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Would Southern Cal's Lofty Expectations Hinder Its Coaching Search?

The Southern Cal faithful are up in arms and asking for Lane Kiffin's head, but their own expectations might be setting them up for failure.

Kiffin had a 10-win season just two years ago, even beating Oregon in Eugene
Kiffin had a 10-win season just two years ago, even beating Oregon in Eugene
Stephen Dunn

Reactions to Southern Cal’s loss at home against Washington State on Saturday have been swift, harsh, and emotional. Rightly so, in a way. Wazzu is not exactly an elite program right now, and Southern Cal is certainly used to a lot more success than what they saw this past weekend. But the critics have been far too dramatic in my opinion.

Let’s not lose sight of a few key important points:
- Mike Leach is not exactly a Johnny-come-lately. He’s been around a while and is used to winning despite talent gaps
- With the competition at QB so tight for Southern Cal, there hasn’t been a clear frontrunner for the job, which means neither QB has gotten enough reps in practice. UCLA fans know this all too well.
- The Southern Cal defense was excellent, allowing only 10 points, which is even fewer than Auburn allowed.

It comes down to execution and it seems the Southern Cal players are simply not motivated enough. Some would like to blame Lane Kiffin for this, but it really sounds more like a sense of entitlement from the players, as expressed by one of their defensive linemen.

Of course, Southern Cal fans are already discussing replacements for Lane Kiffin. This is what happens when a purported BCS contender has a hiccup along the way. But even though we like to poke fun at our rival and at Lane Kiffin for embodying the Peter Principle, and even though Pat Forde refers to him as a chronically over-employed con man, let’s examine a few realities for the Southern Cal program.

First of all, the expectations are simply not realistic. Southern Cal is still dealing with the aftermath of the NCAA sanctions, a depleted roster, and the departure of a Heisman-caliber QB who was a 4-year starter. A player like that sucks up all the reps at practice, not leaving much room for the development of the next QB. Look at what happened to Texas after Colt McCoy or even UCLA after Cade McNown. Very few programs can bounce right back up from the loss of such a key player. In any case, a national championship type of season was a ludicrous thing to expect from Southern Cal. A more realistic goal is the Rose Bowl, at which they still very much have a shot, so Kiffin still needs some leeway.

Second of all, Lane Kiffin is replacing a Southern Cal legend. It will be very hard for Southern Cal to replicate the Pete Carroll years for a few reasons:

  • One, it turns out Pete Carroll was a heck of a coach, as has been demonstrated by his success in the NFL. He had the program’s future perfectly planned out, was a defensive guru and brought in Norm Chow at the perfect time. It is simply not realistic to expect that kind of dynasty regularly.

  • Second and most importantly, the Pac-10 was ripe to be dominated by a dynamic program when Carroll came. His only competition was really Cal with Jeff Tedford, as Oregon was still under Bellotti and hadn’t fully gotten on the Chip Kelly high speed train yet. And let’s not mention that it was the sunset on Toledo’s career and he was followed by the man in the nice suit, our very own Karl Dorrell. Carroll was easily able to clean up in recruiting with his infectious personality, especially in the south. The situation is much different today: Oregon, Stanford, Washington, UCLA, ASU…those programs are now resurgent and can compete with Southern Cal. The name and tradition will always have a pull, but dominating the recruiting scene is pretty much impossible nowadays. Lane Kiffin has done really well in that respect despite the sanctions, and he was part of that Carroll dynasty and at least knows the formula for success.

  • Third, let’s not forget that Southern Cal essentially lucked into Pete Carroll. He was, by many accounts, the third or fourth option for the job. Which leads to the next point. Who exactly do Southern Cal fans think they can hire for the job and have instant success?

There are really only two guaranteed names in college football that have had that kind of success regularly: Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. It is easy to forget what Southern Cal went through before Pete Carroll showed up. Here are a few facts:

  • Before Carroll, the last national championship for SC was in 1978
  • Before Carson Palmer, the last Heisman winner was Marcus Allen
  • In the 90’s, Southern Cal went to the Rose Bowl only once
  • Ted Tollner and Larry Smith won Rose Bowls but were still driven out of town. Robinson came back and was not “successful” even though he also won a Rose Bowl.
  • The last coach before Carroll (Paul Hackett) went 19-18

All this to say that there was a reason that Pete Carroll was the third of fourth option when he was hired: the Southern Cal football head coach job may not be as desirable as it seems. Sure, the salary is not a question, the facilities are new, and the stadium is set to be renovated, but a lot of top programs offer that now.

In the end, it is Southern Cal’s own lofty standards that will hinder its coaching search. Lane Kiffin had a 10-win season just two years ago, even beating Oregon in Eugene and would have won the South division had they not been ineligible, with a chance at the Rose Bowl. But Southern Cal fires coaches who regularly win Rose Bowls, because the powers in Heritage Hall believe they're still entitled to national championships like John McKay and Pete Carroll produced even though they've won just three in four decades.

There is another major wrinkle: Texas could very well be looking for a new coach after this season as well, and that job is arguably far more desirable for a top notch coach in many respects. No sanctions, untold sums of money, a fan base that is never fickle, a recruiting hotbed and one of the best college towns in America.

Dreaming big and reaching high are typically great qualities. So applaud Southern Cal for that, if you want. But it's exactly that -- the really lofty and mostly unreasonable standards -- that could make hiring Kiffin’s replacement more difficult than it ought to be. Combine that with the magnifying glass that will always remain on Southern Cal after the Reggie Bush scandal, and you can see why top coaches could be hesitant. All I'm saying is that Southern Cal holds itself to the standard set by Carroll and McKay before that, which could be viewed as ridiculous by most outsiders.

The right coach can certainly win big at Southern Cal, we all know that. But can Southern Cal hire the right coach under these circumstances? That's a fair question. Because there's a decent chance the school won't land somebody better than Lane Kiffin, at this point. Before Carroll, Southern Cal was willing to risk getting a worse coach just as long as it didn't have to keep the same coaches who had won Rose Bowls. Lane Kiffin needs two or three years to start recruiting at full strength and have time to develop a QB. His dynamic playcalling combined with the way the defense is currently playing could really be a formula for success at Southern Cal. Otherwise, without some patience even the next coach could be set up for failure.