College football Saturdays begin before most college kids wake up—and sometimes just after they’ve gone to bed. They are so long and often so manic that one can forget the amazing upset at noon by the time the 3:30 p.m. game is over, and when Brent Musburger signs off on the prime-time broadcast, even those afternoon matchups seem paleolithic. On Saturday, for example, you could have watched Ohio State’s 31-24 win over Wisconsin or Alabama’s 25-0 shutout of Mississippi and forgotten about Georgia’s 44-41 win over Louisiana State, its second home win over a top-10 team this season (and this decade), a game that Bulldogs coach Mark Richt graced afterward by blessing everyone in the stadium.
This week, though, Saturday stretched so far into Sunday morning that it messed with Roger Goodell’s bowl of oatmeal. Saturday’s top story didn’t happen until around Sunday at 7:30 a.m, 4:30 a.m. in the west, when Southern California fired coach Lane Kiffin after four years and a 28-15 record. It was the final buzzer on USC’s loss on Saturday—and the win for USC fans that Kiffin’s team hadn’t provided a few hours earlier.
This had been a turbulent year for Kiffin. (Of course, every year is a turbulent year for Kiffin, who does turbulent like Les Miles does loony.) USC is 3-2, but 0-2 in Pacific-12 Conference play, first losing at home on Sept. 7 to Washington State and then again on Saturday in a 62-41 rout by Arizona State. Afterward, USC athletic director Pat Haden cut ties with Kiffin “upon the team charter’s arrival back in Los Angeles early Sunday morning,” according to a news release. NBC pilots have made it longer in Hollywood.
There are many who will say—and have said—that USC never should have hired Kiffin in 2010. He had two previous stints as a head coach, and neither qualified him for college football’s glitziest program. Formerly the Trojans’ offensive coordinator, Kiffin skipped a grade to become the Oakland Raiders head coach in 2007 at age 31, making him the youngest coach in modern NFL history. He was fired the following year after a 4-12 first season and a 1-3 start in 2008. Kiffin then failed upward to Tennessee, where his brash approach nearly incited riots in Southeastern Conference territory, not least when he escaped to USC in the middle of the night after a 7-6 season.
It isn’t exactly fair to compare USC to Alabama, but the two programs’ reversal of fortune was especially striking this weekend. If Alabama is now the most dominant program in any sport, USC was the proto-Alabama as recently as last decade: The Trojans finished 80-9 between 2002 and 2008, before Pete Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks, and Alabama was a teenager’s room before Nick Saban arrived in 2007 to clean things up. On Saturday the undefeated Crimson Tide blanked Mississippi, a team that dared during the week to claim it could score against Saban’s squad, whose defense responded by giving Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace a noogie and stuffing him into a locker.
This is what Alabama does to people. Like a four-star French bistro, the Crimson Tide is sublime in its consistency. USC didn’t have to be Le Bernardin. Under Kiffin, though, it was turning into an airport sushi place. It was surpassed by two Pacific-12 Conference rivals, Stanford and Oregon, as the premier programs west of Texas. Since Kiffin was hired, Oregon is 40-4, while Alabama and Stanford are 39-5. UCLA, a team that Kiffin’s Trojans beat 50-0 in 2011, is now ranked No. 13 in the country. Twenty-six other teams had more wins than USC’s 28 under Kiffin, according to Stats LLC, including Tulsa and Central Florida. Kiffin hadn’t won a bowl game as a head coach when he was hired by USC—and still hasn’t.
Despite the NCAA sanctions that limited USC to 75 scholarships—they’ll expire next year, just in time for its latest savior—Kiffin recruited as well as USC coaches should, landing yacht-loads of five-star recruits with a pitch so good that Don Draper once begged for it: selling Los Angeles. But the amount of talent he stockpiled, not to mention what Carroll left for him in the cupboard, worked against Kiffin when he sputtered on the sideline.
There were some bright spots, of course, most coming in the 2011 season when USC beat Oregon and finished 10-2. It started 2012 ranked No. 1 in the country before crashing out of the polls with a 7-6 record and a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. Kiffin’s recruiting fortunes began to follow his coaching: USC has signed just seven players for his upcoming class, not a single five-star among them, for a haul ranked No. 57 nationally by scout.com. Syracuse, Duke and Rutgers all have better classes.
Meanwhile, the chants of “Fire Kiffin!” spread through the Coliseum this season like a yawn, so loud that Kiffin said he heard them during warmups on Sept. 7 before the Washington State game. Outside the stadium, someone added the word “Kiffin” to a path marked as a “Fire Lane,” a viral bit of negative campaigning that helped buried him. (The person responsible for this heinous graffiti really ought to fess up. Pat Haden owes you dinner at Pizzeria Mozza.)
So the only thing surprising about the news on Sunday morning was its timing. The tweet was sent at 4:28 a.m., coffee and/or whiskey time in California, and announced that Kiffin had been “relieved of his duties.” The news release on USC’s website said that Kiffin had been “terminated,” like a mistaken ATM transaction.
Now come all the promises of tomorrow. Ed Orgeron will reportedly fill in as USC’s interim coach, but Kiffin’s real replacement will be plucked from the NFL or poached from another school, and when he wins like USC coaches should, Kiffin will be rendered a tailgate punchline. It’ll happen soon enough: Haden promised a press conference “at a time and place to be announced,” but definitely on Sunday. The last four years of football at USC are the noon game on a Saturday. They are already fading into yesterday.
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