Now that USC has fired Lane Kiffin, the silliness over who will replace him has begun.
I’m not talking about the usual silliness that ensues in the media or with the fans, with reports about this coach or that being spotted at LAX or on USC’s campus.
I’m talking about the silliness that has always marked the USC hiring process.
This is a school that hasn’t conducted a serious, grown-up coaching search since 1925, when it hired away Howard Jones from Iowa. Since then, every head coach save two has had some sort of direct connection to USC. While this approach worked well enough during the era of unlimited scholarships and disparity in college football, it has not gone nearly as well in the modern era.
For USC, past success has turned out to be its enemy when it comes to hiring coaches.
John McKay was wildly successful from 1960 to 1975 which meant USC spent the next 25 years trying to find the next McKay. While the rest of college football changed, Trojans administrators and fans remained stuck in the past. The I-formation tailback and Student Body Right were the obsession and winning was seen as a birthright, something that could be attained simply by finding the right coach who could get back to that specific style. After all, if it worked with McKay, why couldn’t it work now? was the thought.
When the Trojans hired their offensive coordinator, Ted Tollner, to replace John Robinson in 1983, the main worry among USC people was not whether he would win a bunch of games or not — that was taken for granted — but that he would pass the ball too much. After all, he had come to USC from BYU and who the heck wanted USC to be like BYU? Their worries were unfounded since the rather meek Tollner did little to tinker with the status quo. When Tollner failed after four seasons, USC brought in Larry Smith from Arizona. Smith was a Bo Schembechler protege who promised to bring that physical mentality back to Troy. But Smith had found his level at Arizona and he lacked the stature and personality to coach at a place like USC, where he was also distrusted as an outsider who didn’t ‘get’ the tradition. He, too, failed and a chastened USC administration took the lazy route and brought back John Robinson for another go-around. Robinson promised to run Student Body Right as much as Student Body Left and the fan base swooned. A return to glory was imminent!
Meanwhile, college football had changed drastically — not that USC noticed. The BYU offense and the one-back style run by Miami was infiltrating the sport. Sophisticated passing offenses were in vogue. The power run game as exemplified by what USC did in the 1970s no longer worked. Defenses were too quick, plus scholarship restrictions meant parity ruled the day. USC no longer held a monopoly on athletes.
Nonetheless, when Robinson’s second go-around failed, USC clung to its past and went with another coach with connections to the school, this time hiring Paul Hackett, who was Robinson’s assistant when it had last won a national title back in 1978 (you see, because Hackett had coached on a national title team 20 years earlier, that made him qualified to coach USC in the ’90s).
Hackett was a disaster, but his hiring had one major upside: It made USC realize it had finally hit rock bottom. The school came to terms with the notion that winning wasn’t a birthright and that it did not have the luxury of choosing how it would win. It finally understood that if it wanted to return to glory, it had to change with the times.
That’s when USC hired Pete Carroll. Now, this was also another bungled coaching search, done without the proper due diligence but, for once, the Trojans lucked out. Carroll was a failed NFL coach who was hungry to prove himself. What’s more, he understood the landscape of college football at the time, which is why he said the following when he was hired:
“Today’s game, it’s different. This is a time when the game is evolving. It’s a wide open, spread the field, use the space, calling on the athletic ability of your players to take advantage of that. At this university, we have the players that can get that done. In all phases of our game, we have to learn to play a spread the field type of football. That’s what we will have to do to win the Pac-10, that’s what we will have to do to realize all the dreams that we want to realize.”
He was dead on. And with USC fans hungry to win by any means possible — even by, shudder, passing the football — the old mentality of Student Body Right was finally laid to rest. Carroll brought in former BYU offensive mastermind Norm Chow and the Trojans installed a cutting edge offense. It took 20 years, but USC was finally ready to compete in the modern era.
What happened next is what always happens when you combine elite talent with good coaching — you win a lot of games. Carroll and USC dominated college football from 2002 until 2008, winning two national titles along the way.
But there was a downside to it (and I’m not talking about NCAA matters).
With the success of the Carroll era, USC fans and administrators unlearned their previous hard-learned lesson and once again came around to seeing winning as a birthright. The idea that USC had the ability — nay, the right — to choose how it would win games returned. And so, when Carroll left for the NFL, the overarching concern was to find a coach who would continue to do things exactly how Carroll did them.
Of course this outlook ignored a lot of new trends that had been taking place in college football. Namely, the advent of the spread (starting around 2005) was changing how the sport was being played on both sides of the ball. Mobile quarterbacks were putting up huge numbers in these systems and programs that were once considered rinky-dink were able to compete with the big boys. In other words, a sea-change in college football was taking place of the same magnitude that happened in the early 1980s.
Just like in the early 1980s, USC put its head in the sand and, after a very unserious search, hired Kiffin to replace Carroll. It was the equivalent of tasking a general schooled in World War I tactics to fight World War II. As a result, USC and the French circa 1940 shared the same fate.
And so, USC must now hire a new coach.
But before it hires a new coach, it must decide what kind of USC it wants to be.
Is winning the priority or is the priority to win a certain way?
If it really wants to win, USC must not make the same mistake it made in 1983. It must let go of the notion that USC football is necessarily synonymous with a particular style. It must recognize that college football has changed a lot since the last time USC won a national title. The offensive scheme that USC ran in 2003 and 2004 was the optimal offense in college football at the time. That is no longer the case. USC must change like it did in 2001 if it wants to win championships again.
The best offenses in college football, schematically speaking, currently reside at schools like Baylor, Oregon and Texas A&M, where the shackles of tradition and the arrogance borne of repeated success have not blinded progress. USC should hire a coach who is dedicated to running an offense similar to the ones run by these schools.
Now, I know. Alabama has won three national titles running a basic, smashmouth offense. But the Tide won their championships despite its offense, not because of it, and has twice backed into the BCS championship game under fortunate circumstances — after less-talented teams ranked ahead of it lost late. What’s more, Nick Saban is arguably the best coach in college football. Unless you get Saban himself, good luck trying to duplicate what he does.
Even more important than finding the right style is for USC to finally mount a serious search for a proven college head coach. The path of least resistance should not be a viable option.
That means no coaches with ties to the school, no NFL retreads, no coaches from the Pete Carroll coaching tree, no coaches who need on-the-job training.
Start fresh. Renew the tradition, but do it by ushering in a new era.
That means no Jack Del Rio. No Steve Sarkisian. No Herm Edwards.
Anyone who follows college football knows what the list of possible coaching targets should be and it begins with these guys:
These are the types of guys USC should be going after — proven college head coaches who know how to do more with less. All these coaches have the potential to be very successful at USC. Remember, it is the situation that generally tends to make a coach great and USC will be a perfect situation for the right coach.
I’m under no illusion that USC will listen to this advice, though I think there’s a good chance we might finally be on the same page. Of course, if it had listened to me in the first place, it would not be in this mess right now.