LOS ANGELES – Southern California fired Lane Kiffin early Sunday morning, ending the coach’s tumultuous tenure a few hours after the Trojans lost 62-41 at Arizona State.
Ed Orgeron was picked as USC’s interim head coach by athletic director Pat Haden later Sunday. The Trojans (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12) have eight games left.
Orgeron was Kiffin’s assistant head coach and the former Mississippi head coach.
Haden fired Kiffin at the Trojans’ private airport terminal when the team plane returned from Arizona early Sunday morning, but not before a 45-minute meeting in which Kiffin tried to change Haden’s mind. The Trojans matched the most points allowed in school history in their seventh loss in 11 games.
“He did a lot of things well under some very difficult circumstances here,” Haden said. “It’s never the perfect time to make a change, particularly in college athletics, but I thought this was the right time. ... I think it could easily be asked, ‘Why not last year?’ The prior year, Lane had won 10 games. We thought, and were hoping, that last year was an aberration.”
USC must finish an already disappointing season without Kiffin while looking for another coach to reboot its proud program. The Trojans have a bye this week before returning Oct. 10 at the Coliseum against Arizona.
Kiffin went 28-15 in parts of four seasons in his self-described dream job, but USC is 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 2001 after losses to Arizona State and Washington State.
The Trojans also were unimpressive on offense for most of their three victories, stoking discontent around a school with sky-high expectations even at the tail end of heavy NCAA sanctions. Kiffin received withering criticism for persisting in calling the Trojans’ offensive plays himself well into the school’s second straight poor offensive season.
The 52-year-old Orgeron went 10-25 in three seasons at Ole Miss, but that failed tenure did little to diminish his stature as a bulldog recruiter and defensive line coach. He coached alongside Kiffin at Tennessee before following his friend back to USC.
Orgeron, a Louisiana native with a thick Cajun accent, might sound a bit out of place in Los Angeles.
“It’s an unfortunate day today that a coach got let go, but we understand the circumstances,” Orgeron said. “As a staff, we’re here to answer the bell. We’re all accountable for what happened.”
Orgeron said Clay Helton will be his offensive coordinator and the Trojans’ play-caller.
Most players found out about Kiffin’s dismissal by text messages in the middle of the night.
“We’ll try to move forward now and focus on these next eight games, really bonding as a Trojan family and getting these wins,” offensive lineman Marcus Martin said.
The firing comes less than five months after Haden said Kiffin had “been as good as he can be” in the face of USC’s sanctions. Before this season began, Haden said he was “100 percent” behind the embattled Kiffin.
“We support our coaches 100 percent until they’re no longer our coaches,” Haden said. “Why would you support a coach 85 percent?”
Like the precocious Kiffin’s other two head coaching jobs, his USC tenure had a quick, messy exit.
The Trojans’ former co-offensive coordinator was an NFL head coach at age 31, a head coach in the Southeastern Conference at 33 and USC’s head coach at 34. If there was a consistent trend to those stops with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and the Trojans, it was turmoil.
With Oakland, he lasted only 20 games as an overmatched head coach before his departure became a public feud with Al Davis, the late Raiders owner. He infuriated Volunteers fans when he left after just 14 months to head back to the Trojans.
Former USC athletic director Mike Garrett hired Kiffin away from Tennessee to replace Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the architect of USC’s dynasty over the previous decade. Kiffin was an assistant under Carroll, eventually running the Trojans’ offense before Davis chose him to lead the Raiders.
Just a few months after Kiffin took over, USC was hit with the heaviest sanctions leveled against a program in a quarter-century, including a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. Kiffin had nothing to do with the misdeeds committed under Carroll and Garrett, who was swiftly dismissed and replaced by Haden.
Kiffin still faced enormous expectations at USC – especially last season, when the Trojans started out ranked No. 1 in the country with quarterback Matt Barkley and star receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
USC wound up falling out of the top 10 by mid-September, and out of the poll entirely by November – ending the season as the first team in nearly a half-century to open No. 1 and finish unranked. USC lost five of its last six games, including the Sun Bowl, and Kiffin parted ways with his father, defensive guru Monte Kiffin.
The scholarship restrictions gradually eroded the Trojans’ depth, and last season’s struggles clearly hurt the vaunted recruiting power of Kiffin and Orgeron. Between the sanctions and injuries, the Trojans played at Arizona State on Saturday night with 56 recruited scholarship players, well below its limit of 75 and the standard 85.
Kiffin didn’t help his navigation of the Trojans’ troubles with his standoffish personality and several strange ethical decisions.
Last year, USC was reprimanded by the Pac-12 for underinflating footballs before a loss to Oregon. Kiffin also was criticized for switching jersey numbers on players in an attempt to deceive the Trojans’ opponents.
Kiffin even closed USC’s practices to the public after years of transparency under Carroll, who embraced USC’s tradition of raucous open workouts. The Trojans cited NCAA compliance as the reason for the decision, but it didn’t sit well with fans and alumni.
This season, Kiffin also closed his practices to the media. He dithered on his choice of a starting quarterback, waiting until the third game to select Cody Kessler over Max Wittek.
The offense has been largely terrible this season, but Kiffin was finally undone by another dreadful game by his defense, which had been solid under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast until Arizona State piled up 612 yards.
USC’s next game is in 11 days, giving the Trojans time to regroup and heal. USC hasn’t announced the severity of a left knee injury for Lee, the Biletnikoff Award winner last year. He is expected to have his knee evaluated later Sunday in Los Angeles.
“It didn’t sound very good or look very good,” Kiffin said after Saturday’s game.
Hours later, Lee’s health became just one of the huge problems facing USC’s proud, storied program.