College football coaching hires are often debated and sometimes criticized in the moment. But even with questionable hires, there’s the chance things might work.
Retrospect brands a bad hire, which we now know is what happened to Southern California, which fired Lane Kiffin on Sunday.
When Kiffin was introduced as USC’s coach Jan. 12, 2010, the move was booed in many corners, and for good reason. He had been fired from his first head coach job with the Oakland Raiders four games into his second season. Kiffin had bolted from his second job, at Tennessee, where he had replaced national-championship winning coach Phil Fulmer, after one season and in a wake of recruiting controversies.
Kiffin was young and unproven when then-USC athletic director Mike Garrett snapped him up, but it seemed as if he might fit. As a Trojans assistant, he worked some of the college game’s great offenses and co-coordinated the 2005 unit of Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. In his two seasons as coordinator, USC went 23-3. Kiffin, 34 at the time, could grow into the job while the program regenerated from NCAA probation that swept away 30 scholarships until 2015.
Coaches have been hired for far less.
Sunday around 3 a.m. LA time, USC pulled the plug. Kiffin got the axe upon the team’s return from Arizona State, where the Trojans were embarrassed 62-41. This followed USC’s home loss to Washington State earlier in the month, and athletic director Pat Haden had seen enough.
“It was a gut feeling of not improving the way we had envisioned improving,” Haden said at a news conference later Sunday.
Replacement names flew through cyberspace Sunday: Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, Boise State’s Chris Petersen and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin were most frequently mentioned among sitting college coaches; USC alums Jeff Fisher or Jack Del Rio were mentioned, if the Trojans go the NFL route again.
What happened at Southern California, one of college football’s most storied programs, isn’t uncommon. Wrong hires in the game’s elite class occur with more regularity when you might imagine.
Take Alabama, the game’s current gold standard. Between Nick Saban, who has won three national titles in Tuscaloosa, and Gene Stallings, who won the program’s previous non-Saban title, the Crimson Tide endured a decade of Mike Dubose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula, not to mention Mike Price, whose drinking binge cost him the Alabama job before he ever coached a game.
Before Bob Stoops arrived at Oklahoma and won a national championship in his second season, the Sooners has plunged to mediocrity in the mid-1990s under Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake.
In fairness to Gibbs, Shula and Kiffin, they all inherited crushing NCAA sanctions and learned that patience in premier programs is in short supply even when confronting the most difficult conditions.
Blake seemed poised for success. A former Sooners nose guard, Blake had been an Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys assistant and won the news conference on the day he was introduced. Even with that victory, Blake was fired after a 12-22 record marked the worst three-year run in school history.
Nebraska’s golden-era chapter has been adjusted to include the tenure of Frank Solich, whose six-year winning rate of 73 percent towered above the coach who replaced him after 2003, Bill Callahan. Rock bottom arrived in 2007, when the Cornhuskers were outscored by an average of 45-19 during a five-game losing streak.
With Texas all but out of the national championship picture for a fourth straight year, pressure is building for Mack Brown at Texas. But he’s had only one losing record in his 15 seasons, which includes a national title. Predecessors John Mackovic and David McWilliams combined for five non-winning record in their 11 seasons.
The bad hire by which all other major power misfits are measured is Gerry Faust, hired by Notre Dame to succeed Dan Devine in 1981. The hiring of Faust, a high school coach, was called a “bold experiment” by Notre Dame officials. After five years and a 30-26-1 record, Faust announced his resignation at a news conference before the season finale, giving the Irish additional time to land Lou Holtz.
Southern California didn’t drop Kiffin to get a jump on the replacement, but simply to part ways. Haden’s gut told him this had been a bad hire and it was time to change.