The Uncertainty of Lane Kiffin's Offseason - Shades of Rick Neuheisel's Swan Song?

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

After a mediocre year of football at Southern Cal, Lane Kiffin is on the hottest of hot seats. His desperate off-season activities seem reminiscent of a recent UCLA coach's final year on the job.

It has been a pretty good few days for UCLA Football - in the wake of a big recruiting weekend, we have picked up verbal commitments from a pair of the top defensive backs on the west coast, and left a strong impression on several other prospects. We also now know that all of our coaches will remain on staff through next season, ready to build upon their work of 2012.

It has not been a pretty good few weeks for Lane Kiffin and the Trogans. You might remember that after the regular season ended, but before the Trojan embarrassment at the Sun Bowl, Lane Kiffin fired his Defensive Coordinator/Father, Monte Kiffin. Additionally, Southern Cal's Linebacker coach left to work for new Nevada head coach Brian Polian. Today, Lane finds himself in the #1 spot in the Coaches Hot Seat ranking (that is not a good thing, btw).

Monte's departure was announced pretty early in the offseason coaching carousel, giving Lane plenty of time to choose a replacement and the coaching community plenty of notice that the Southern Cal position was open. Whatever we may think of that program, it has to be said that it is considered a top destination for ... One would think that current DC's would covet that lateral move and that position coaches would be calling up throwing their hats visors into the ring. But three weeks after their bowl game, and heading into the stretch run of recruiting season, there was still no DC hire. Not for lack of trying - Kiffin went after several brand name coaches, like Oregon State DC Mark Banker, former SC and current Chargers coach Joe Barry and Oregon's Nick Allotti, and missed on them all. Even one of the trojan honks at Bleacher Report could not miss the obvious:

... After all, who would want to come in to a likely limited role under an embattled coach that should be out on his keister within the next two seasons if not sooner.

That makes the defensive coordinator position on the Trojan coaching staff a particularly hard one to fill. First, the poor soul would have to work under Lane Kiffin. Second, any potential DC has to be thinking that this gig is a two-year one at best.

...If it were my kid, I’d have reservations about him committing to a Kiffin run program with no defensive coordinator in place.

Yes, the reality facing Kiffin and Southern Cal is so evident that even someone fitting the dual descriptions of "Trojan alumna" and "Bleacher Report Writer" sees it. Kiffin is on a very hot seat; if not for sanctions making the SC job a less desirable destination in the short term, he would have been fired by the morning after the Sun Bowl. The coaching community knows that Kiffin has one more year - two at most - to turn around the program that he has led into the tank. Unsurprisingly, there are not many coaches willing to stake their job and reputation on ole' Lane.

In a way, it reminds me of Rick Neuheisel's final offseason in charge at UCLA. By that point it was pretty clear that Rick was hanging on to his job by a thread; without much success on the field after three years in Westwood, he had a season or two to improve the on-field product while turning the culture of the program around. With both coordinators - Chuck Bullough and Norm Chow - out of the picture, Rick had to (or got to) choose a new pair of lieutenants to help in the task.

He hired Mike Johnson to run the offense fairly quickly - a solid coach, but one with limited collegiate experience and none with the Pistol offense that Neuheisel had installed. The defense was a much trickier problem, and one that we blogged about and acted upon in great detail. After a coaching search spanning over 2 months, Joe Tressey was hired to coach the defense. On paper, he appeared to be a good pick - his defenses had performed well in the past at the collegiate level. But after losing his job at South Florida in the wake of a coaching change, he was not in heavy demand. He spent a season in the UFL, after which he was still floating around until Neuheisel gave him a call. I think we can all remember how well that turned out.

After a month of Southern Cal being turned down by coaches from across America, Kiffin finally found his new coordinator. And like Tressey, by resume it appears to be a solid choice - former Cal DC Clancy Pendergast. During his three years at Cal, the Bears had highly ranked defenses for two years. His biggest single moment at Cal, and one of the key points that Southern Cal fans have cited in his favor is the 2010 game v. Oregon, in which the Bears shut down the Ducks defense in a narrow 15-13 loss in Berkeley. That was the game in which the Cal defense was strongly criticized for faking injuries in an attempt to disrupt Oregon's offense rythum.

"... several seemingly able-bodied defenders suddenly grabbed their leg and fell on the ball before it could be snapped."

"I know any time anybody goes down against Oregon, (Duck fans) always think that's the case, but it's not the case,'' Cal coach Jeff Tedford said when asked if the injuries were faked.

However, a source within the Bears football program confirmed to The Oregonian that this indeed was "a big part'' of the defensive game plan against Oregon...

... The NCAA rule book does mention feigning injury under "coaching ethics,'' calling the teaching of it "indefensible,'' but there is technically no rule against it.

Ok, the hire is starting to make more sense for Kiffin and Southern Cal now. But after the solid two years, that third season in Berkeley ... not so much success. The beatdown of the Bruins aside, the Cal Defense did nothing to save the job of Jeff Tedford or his assistants; after a couple of months in which the college football world knew there would be a regime change in Berkeley, all of them found themselves out of a job last month. For someone who has realistically been on the job market (if only through back channels) for a couple of months, I hadn't seen much talk of him in the collegiate coaching market until Kiffin called.

There is also the issue of defensive scheme: Pendergast prefers a base 3-4 defense, while Monte (and Trojans before him) had run a base 4-3. In the long term, making the switch would not be a big deal. But for a head coach who needs short-term success, making too many changes in schemes and the usage of players is a gamble

The uncertainty and disorganization of Kiffin's program has not helped with Southern Cal's recruiting efforts. Despite the scholarship limitations imposed by the NCAA, as of November, Kiffin had put together a stellar recruiting class for the fall of 2013, arguably the best in the nation to that point. And then - as the LA Times recently pointed out - it began to fall apart.

A string of losses last fall sent USC's football team on a historic downward spiral, from preseason No. 1 to out of the top 25.

Three weeks before high school players can sign national letters of intent, the Trojans are losing recruits and falling in a different set of rankings.

... The Trojans' 7-6 finish, punctuated by a dispiriting loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, has put USC Coach Lane Kiffin under fire. And the rash of decommitments could turn up the heat.

Kiffin and the Trojans have lost five of the players who had verbally committed to their recruiting class. Three of these should be familiar to BN readers: Eldridge Massington, a wide receiver who flipped to UCLA and isalready attending classes in Westwood; Eddie Vanderdoes, the best defensive line prospect in the West, who is strongly considering UCLA along with Alabama and Notre Dame; and Kylie Fitts, best known as the SC commit who was days away from enrolling in classes when he was told to stay home. He had a great official visit to UCLA last weekend and is also considering the Trojan to Bruin flip. Recruits - even recruits that would go to Southern Cal - are not stupid or particularly naive. They get that Southern Cal football under Kiffin is turning into a clown show, and that there is no need to join the circus.

For a head coach who needs short-term success; making major schematic changes, driving away recruits and generally letting the program falter is not a recipe for success. It did not work for Rick Neuheisel, and I am not holding my breath for Kiffin. But I sure hope that Pat Hayden and the Southern Cal administration gives him all the time in the world to give it a chance.

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