.
Then Haden basically admits all of the flaws that caused the speculation: “Do we have to play better?” Haden asked. “Yes. Are we disappointed that we lost two games? Yes. But we’re in a situation this week where we’re playing the No. 2- or No. 3-ranked team in the country, and we can beat anybody that’s on our schedule. Let’s see how this season plays out here.”
It’s the “let’s see how the season plays out” that’s going to cause the USC press to hound Kiffin the rest of the season should Oregon prevail on Saturday. It’s phrases like this that make the AD’s endorsement a kiss of death for head coaches. A team is struggling or at least not meeting expectations, so the athletic director has to speak up. But he wants to hedge his bets. Then things don’t improve, the coach is in trouble still, and the AD fires him. It’s a tale as old as time.
Haden actually dropped a “wait and see” twice in his endorsement of Kiffin: “”I know people are jumping off and on the bandwagon here. My job is to provide a steady view and support our coaches, provide him with an environment that gives him every chance to be successful. We have that chance the next four weeks. Let’s see how it goes.”
I doubt Haden expects USC to beat Oregon to save Kiffin’s job. The Trojans don’t exactly have a great recent track record against the Ducks. One thing to watch for, though, is whether the USC defense handles the Oregon offense well or not. If Lane Kiffin’s seat isn’t hot yet, his father’s, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, might be.
However, Haden seems to be implying that things had better clean up and USC had better take down at least three of its remaining four opponents: Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA, and Notre Dame.
Losses to Oregon and Notre Dame, both top five teams, are probably expected by most, but would be a bad sign for the program and for Kiffin in particular. USC has a shot at Notre Dame, though Oregon is a much tougher challenge. Kiffin might survive losses to both, but any other losses would make his seat much hotter than the lukewarm swimming pool temperature it is now.