LOS ANGELES — Less than two years after Southern California finished a 10-2 season with a 50-point win over UCLA, coach Lane Kiffin is unemployed.
Thirteen months after the Trojans were the nation’s top-ranked team, they’ve lost seven of their past 11 games. They haven’t looked good in many of their victories, either.
An elite football program has descended into mediocrity, and the slide culminated in Kiffin’s firing by athletic director Pat Haden on Sunday.
Haden believes the right coach can put USC (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12) right back among the nation’s best, and he wanted to start the hunt while interim coach Ed Orgeron and the Trojans finish this season.
“All our coaches are in the winning business,” Haden said. “When you’re a coach at a place like USC, we have winning championships in our DNA around here. You have to do the other things as well. You have to play by the rules. You have to care about players. You have to graduate your kids. (But) at the end of the day, we’re all in the winning business at USC.”
Under the weight of NCAA sanctions and enormous expectations, Kiffin never lived up to the USC standard set by Pete Carroll, who won national championships and captivated L.A. before abruptly leaving for the Seattle Seahawks nearly four years ago.
Carroll is still mightily fond of USC, and he’ll be watching the developments closely.
“It’s been a hard time for the Trojan family,” Carroll said Monday. “It’s been a hard couple of years. This is difficult, too. Transitions like this, they are huge. ... I’ve known Lane since he was a little kid. I feel for him in this situation. They’ve made a decisive move, and they’re going to move forward, and they’ll make a good choice and get the thing going the way they want to go. But it’s very difficult.”
It’s mostly difficult for Kiffin, who went 28-15 into his fourth season at USC. The mark is either a solid achievement given the Trojans’ scholarship restrictions and depth problems, or it’s an embarrassment to a school laden with NFL-caliber talent that accepts nothing but annual title contention.
It isn’t tough to see what Haden thinks, and most USC alumni seem to agree.
In Kiffin’s successor, Haden must find a coach who can handle USC’s expectations while maximizing the school’s many strengths. Kiffin briefly appeared to be that coach, but former athletic director Mike Garrett’s choice for the job never got there.
Kiffin was on top of the game in late 2011, when the Trojans finished atop the Pac-12 South with wins over Oregon and UCLA.
Quarterback Matt Barkley then announced he would return for his senior season, passing up NFL millions for a year to stick with his beloved school, which got that preseason No. 1 ranking.
Numerically, the Trojans’ current slide began after a 6-1 start to that season. But even Kiffin acknowledged USC hasn’t looked consistently good for two seasons, playing some of the worst defensive games in USC history while failing to score enough points to make up for it.
Oregon and Stanford surpassed USC atop the Pac-12, while UCLA, Washington and even Arizona State appear poised to move in front this season. Combined with the Trojans’ uninspiring performances even in victory, it’s more than Haden could take.
“We just weren’t making the progress I felt we needed to make,” Haden said.
Haden will keep his coaching search private, but that didn’t stop anybody from speculating Monday.
Washington’s Steve Sarkisian immediately heard questions about his interest in the school where he worked alongside Kiffin as Carroll’s co-offensive coordinators.
Sarkisian, a Los Angeles-area native, welcomed the chance to “get the giant elephant out of the room,” saying he was very happy with the Huskies.
The USC elephant roamed throughout football on Monday, and won’t stop until Haden picks a coach.
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin and Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio were asked about their interest in the job, while Boise State’s Chris Petersen, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman are among the popular choices of pundits and fans.
None of the speculation means a thing to Haden, who seems to have a strong idea about his type of coach. Haden has long made it clear he wants USC’s athletes to understand there’s more to college than sports, which didn’t always seem to be a main message of the focused, driven Kiffin.
Carroll, who kept Orgeron on the USC staff when he arrived in 2000, is eager to see how the Trojans respond to Orgeron. Despite its unimpressive start to the season, USC still has tremendous talent directed by two well-regarded coordinators — Clancy Pendergast on defense and Clay Helton on offense.
The Trojans resume practice on Wednesday for their next game, Oct. 10 at the Coliseum against Arizona.
“I think he’ll do great,” Carroll said of Orgeron. “Ed has been through enough as a head coach, and he knows as much about the program as anybody. He’s got a way about him that resonates, and I think he can take control of a very difficult situation and make something happen positively.”