The Read-Option: Lane Kiffin and analyzing why unproven coaches get hired
One of the most important jobs for a college athletic director is the hiring of a school’s football coach. It can be the ultimate risk-reward situation. That was never more evident than over the weekend, when USC decided to part ways with Lane Kiffin after a 62-41 blowout loss at Arizona State.
Kiffin has fielded criticism throughout his career for his meteoric rise in the coaching profession without much tangible success along the way. So how did Kiffin end up at USC in the first place? And in general, why do schools sometime reach for hires based purely on potential?
SI.com’s Zac Ellis and Martin Rickman discuss the subject in this week’s Read-Option.
Zac Ellis: It seemed to be a long time coming, but Kiffin’s tenure at USC finally came to a close on Sunday. In a little more than three seasons in Los Angeles, Kiffin didn’t turn out to be the bridge from the Pete Carroll era that the school probably expected, but much of the criticism surrounding Kiffin involved his ability to climb up the coaching ladder despite limited success. Kiffin was only one example of unproven coaches sometimes landing big-time jobs, but what was your take on Kiffin’s time at USC?
Martin Rickman: That’s what was so striking about it: How he continually was kept getting jobs despite having no true track record of success. Is it this perceived notion of “genius,” the fact he was young, the family ties or what? It never made sense to me. You’d know better than I would, having been at Tennessee when Kiffin was there. What was the draw?
ZE: I think even before he landed the Tennessee job, Kiffin displayed potential as a member of Carroll’s staff at USC. That, in turn, landed him the gig with the Oakland Raiders. Not long after, “potential” undoubtedly played a part in getting him to Tennessee, where the Vols were looking for a new direction after forcing out longtime coach Phillip Fulmer. But Kiffin began developing his bad-attitude perception while at UT by calling out Urban Meyer and Florida, and as it was later found out, using a few unsavory recruiting tactics that landed the Vols on probation. Kiffin openly admitted that he purposely ruffled feathers to get the Vols more attention, and whether USC would admit it or not, I think the school hired him largely for that reason. Sure, he was a member of the USC “family,” having already spent time on the staff. But he was also a lightning rod who, for better or for worse, brought headlines wherever he went. Whether or not he could coach might have been secondary to the attention he brought to the program, but this season finally proved that success on the field eventually has to come.
MR: So where do you think Kiffin ends up? Will any school take a flyer on him and hope that the bravado and headlines are enough to make a reeling team relevant? Or is his star so faded that he won’t get another shot and he’ll end up as an offensive coordinator in the NFL again (where we know failed coaches get put through the bath and sold off as certified pre-owned football minds)?
ZE: I don’t see Kiffin landing another big-time head-coaching gig any time soon, at least until he’s proven himself. I’d be interested to see if a school along the lines of UConn, or some place like that, takes a shot on him. Despite his USC struggles, he would still provide an immediate spark from day one. Now, does Kiffin lower himself to the level of a smaller head-coaching gig? Or does he do what you suggest and go the offensive coordinator route, perhaps in the NFL? Either way, I don’t think he’s unemployed at the start of next season. What’s your guess?
MR: My guess would be the NFL. He seems more comfortable there and more suited to that lifestyle. Plus, no matter how unsuccessful someone is in the NFL, it seems like experience, a good agent and good connections can land a candidate a job. See: Brad Childress, Pat Shurmur, Josh McDaniels, Bill Callahan, Todd Haley etc. The thing working the most in Kiffin’s favor — aside from pedigree — is his age. For a long time, he’s going to be thought of as a guy who is young enough to suddenly have the light come on, like a former first-round pick who keeps getting deals. I guess my big question is: Why does this happen? Why is football as a whole so quick to keep a guy around if he isn’t successful? If an accountant burns bridges, alienates the people around him, frustrates the other workers and gets a reputation in shady dealings, that person probably isn’t going to be an accountant for very long, right? It might be time for him to take up a new profession. Instead, Kiffin will draw paychecks for as long as he wants to work in football based solely on the fact he has coached before.
ZE: I think most unsuccessful coaches will point to the few successes they have had, and even Kiffin had a few. He went 8-5 in his first season with USC and 10-2 in his second — albeit with most of Carroll’s players — and he has proven to be a relentless recruiter during his time in college. As much as folks want to pile on Kiffin, much of the blame should fall on the schools that hire him. Somehow, Kiffin is able to sell himself to programs like Tennessee and USC, and somehow things worked out in his favor, at least up until now. When the Vols hired him, he was fresh off a failing tenure with the Oakland Raiders. Can he make the same turnaround this time? Somehow I doubt it. Because the perception of Kiffin is so negative across college football, I don’t see how he lands a big-time job again before proving himself in a smaller role. But so many schools are so desperate to make that next home-run hire, you never know what will happen.
MR: USA Today‘s Dan Wolken mentioned a quote from Coastal Carolina head coach Joe Moglia, a former CEO who was trying to break into head coaching. “The vast majority of athletic directors and presidents are good guys, they’re smart guys, they care,” Moglia said. “But do they truly understand risk-reward? No. The best decisions I made in my career were decisions on people — what are the skill sets required for success? I think what you’d find is I don’t just have the skill sets, I have tremendous competitive advantages.” I think you hit it right on the head. The people in charge of making the decisions are the ones at fault. The coaches ultimately have a job to do, but no one’s going to begrudge them for saying yes to a paycheck, the same way no one’s going to get mad at a kid for accepting a scholarship at Duke even if he’s maybe just a mid-major player. Talent evaluation is critical, as is knowing the risks when you’re hiring a person. So when a school like USC goes out and hires and Andy Enfield for its basketball program, you hope it did its homework. And whoever the Trojans go after post-Kiffin will raise the same questions.
ZE: Bingo. Every hire is a risk to some degree, but unproven hires in particular are the ultimate risk-reward. And thus far in Kiffin’s career, he’s failed in one season of true adversity. He absolutely needed to win in the 2013 campaign, and he couldn’t get it done. Perhaps the “potential” that got him all of his jobs has actually run out.