Lane Kiffin's departure from USC was anything but graceful. Now USC must find the right hire. Photo: USA Today Sports.
We all saw it coming, but not exactly like this. After a blowout loss at Arizona State Saturday night, USC terminated the contract of Lane Kiffin and left him stranded at the airport. Now it is officially time for one of college football's historic powers to find the right coach to turn things around and lead the Trojans back to the national title conversation.
The timing of the decision is curious but perhaps appropriate. As far as this season is concerned, USC is heading in to a bye week and that gives interim head coach Ed Orgeron and the staff time to make some adjustments to how the team is managed. It gives the players time to release and get motivated to salvage what is already thought to be a failure of a season. That may not be entirely fair as the Trojans are 3-2, but those two losses have come in Pac 12 play, digging a hole in the Pac 12 standings with games against Stanford and UCLA among others still on the schedule. There is still a lot of football to be played and digging out of a two-game hole may not be the most improbable task to pull off, but unless we see some drastic changes from USC on the field it will be difficult.
For the more long-term picture, USC now has a head start on evaluating their options as the school begins a new search for the next head coach. It appears as though Jack Del Rio is an early favorite, having already been spotted at LAX and opening as the odds-on favorite in Vegas. There are many benefits to lining up the next head coach as early as possible if you are USC, mostly for recruiting purposes as well as booster purposes, but AD Pat Haden should be cautious with this hire as it may be the most important of his tenure to date. Rushing to a decision may not be the best course of action, and could lead to USC sticking in the world of mediocrity longer than needed.
This is not to suggest Del Rio is the right guy for the job or not. The point here is USC is in a position where they need to know the guy they hire will ultimately be the right guy to handle the pressure that comes with being the head coach at a spotlight program. It is not a job that any ordinary head coach can handle. Pete Carroll could handle it. Kiffin could not. What USC needs more than anything is a coach with a plan and the ability to put together a staff that can execute it. Restoring USC to a national power will not take long as long as the right leadership is in place. Recruiting at USC is not the most difficult task. Each of Kiffin's last four classes were top 15 caliber, and three were legitimate top ten classes. The trick is developing that talent. Perhaps this was a flaw in Kiffin's profile.
The long term picture also has USC getting a head start on the competition with other programs that could be looking for a new head coach. For example, should an opening become available at Texas, will USC getting this kind of head start help the Trojans landing a coach that may have considered Texas (or have been considered by Texas, which may be more important a factor)? Openings at USC and Texas would create a domino rally type domino effect around college football, and it may be beneficial to USC to make a decision before Texas potentially starts looking. But USC can't rush to a hire just on the chance their top choice might consider Texas. USC needs to focus entirely on what is best for USC, rather than worry about what other programs may be doing. Getting the right hire is critical for USC to turn things around.
Kiffin was never the guy that was going to lead USC to glory. He was always more of a guy to keep the recruiting in good order as the school played through their recent sanction stage. Whether Kiffin left the talent pool full for the next guy in line remains to be seen. When USC hired Kiffin the decision was fairly critiqued given Kiffin's track record as head coach of the Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Volunteers. Kiffin lacked some of the traits to look for in a head coach, and here's hoping USC will not make the same mistake again.
So what are some of the character traits USC needs to look for in their next head coach?
A man with a plan: The new head coach needs a four-year plan, one that will be broken up in to segments with a one-year plan for recruiting and a goal for the 2014 season. Any plan should include playing in the College Football Playoff, which should be possible.
A history of developing talent: Recruiting top athletes is rarely a problem at USC, but stars mean nothing once those players arrive on campus and start with practices. USC's problems are on depth and getting some players to reach their hype and potential. A coach with a track record for developing that talent should be a top priority.
A good public face: After Kiffin, ay new face will likely be received well. But this does not mean USC needs a guy that everybody will like. What USC needs is a guy who can face the public with confidence to provide stability for the program. USC does not need a coach with an overly positive attitude, they need someone who knows what it takes to win.
An innovator: At a time when the Pac 12 is filled with new coaches trying new things with their offenses, perhaps it may be time for USC to think a little more outside the box. While recruiting sanctions have held USC back a bit, the overall play style has become stale at USC. This is not to suggest USC needs to adopt a complete Oregonized style of play, but it is time to breathe some new life in to the game plan to help the Trojans keep the opponent guessing.