By Mike Piellucci
LOS ANGELES -- It's difficult to conceive of now, but for a while Lane Kiffin's perceived smugness was the best marketing gimmick USC football had.
Taken on face value, that sounds patently absurd and, make no mistake, it often was exactly that. It takes a special kind of fan base to venerate a head coach whose most identifiable personal traits are vapid handsomeness, an assiduous smirk, an attractive spouse and a propensity for mostly unwarranted upward mobility.
USC was that fan base, and not because Kiffin was the broad strokes of the university's most obvious stereotypes come to life. They did so because, as fans of the last school hammered by an NCAA rebuke with actual teeth, they needed a reason to rally behind the man stewarding the program through it. They certainly would have preferred the kind of bottom line success that Kiffin's mentor and predecessor Pete Carroll made standard, and happily would have settled for some modicum of Carroll's ample charisma. But Kiffin gave them neither, and so they made do with what they had: A coach who, like the school that employed him, drew the ire of the rest of America and had been flogged in the court of public opinion for it.
So when a blogger named Zack Jerome coined the phrase "Arrogant Nation" before Kiffin's first year in charge, it went past metastasizing into the mainstream. It gradually began to inform the fan base's entire identity. The central conceit was to make as much noise as possible while mired in the school's two-year bowl ban, and to become a big enough story to make the NCAA look ridiculous for trying to rub the program out. Winning shifted from utilitarian to deontological; with no postseason to play for, all that mattered was getting enough attention to remind everyone that USC was still here, sanctions be damned.
Fresh off razing Knoxville's sense of decorum, Lane Kiffin became the perfect face for this, a walking barometer for how badly the fan base wanted to piss people off and how little they cared about the repercussions. Jerome summed up the appeal thusly: "He's a man with a good-looking wife, a lot of money and a whole world of non-Trojans hating on him."
Again, patently absurd, which was the entire point. Soon, shirts like these and these plastered campus tailgates. One fraternity made bro tanks celebrating Kiffin's penchant for winning trophies, proudly featuring a picture of Kiffin's wife, Layla, on the back. It was all arrestingly tone deaf, the country club circuit reduced to dining at Sizzler, yet refusing to play along and feel ashamed. Ostracization had become the impetus for revelry.
The pinnacle came in 2011, the second year of the bowl ban, when Kiffin's Trojans culminated a 10-2 season with a 50-0 dismembering of UCLA. One week later, with USC barred from the Pac-12 title game, the 6-6 Bruins played the Oregon Ducks in a battle of teams that never led USC in their respective matchups. It was the moment that Arrogant Nation dreamt of, a pivotal storyline in the college football season immeasurably devalued by the NCAA's arbitrary ruling. Miles away from the action, USC loomed over the proceedings.
Lane Kiffin, arguably the most hated coach in all of college football, had made its rule makers look foolish.
The irony behind all of that doubles as a large reason why Kiffin's USC tenure peaked that night, and why he was fired early Sunday morning.
Spend enough time around him, as I have covering USC for the last year, and you come to realize Kiffin isn't very arrogant at all.
In fact, he radiates insecurity.
He hoarded secrecy to an increasingly compulsive extent, first barring the media from asking questions about his practices, then locking them out entirely. Injury updates became anathema, and reporters who dared test his resolve were stormed off on or even, for a brief time, suspended from the press box for doing their job. Questions that probed too much were stymied by an endless array of flotsam like "I don't know;" "It depends on how the game goes;" and "I hope so," all of it designed to throw the media and opposing coaches off the scent. He succeeded instead in portraying himself as bland, diffident and kind of a jerk.
Which he isn't. Speak to any number of players one-on-one and they usually have a story about how Kiffin has helped them through a difficult personal situation, or how disarming his dry sense of humor can be. Even as USC continued to sink further on his watch, he never lost his touch for charming blue-chip recruits and their families, or for enticing them to spackle the holes in the team's sanctions-ravaged depth chart. Kiffin was never oblivious to how publicly displaying some of that personality could help his cause, and has admitted as much. But doing so would take time, time he felt was better served wringing every possible waking moment he could into poring over strategy and breaking down film. Do that long enough, he figured, and he could unearth one extra nugget than his opponent, one more edge. If football really is a game of inches, he would have the extra inch.
Which, by and large, missed the point. On game days, he was far more often spotted with his face buried behind an enormous laminated play sheet instead of interacting with his vastly superior athletes. Last year, in the midst of blowing out a hapless Colorado team, he risked violating NCAA rules by sneaking in his backup quarterback under a different jersey number to score a superfluous two-point conversion. When USC lost to Washington State earlier this season, Kiffin admitted that his game plan on offense was to "not screw up" against a Cougar defense that didn't boast a single player USC bothered to seriously recruit. When they blew out Boston College one week later behind a noticeably more aggressive tack, he credited the ground work he laid in the WSU game.
Hardly anything followed the most obvious explanation with Lane Kiffin, because fear had dulled Occam's Razor. That's how he riled up Tennessee's fan base and razed his reputation in the first place, by abdicating a plum job at a glamor program after just one season to sign on at USC even as the program stood on the precipice of NCAA sanctions. Kiffin called it his dream job, which rang true then as it does now. But it also reeked of desperation, of a 35-year-old man so unconfident in his prospects of nabbing such an opportunity again that he willingly mortgaged his career to take it.
It didn't turn out the way he liked, but Kiffin got what he asked for.
It took 10 minutes for USC Athletic Director Pat Haden to get to the heart of Kiffin's dismissal in a press conference on Sunday afternoon.
"We graded him on a curve," Haden said, "and we failed on a curve."
Neither Haden nor Kiffin have ever been shy about discussing, in detail, how the NCAA sanctions hindered USC's chances at being competitive. Beneficial as they were to Kiffin's iconoclast image, they also left him coaching with fewer bodies than anyone else, putting an obvious damper on his ability to rotate players or practice effectively. Those things only mattered so much at first, but when the bowl ban expired and winning again became obligatory, they took on added importance. As much as Kiffin exacerbated his own circumstances, they were never especially easy to begin with.
None of which absolves him of blame, of course. USC continued to regress under his watch, losing seven of its last 11, including four games to unranked teams. Almost all of them had less premium talent on their rosters. Overarching concerns that have been prevalent for two season -- third-down efficiency, penalties, turnovers, and most baffling of all, third-quarter scoring -- have failed to rectify themselves. True to form, each one played a role in the 62-41 drubbing at the hands of Arizona State that ultimately got Kiffin fired at Los Angeles International Airport at 3:00 AM.
Haden conceded that, "this has been brewing for a while," even dating as far back as the team's sluggish-yet-convincing victory against Hawaii in their season opener. It percolated that much more after the WSU loss, when a seemingly half-full Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum nevertheless unleashed booming salvos of "FI-RE KIF-FIN!"
That Kiffin had sunk so far in one year's time was directly attributable to parlaying a preseason spot atop the polls into a 7-6 finish, and to his gradually diminishing ability to get results. No one batted an eyelash, then, when Haden crowed that, "we're all in the winning business at USC," because it's true to form of a program with 11 national championships on its mantel.
It just so happened that the two best years of Kiffin's career came when business was anything but usual at USC.
Once upon a time, they called that Arrogant.
Now, with a 38-year-old Kiffin out of a job and his prospects of sniffing another head coaching job bleak, it just seems sad.
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Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at@MikeLikesSports.