LOS ANGELES — Greatness isn’t always easy to see, but it was clear to athletic director Pat Haden that USC was nowhere near greatness under Lane Kiffin.
Kiffin said he was not worried about his job status following Southern Cal’s 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Saturday night. The fate of the Trojans’ head coach had already been determined by the time the game ended.
“Our history has been great, and we need to be great again,” Haden said of the decision to fire Kiffin five games into what is tracking as another disappointing season. “My job is to do what is best for USC.”
Kiffin was informed of his dismissal upon the team charter’s return to Los Angeles. Haden made the final decision during Arizona State’s 28-0 second-half run, but said Sunday afternoon at a news conference that the final straw had been “brewing for a while.”
When the Trojans arrived back in Los Angeles in the early morning hours Sunday, Haden pulled Kiffin off the team bus, informed him of his firing and did not allow Kiffin to return to campus with the team. Haden said Sunday afternoon that Kiffin battled to keep his job in the session.
“Lane was clearly disappointed. He really, really tried to keep his job,” Haden said.
The Trojans fell to 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the Pac-12 Conference this season with the loss to the Sun Devils. Kiffin lost seven of his final 11 games at USC, and was 25-18 during his three-plus year tenure.
Kiffin was hired at age 34 after head coaching jobs with the Oakland Raiders and at the University of Tennessee ended with acrimony. He left the Volunteers after just one season, calling the Trojans his dream job.
Kiffin grew his reputation at USC as offensive coordinator under then-head coach Pete Carroll before taking the Raiders head-coaching position in 2007.
USC was hit with NCAA sanctions after Kiffin’s arrival, reducing the program’s scholarship allotment and banning the Trojans from the postseason for two years.
The impact on recruiting and depth was too evident to ignore, but Kiffin and the Trojans opened last season ranked No. 1 in the country. USC ended the season with five losses in a six-game stretch, but Haden remained in his corner publicly despite the dismissal of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Lane’s father.
Lane Kiffin was fired almost five years to the day by late Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis (Sept. 30, 2008). Kiffin was 5-15 with the Raiders. At the time, Davis said, “It was a cumulative thing. I think the pattern just disturbed me.”
Kiffin’s job status with USC came under further scrutiny following a 10-7 loss at home to Washington State earlier this season. Saturday night’s loss marked the second time the Trojans had allowed 62 points in a game in the past two years — Oregon scored 62 at the Coliseum last season.
Assistant coach Ed Orgeron was informed Sunday that he would be the interim head coach as a deliberate search for Kiffin’s replacement begins. Orgeron was 10-25 as a head coach at Ole Miss.
“We’re going to kind of circle the wagons a bit, play these eight games and let the chips fall where they may,” he said. “I’m going to have some energy, some excitement, high-fiving guys. That’s what I like to do.”
NFL coaches with ties to USC are rumored to be top candidates, including St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher and Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Fisher played for Southern Cal under John Robinson, while Del Rio was reportedly offered the job before Kiffin, but was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars at the time.
San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who was offensive coordinator at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh, is well-respected by the Trojans’ brass and is likely to be in consideration.
Vanderbilt’s James Franklin and Boise State’s Chris Petersen are among the hot names on college coaching landscape. Washington’s Steve Sarkisian was on Carroll’s staff along with Kiffin. Hiring another offensive assistant from Carroll’s staff might be too similar a path to the one that brought Haden to Kiffin.
Orgeron could also be a strong candidate if he’s able to steady the ship following Kiffin’s departure.