Lane Kiffin, Norm Chow, USC, and All This Noise

What an extraordinary week for the Cardinal & Gold.  Unforgettable, and extraordinary.  I have already written of what Coach Carroll’s departure means to the Trojan family here.  And no matter what anyone says, Coach Carroll’s departure is a very sad thing for fans of USC, as well as fans of dignified success everywhere.  (For those who say, he was not a dignified winner: while he was coach, Reggie Bush and Joe McKnight happened, you will have to explain to me if you think Coach Carroll was a part of an agent’s attempt to get his players to leave his football team early; it is patently absurd, and a by-product of the declining intelligence of our age that someone could possibly accuse USC and Carroll of complicity in something so clearly against their own interests.  And by the way, that assumes that the accusations against Reggie are true, 99% of which are not).  But I digress. Pete was the very best.  And he will be missed.  I guess before I get into my thoughts on the present and future of USC, I  will put to bed one rather bizarre sentiment that exists inside and outside the USC community, and that is the idea that since 2005 USC has been a disappointing football program.  Pete’s “greatest dynasty of all time” may have achieved its highest pinnacles in 2003-2005, which coincidentally were the years that Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, and Lendale White played, but 2006-2008 were what regular people call, “a dream era”.  Yes, there were disappointments, most notably, the Stanford debacle at home (where a team left with defensive players to play offensive line and a QB with a broken finger were upset by huge underdog, Stanford), as well as the 13-9 loss to UCLA (which allowed a vastly overrated Florida team beat to get in and beat a really poor Ohio State team for the BcS championship).  But few would deny that USC’s three Rose Bowl championships in that three year span represent an achievement that most could not even comprehend (if you don’t believe me, check how many times one school has won the Rose Bowl three years in a row).  USC beat SEC and Big 12 and Big 10 champions throughout that three year run, and did it on the road, and did it by a million points.  They did not lose one single non-conference game or bowl game in that run.  It was nothing short of a  monstrous period, and any attempt to downplay it is revisionist history (or something worse).  And since the BcS is there for the purpose of subjectively determining a national champion (like it did in 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, etc.), I can intelligently say that USC was the best team in the country in the 2008 season, and probably the 2006 season as well.  Some “drop off”.

But 2009 was a tough year that featured something USC fans had never, ever, ever seen under Carroll: A big loss.  And then, we even had another one!  After a decade of dynasty coaching that featured a few losses (not many at that, by the way), but never any by more than a touchdown, USC got waxed by Oregon and Stanford.  All in all, this type of season should have been expected (the greatest defense in the history of college football from 2008 had jumped in tandem to the NFL).  But Trojan fans were left wondering what the future would hold, and the anxiety over that questioned was only heightened by the departure of Coach Carroll.

USC took its first step towards answering the questions about its future this week.  The hiring of Lane Kiffin as the new head coach at USC has caused a ruckus all over the country.  It has, in my opinion, also laid the groundwork for where USC is going next.  Some background is in order.

Lane Kiffin was 26 years old when Pete began at USC.  And at age 26, Lane single-handedly recruited a Wide Receiver out of Florida by the name of Mike Williams.  Mike went on to play two years at USC that resulted in an Orange Bowl win, a Rose Bowl win, and a national championship, providing the best Wide Receiver play along the way that the school has ever seen (at the very least it is on a par with the Keyshawn Johnson era and the Dwayne Jarrett era).  Lane was not done.  He and a guy named Ed Orgeron split duties in bringing in prep All-Americans like Keith Rivers (Florida), Dwayne Jarrett (New Jersey), Brian Cushing (New Jersey), and Lendale White (Colorado) out to California to play at USC.  Each of these fellows is currently starting in the NFL.  Along the way, USC did not lose their pipeline of recruits in Southern California.  No, they solidified it.  From 1996-2000 USC routinely saw prep stars leave SoCal for lands far away; Lane and Ed single-handedly reversed that.  In fact, when Lane was starting this process in the early 2000’s, he was not selling national championships, Rose Bowl victories, and Heisman trophies – those things all followed.  He was coming off a period where USC went to one one bowl game in five years – a Sun Bowl loss to TCU.  Repeat what I just said – Lane was recruiting people to a school that never, ever went to bowl games any more – let alone won BCS bowls on an annual basis.  Unfathomable.

Granted, Pete Carroll was available back then to come in and close.  But any objective assesment of Lane’s performance in recruiting at Tennessee shows that he is a bulldog recruiter.  And Ed delivered some incredible recruting classes himself at Ole Miss, so much so that after he left the teams he single-handedly recruited from top to bottom jumped to the top of the standings in the SEC (where Mississippi has to recruit against programs like Florida and LSU).  Recruiting is the name of the game in college football, and by hiring Lane, and getting Ed as part of the deal, USC has brought back the greatest recruiters in college football.

So can he coach?  Well, I do not think the data is available to prove that he can.  But is it true that it has been proven that he can’t?  Please.  Empirical data hardly suggests such.  Lane is a risk.  Lane is an unknown commodity.  But what we have seen so far is incremental improvement in the couple head coaching spots he has had (what would Tennessee have been ranked in pre-season 2010?  Huh?  Be honest.  We all know it was top 15. They were 5-7 when he got there).  I am not suggesting that this hire is fool-proof.  I am suggesting that: (a) It is tremendously naive to say that ANY hire is fool-proof, and (b) It is a good risk/reward proposition.  Indeed, it is a very, very good one.

Ed Orgeron recruited and coached Mike Patterson, Kenechi Udeze, Shaun Cody, Lawrence Jackson, Omar Nazel, Sedrick Ellis, and Brian Cushing.  Back in the day, he coached a guy by the name of Warren Sapp.  Will USC’s defensive line be better with Ed Orgeron as their coach?  LOL.  I know the answer.

Monte Kiffin is regularly considered among the best defensive coordinators in the history of the NFL.  He was Pete Carroll’s mentor in learning and coaching defense, and he brought a Super Bowl to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (unless you think it was the Brad Johnson-led offense).  2009 Tennessee allowed 13 points per game less than 2008 Tennessee, which I imagine to be among the best improvements in college football.  The defense suffered in the second half of the year at USC.  Monte Kiffin is now here to fix that.  Does anyone want to bet against him?

So we are left with Lane Kiffin and the offense.  I know, the 4th and 2 play of the famed Texas game.  Never mind the 38 points USC put up against Texas (their opponents averaged 17 all year). Never mind the 1,000 yard increase in offense they had in 05′ over 04′.  Let’s just talk about 4th and 2 forever.  I suppose when Lane was 29 he made a bad call that night.  I even think when he is 39, and 49, he will do the same.  I understand that most top coaches like Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have never made a bad play call (like Nick’s brilliant call to fake punt the first drive of the game and throw a pick to Texas at the 30-yard line), but Lane made one.  And I know Norm Chow does not regret any of his play calls over the last 30+ years of coaching.  Let’s talk about Lane and 4th and 2 forever and ever.  Or we could do this: Grow up.  Reggie should have been on the field.  Okay.  We got it.  And by the way, Lendale should have gotten it.  But he didn’t.  And we lost.  And I will be sad about it forever – truly (I mean that more than you know).  But to be suspect over a coach’s big picture ability because of one play is rather juvenille, don’t you think?  Now on the other side of this, I am not saying he has done enough to prove he will be a good coach either!  I am saying that the empirical data thus far is, at worst, a mixed bag.

So why support it?  He is young.  He did that 4th and 2 thing.  And the Raiders were bad when he was there, as opposed to those years before and after he was there when they were super good.  Come on.  The prima facie support for Lane Kiffin is found in his proven recruiting skill, which is among the best in the country; his supporting cast of coaches, which have been successful wherever they have gone (Orgeron won national championships at Miami and USC, by the way, doing the exact same thing he will be doing this time around).  And Lane has the hunger, drive, ambition, and craziness that I believe a college coach has to have. 

I believe that Lane will have some bad calls and bad moments at USC, because I am over the age of five and I understand that fact of life.  I believe Lane will be blamed for anything bad that happens at USC, just like after Chow’s departure either Lane, Sarkisian, or Bates have been blamed for absolutely everything.  How many people have blamed the Tennessee Titans woeful offense under Chow on Chow?  Or the Bruins laughable offense under Chow on Chow?  Well, no one.  And I don’t either, by the way.  I understand the reality he was up against, and I think the big picture of Chow’s accomplishments speak for themselves.  But people can not have their cake and eat it too.  There is no miracle cure.  No coach, ever, and no coordinator, ever, can magically create football perfection.

Lane has a very good chance to do this thing, and do it right.  He is going to have huge resources, and the program still has ridiculous resources at its disposal to do this right (legacy, NFL alumni, facilities, tradition, talent base, etc.).  Would Jeff Fisher have been a good coach?  I bet he would have been.  Jack Del Rio?  Sure.  I mean, I think so.  But Lane Kiffin is a small growth stock, and the big blue chip names everyone knows about are where they are (Saban and Meyer and …).  Hmmm.  Come to think of it, there are not a lot of great coaches out there, if by great coach you mean perfect.  Nick Saban lost to Louisiana Monroe his first year at Alabama and got torched by Utah in the Sugar Bowl his second.  But in his third year?  A BcS national championship.  Urban Meyer won with someone else’s players hisa first year, and won with his players his third year.  In between?  FOUR losses in one season.  Winners go through bad periods too.  John McKay could have never survived the period of blogs and chat rooms.  But thank God he didn’t have to, because we won four national championships after and during people calling for his head.

I think people are people, and there is going to be a lot of noise and a lot of opinion no matter what.  I also think it is entirely possible that this thing will not end up working out.  But I would never bet against it.  I know a coach no one believed in at all a while back.  He did not leave fans in New England rioting in despair over his departure, if you catch my drift.  He was fired, and then unemployed for an entire year.  And you know what?  Every other coach only wishes they could do what Pete did at USC …  Here’s hoping that Lane Kiffin can do some of it himself.

Welcome to USC, Monte Kiffin.  Lane and Ed, welcome back.