LOS ANGELES, September 30, 2013—Lane Kiffin was fired as head coach the of the University of Southern California Trojans for acting like Lane Kiffin. While too few wins and too many losses ultimately did in the USC coach, his biggest sin was acting like himself. In a span of six years, Kiffin went from an unheralded USC assistant coach with potential to an NFL head coach to the most hated coach in college sports to the unemployment line.
Kiffin was the surprising choice to be the head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2007. The Raiders had the top pick in the draft, and tensions between Kiffin and owner Al Davis began immediately after Davis drafted quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Russell would hold out and stay on the bench for most of the year. Davis wanted to play him while Kiffin wanted him to hold a clipboard and learn.
Four games into his second season, Kiffin was fired after a 1-3 start. In half a century with the Raiders, only two times did Davis fire a coach midseason (Mike Shanahan was the other one). Kiffin was fired for cause, with insubordination the publicly stated reason. Again the argument seemed to be about Russell. While Kiffin turned out to be right about Russell’s play, publicly sparring with the owner is not a smart move to make. It was Kiffin’s job to develop Russell, and that effort failed.
Kiffin then somehow landed the head coaching job at the University of Tennessee. In Oakland, Kiffin was following a Raider legend in Art Shell. In Tennessee, he replaced a 16-year veteran in Philip Fulmer. Kiffin could have started off humble. Instead, he acted like himself.
He told his players that he would be at the top of the mountain with them singing “Rocky Top.” He raised expectations. He insulted rival SEC coaching veterans who had experience winning championships. Allegations of recruiting violations and other unethical conduct were leveled against him.
Then after only one year at Tennessee, he bolted to take the USC job. This is what separated Kiffin from other football villains such as Buddy Ryan and Jerry Glanville to Kiffin’s former boss, Al Davis. Those men were hated by the outside, but their core players loved them. Kiffin’s Tennessee players hated him. His taking the USC job was an act of outright betrayal. He told players he was staying when he knew he was leaving.
He came back to USC with baggage, but the school had even more. Reeling from sanctions acquired during the Pete Carroll era, Kiffin was understandably given some latitude. All he had to do was keep quiet and keep his nose clean. Instead, he continued to act like himself. In one game, USC was accused of purposely deflating footballs on the sideline to gain a competitive advantage. Kiffin denied knowing anything about it, but treated the allegations cavalierly.
Kiffin disliked the politics of college football. He was not interested in bonding with boosters and stroking their egos. He figured winning would make everything acceptable. Then he stopped winning. The last straw was a loss where USC gave up a horrendous 62 points. Athletic Director Pat Haden had seen enough, and fired Kiffin as soon as he landed at LAX after the game.
Not everything was Kiffin’s fault. Plenty of people gleefully rooted for him to fail based on what may have been misperceptions about individual incidents. Yet perception is reality, and Kiffin never grasped that his critics were not completely wrong either. He had been arrogant, and he was responsible for some self-inflicted wounds. Any man who could turn Al Davis into a sympathetic figure had to get the message that he needed to be more humble.
Kiffin never got the message. He kept trash talking, overpromising, and underdelivering.
He alienated too many people, and had nobody to defend him when the handwriting was on the wall. If he were a politician, he could continue to fail upward and become president. In sports, he would be better off working as an assistant coach under an authoritarian like Bill Bellichick who likes his assistants to be neither seen or heard publicly.
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