Lane Kiffin, buses, and bad defense: USC faces some familiar demons in Tempe

See the cover image for this story, above? It’s a bus.

Two years ago, USC athletic director Pat Haden pulled a man named Lane Kiffin — whom you heard absolutely NOTHING about on Thursday (wink, wink) — off a bus at Los Angeles International Airport and fired him before he got to the school’s campus.

Kiffin could have been fired earlier and he could have been fired later, but people — those centrally involved in major moments, and those who chronicle them — remember the games and places which trigger big decisions.

Sure, Haden had certainly thought about making the move earlier, and in that sense, it wasn’t just one game which ended Kiffin’s USC career. However, a really bad night at the office did convince Haden, fully and finally, to cut Kiffin loose. One game brought a close to an unsuccessful tenure, one which tried to follow Pete Carroll’s footsteps. It wasn’t Haden who went to the Carroll coaching tree to bring Kiffin on board as the successor for the 2010 season — that was Mike Garrett — but the attempt to replicate Carroll’s success by hiring someone who worked for him remained a fact.

Which game — and which opponent — made Haden realize that Kiffin had to go?

It was a game against Arizona State — in Tempe, on a late Saturday night, one in which the Sun Devils scored 62 points against an AWOL Trojan defense.

Fast forward two short years, and you might be surprised how similar things are for the Men of Troy — not identical, but certainly similar.

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No, Steve Sarkisian’s seat isn’t nearly as hot as Lane Kiffin’s seat was two years ago. Yet, as USC’s current coach prepares for a late Saturday night game in Tempe against Arizona State, he has to know that if he fails to win, the calls for his job are going to escalate. The choral refrain — “He’s in over his head, because like Lane Kiffin, he failed upward and had not merited the job when he was hired” — will ring out across Los Angeles.

Given that USC is coming off a game in which Stanford’s previously dormant offense came to life and hung 41 points (and a lot of ball-control minutes) on the Trojans, the writing is on the wall for defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox as much as it is for Sarkisian. One certainly doesn’t expect ASU to put up another 62 against USC, but another score in the 40s — complete with a USC loss — would put the Trojans on the ropes in the Pac-12 South. Given that they have to play Oregon and Notre Dame later in the year, both on the road, a minimum of four losses would be expected. This season, which was supposed to deliver the goods, would be on life support before the start of October.

It’s a game Steve Sarkisian can’t afford to lose.

Yes, Sark isn’t yet confronted by the out-and-out crisis Lane Kiffin stared down in the same stadium against the same foe two years ago. However, the differences betwen the two situations seem to pale in comparison to the similarities.

The chief point to make: After Haden watched a Carroll assistant’s career take a bad turn — and after he made the call to terminate that person’s tenure at USC — he went and did what Mike Garrett did: He stayed with the Carroll coaching tree. More specifically, he stayed with a man who had called plays for Carroll in recent years.

Haden, despite a fresh storehouse of evidence — provided by Kiffin’s head coaching tenure — that hiring young and unproven Carroll assistants was not the way to go, traveld down the same path as his predecessor, Mr. Garrett.

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it — the line is surely one Haden, a Rhodes Scholar, knows well. Yet, he felt he could ignore it.

Now, two years later, Haden has to be sweating bullets heading into the Desert Southwest. Maybe USC fixes its problems and dominates the Sun Devils… but what if that doesn’t happen? What if the Trojans lose?

It wouldn’t be time to fire Sark just yet, but the topic would be uncomfortably prevalent — and with justification, one should add, in light of the embarrassment of the drinking episode a several weeks ago. When a team is winning, those little episodes don’t matter.

When a team doesn’t perform up to expectations? You don’t need a lengthy or complicated explanation as to what happens next.

Don’t expect Steve Sarkisian to be taken off a bus in the early Sunday morning hours if USC loses. However, if the Trojans do fall short against Arizona State, the memories of the Lane Kiffin era will come flooding back just the same, and a proud program trying to recapture recent glories will be left in a very difficult position… again.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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