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Thought: Lane Kiffin Needs To Prove It

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Oct 29, 2012


Zemek Thought: Lane Kiffin still needs to prove he can win big


- Fiutak: Top NFL Prospects - GET OUT NOW
- Cirminiello: Here Come The Fired Coaches
- Zemek: Lane Kiffin Needs To Prove It
- Harrison: Here Comes The BCS Disaster
- Mitchell: Florida & Notre Dame's Direction
- Doan: Barkley's Story Has The Wrong Ending 

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

Yes, it's way too early to say that Lane Kiffin will never amount to anything as a collegiate head coach. It's not too early, however, to say that Lane Kiffin remains a head coach with few accomplishments of note.

It's also not too early to say that the 2014 USC season (next year, with reduced depth due to the NCAA sanctions of 2010, is simply going to be rough) will become a hugely significant period in the career of Monte Kiffin's son.

No, this isn't a final judgment reserved for coaches who have met the end of the line – Lane Kiffin is and should be USC's main man for the next few years. He handled the program well in a time of trial, earning the right to make the Trojans his own project, his own success story. However, one can say with clarity – in October of 2012 – that Kiffin's career does not stand on the firm footing it once enjoyed. A rise to the top tier of the nation's head coaches – a legitimate possibility two months ago, in late August – now lies far in the distance, as remote as the earth seemed to Felix Baumgartner before his record-breaking jump from space.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, mostly because Kiffin had grown up since his ill-fated autumn at Tennessee and his pursuit of a 13-year old recruit (David Sills) in his first year on the job in Los Angeles. This past offseason, multiple football writers came away impressed with Kiffin's ability to comport himself as the leader of a program, turning away from his former identity as a merry prankster whose primary focus was to tweak opponents and not beat them. ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski and other college football scribes authored plenty of stories over the spring and summer that all pointed to the same basic reality: Kiffin had finally emerged as a grown-up figure, a man who realized from Steve Spurrier that you land verbal jabs at opponents after you beat them, not before.

This was the Lane Kiffin who stood a chance in the cauldron of college football. This was the kind of man who could succeed, unlike the one who gloried – yes, gloried – in a 10-point loss to Urban Meyer and Florida as Tennessee's head coach in 2009.

Yet, for all that Kiffin had done over the past 18 months – straightening up and flying right off the field while getting USC to win in Autzen Stadium – a few facts still hovered over his head as this season began:

1) Kiffin had not yet coached USC in a season when postseason prizes were on the table.

2) Kiffin had not yet coached a USC team that was expected to win the Pac-12 and contend for the national title.

3) Kiffin had not yet coached in a January bowl game – he had never led a team over the hot coals of adversity to a cherished destination, a treasured season's end. He had not made that journey. His one particularly distinguished season was a season in which his team – by being ineligible for both the Pac-12 crown and the Rose Bowl – was able to play with a unique freedom from pressure, as is the case for Ohio State this year.

So much about Kiffin the man had improved in recent months, but the 2012 season was going to show us if Kiffin the coach was ready to win at the next level.

Maybe USC will somehow surprise us this Saturday against Oregon and then on Thanksgiving Weekend against Notre Dame… and then again on Nov. 30 in the Pac-12 Championship Game, a game USC might not even make at this point. Perhaps Kiffin will respond to adversity with the best work of his career. However, it is already true that USC – which could commit a lot of penalties under Pete Carroll yet still overwhelm opponents with accumulated excellence – isn't appreciably close to the Carroll era's standards of performance at this point. One non-Oregon Pac-12 loss is okay; two losses represent a mini-crisis. One bad Matt Barkley game against Stanford is a fact of life and its imperfections; a season of struggle against decent defenses represents something altogether different and more alarming.

Keep this point in mind: It's not as though Kiffin is foreign to the ways of the USC program. Moreover, he helped make Pete Carroll who he was by calling plays for multiple Rose Bowl teams. He hasn't proven himself as a head coach, but he has proven himself not just as an offensive coordinator, but as a USC offensive coordinator. The ragged showings of the 2012 USC offense – an offense dinged by injuries to its offensive line, yes, but an offense gifted with top-shelf skill-position talent – offer more than a little credence to the notion that Kiffin isn't handling the pressure of the situation with the responsiveness or expertise USC needs.

It's reasonable to say that the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Volunteers educated Kiffin about being a man in full, an adult who can enter a room and focus on business instead of mischief. Those learning experiences – which have clearly improved Kiffin as a person – were supposed to make Kiffin the coach an adaptive chess player at USC, a presence in the locker room that could enrich the post-Carroll Trojans with the right mix of motivation and technical instruction.

The 2012 season was supposed to bring forth this Lane Kiffin, but through two months, the results are not mixed – they're undeniably negative. Only by winning two of USC's three biggies in the next five weeks (assuming that USC gets a second shot at Oregon for the Pac-12 title) will Kiffin uproot most of these concerns and diminish these unhappy narratives. If he doesn't meet that two-victory goal, the weight of reality – the inescapability of a barren trophy case and unmet expectations in four seasons as a collegiate head coach – could fall heavily on Kiffin's shoulders.

He could fail to deliver the goods in 2014. He could watch as USC loses the Pac-12 to Oregon for (what would be) a sixth straight season. He could realize that after five seasons on the job in L.A., his improvement as a person will not have been accompanied by championships.

Yes, it's too early to speak with finality about Lane Kiffin's collegiate head coaching career, but it's not too early to point out – ever so gently – that an unhappy end lies in sight, two years down the line, if this talented individual doesn't find answers to the persistent problems that are bedeviling USC's football program.

- Fiutak: Top NFL Prospects - GET OUT NOW
- Cirminiello: Here Come The Fired Coaches
- Zemek: Lane Kiffin Needs To Prove It
- Harrison: Here Comes The BCS Disaster
- Mitchell: Florida & Notre Dame's Direction
- Doan: Barkley's Story Has The Wrong Ending