Counterpoint: Lane Kiffin is Not Horrible
October 14, 2013 by Corrie Trouw • Print Story •
From time to time, the sports world is united in overwhelming agreement on one issue. As an anti-social contrarian, Sports Central's Corrie Trouw is often compelled to disagree. This is one of those cases.
Two weeks ago, the college football world awoke with squeals of delight upon learning that USC had fired widely loathed head coach Lane Kiffin. Sunday brunch was garnished with a healthy helping of schadenfreude as details of Kiffin's unceremonious dumping at the LAX airport emerged.
The man many believe failed his way up the college football food chain thanks to nepotism and good references finally got his comeuppance. Substance triumphed over style, and oh, how satisfying that triumph was.
But just for a few moments, allow me to make a different case. Lane Kiffin may not be Bear Bryant, but instead Kiffin seems more like an average coach who fell victim to a cocktail of bad circumstances and inflated expectations.
The Oakland Years
The narrative of Kiffin's meteoric rise and fall in Oakland has been rewritten several times in the past five years. As the story goes, former Raider owner-czar Al Davis visited USC in 2007 to meet then-Trojan assistant Steve Sarkisian, only to be charmed by another Southern Cal staffer, Kiffin.
This is probably the most perplexing step in the Kiffin ascent. Were Kiffin truly as inept as his current grave-dancers would claim, this advancement would be hard to envision. Certainly Davis made several unilateral moves, many unorthodox, but the picture (later embellished by Davis himself) of Kiffin bamboozling an eccentric old man is painted with the broadest of brushes.
When Kiffin was fired after a 5-15 start to his Oakland career, most blamed Davis' impulsiveness. That sentiment grew as Davis and Kiffin engaged in a bizarre battle over the remaining portion of Kiffin's contract, which Davis sought not to pay because he believed Kiffin's dismissal was with cause. The strangest moments came shortly after Kiffin's ouster, when Davis labeled his former coach a "liar" and showed a unique level of vitriol considering the number of coaches he previously fired. It is important to remember that at this point in 2008, most football fans sympathized with Kiffin as a figure.
On the field, Kiffin's short stint in Oakland was no better than poor. His .250 winning percentage makes that clear, though like his following stints, this record needs to be considered in context. The Raiders Kiffin inherited were in disarray following a 2-14 year. Kiffin was saddled with not just a rookie quarterback, but the legendarily terrible JaMarcus Russell. And given Davis' historical level of influence and Kiffin's age, it seems safe to assume the coach deserves little blame for Russell's acquisition.
Following a 4-12 first season, Davis fired Kiffin after a 1-3 start. Neither of these performances can be spun into anything even good-adjacent. But plenty of NFL coaches have slogged through poor first years, especially when inheriting bad teams, only to perform better in later years. Between the organizational disarray in Oakland and a dismal quarterback millstone around his neck, the fairest grade for Kiffin's Raider years is "incomplete."
The Tennessee (month and) Year
The turning point for Kiffin's image undoubtedly came in Knoxville. From December 2008 to January 2010, Kiffin shifted from a still rising coaching prospect still mostly unsullied by his Oakland tenure to a villain throughout college football's promised land. While Kiffin flashed threads of his former boss Pete Carroll's devotion to competition, Kiffin immediately stepped on toes by choosing to jab at SEC top dog Florida and others he came up against on the recruiting trail.
And while most remember Kiffin's on year in the SEC for its brashness, very few remember what came before it.
The 2008 Volunteers opened the season ranked in the top 25, proceeded to lose in prime time to an unmemorable UCLA team, and lost on homecoming to Wyoming. Phillip Fulmer was fired after the team finished 5-7 in what seemed like the low point of a decade-long slide toward mediocrity.
In December of 2008, everything about Tennessee football was bland except its bright orange uniforms. As the team fell in the SEC pecking order, recruiting suffered and fans and boosters grew restless. Only a decade removed from a national championship, the program begged for an injection of excitement.
Kiffin not only represented that excitement, he spouted it proudly. For a fan base sick of being dominated by Florida, hearing a new coach promise to sing the fight song in Gainesville after a win must have sounded sweeter than "Rocky Top."
The convenient memory of Kiffin's 2009 Volunteers is of a 7-6 team beaten soundly in a December bowl and frayed by a lack of discipline. But this omits a few key points.
Phillip Fulmer's 2008 recruiting class was ranked 35th by Rivals.com. The 2009 class, which Kiffin closed in his first two months on the job, was ranked 10th; the 2010 class that would sign a few weeks after his departure was ranked 9th.
Furthermore, despite a forgettable 7-6 record, that 2009 team came a field goal attempt short of knocking off top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa and routed a ranked South Carolina team on Halloween. No, Kiffin was not hired for moral victories, but these were signs of a young coach breathing life into a decaying program.
The SoCal Return
The part of Kiffin's character assassination I have never understood surrounds his move from Tennessee to USC. Kiffin is treated as a carpetbagger, but he simply left a program already adrift in dangerous waters for a chance to sit upon the throne in his professional Camelot. Maybe this violated some Quixotian ideal alive in some fans' minds, but in an industry where coaches embrace all sorts of unsavory back channels in the pursuit of advancement, Kiffin simply said, "yes," when asked whether he wanted what had to be his most preferred job.
Furthermore, Kiffin embraced USC in its darkest hours. With Carroll possibly fleeing L.A. ahead of the NCAA mob, Kiffin knew he was inheriting a USC program about to be weakened, eventually through a postseason ban and scholarship reductions. The narrative in which Kiffin is a ladder-climbing self-promoter unconcerned about whom he has to climb over doesn't usually make these allowances.
Now to be clear, Kiffin had his fairest chance at success at USC. He was even graded on a curve, one in which a 10-2 year in 2011 was considered good enough to sit atop the 2012 preseason polls, but really only covered a rotting foundation façaded by Carroll-recruits Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee.
Kiffin's firing, while strangely timed, was well earned. As 2012 landed with a thud and 2013 began spiraling away, AD Pat Haden had more than enough evidence that, given the lofty expectations and potential of USC, Kiffin was not likely to grow into the job as the sanctions ebbed.
But this does not mean Kiffin is an awful coach. USC is a great program, indisputably one of the game's top handful of destinations. Patience is short and greatness is a job requirement. Kiffin has not, to this point, been anything close to a great coach, but the jump to brand him as a clothes-less emperor are extreme.
Here's a more nuanced telling of his story, warts and all:
Lane Kiffin is not a sympathetic man. He does not exude the pure positivity trademarked, ironically, by his predecessor, Carroll. In his press conferences, especially as a college head coach, Kiffin chose a mistakenly brusque tenor. This works for Nick Saban and Urban Meyer; their rough edges are gilded by the spoils of prolonged success. When your resume is short on experience and credibility, you can't stare the media into submission through direct confrontation.
Kiffin is also not an obvious genius, at least not at this point in his career. Some men earn the respect of a room within a few minutes of entering through the efficiency and economy of their knowledge. Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh never had to work to win Pac-12 media and fans; they just won games and let their success earn them plaudits. Kiffin never blew people away, other than that fateful day with Davis.
In Adam Grant's Give and Take, the Wharton professor suggests one reason people who are especially generous succeed is because life is just easier when others are rooting for you instead of against you. Achievement through the dominance of will or mind makes for catchy Pinterest material, but most of us need a little help from both friends and strangers in key moments.
Kiffin's greatest downfall is not a lack of football knowledge or general intellectual capacity. He certainly never broke out as a star coach, but in each stop, he had moments of success.
He has a long way to go to work back to the early heights he reached. But most of the college football world is wrong; when nothing less than greatness is sufficient, even pretty good looks like abject failure.