Shortly after Arizona State had put the finishing touches on an yet another embarrassing loss for the storied USC football program, the questions surrounding the future of head coach Lane Kiffin once again surfaced. Less than three hours later, at 4:28 a.m. PT, the athletic department posted the following on its Twitter account:
“Breaking news: Lane Kiffin has been relieved of his duties as USC’s head football coach per AD Pat Haden.”
Despite extremely punitive NCAA sanctions slapped on the program… despite very steadfast support from his athletic director… the physical act of canning the 38-year-old Kiffin was the easy part. Beginning in 2012 and after being picked by many as the No. 1 team in the country heading into the new season, the admittedly undermanned Trojans have stumbled and tripped their way to a 10-8 record, including a 5-6 mark in Pac-12 play. Oregon and Stanford have far surpassed USC in the Pac-12 football pecking order; perhaps more importantly, hated cross-town rival UCLA has done the same.
No, the hard part will be just who Pat Haden hires to replace the man hired by his predecessor. Haden was tabbed by his alma mater in August of 2010 to replace Mike Garrett, and this will easily be the biggest hire the former Rhodes Scholar makes and will leave the most lasting impact on his résumé.
The good news for Haden specifically and the Trojan fan base in general is that USC still has a helluva lot to offer any potential Kiffin replacement. From sparkling new facilities to well-heeled boosters to a fertile recruiting base to lasting brand name, USC remains one of the top jobs at the FBS level.
With just a couple of hours to digest the stunning (but yet not-so-stunning) news, here’s a quick-hit look at just whose name will be mentioned — realistically or not — as Kiffin’s replacement, knowing full well that the actual permanent successor likely won’t come from this initial pool of possibilities.
Regardless of how big of a pipe dream this may be, anyone and everyone knows full well that USC officials will back the Brinks truck up to the Broncos head coach’s door and dare him not to answer. Prior to Kiffin’s hiring, Petersen was reportedly contacted by USC about their opening and rejected the overtures. In December of 2011, Petersen reportedly rejected UCLA — for a second time — when they offered him $4 million annually at a time he was making just over $1.5 with the Broncos. Petersen has had myriad opportunities to leave Boise, and has yet to take the financial bait. Don’t expect him to do it this time, either. Probably.
JACK DEL RIO
The former USC All-American’s name is already being bandied about as perhaps the top candidate to replace Kiffin. Currently the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, Del Rio was also mentioned as a possibility to replace Pete Carroll. Del Rio has never been a coach — head, assistant or otherwise — at the collegiate level and it would be stunning if the Trojans went in this direction. Speaking of which…
Another former USC All-American, Fisher’s name, as expected, surfaced (again) earlier this month even before Kiffin was officially booted in an LAX parking lot. Like Del Rio, Fisher has never been a coach at the collegiate level. Would Fisher give up a head coaching job in the NFL to return home and rescue his college program? Don’t look for USC to even give him an opportunity to make such a choice despite a segment of the fan base that would love to see it happen.
Four names in, and this might be the most realistic and viable option. While Franklin has very few ties to the West Coast — one year at Washington State (1998) and one at Idaho State (1999) — he’s one of the best young head coaches in the game and turned Vanderbilt into a competitive football program in the best football conference in the country, no small feat that won’t go unnoticed by those at this level looking for a new coach. Franklin is one of the top recruiters in the game, and has done well on that battlefield in the SEC; one could imagine what he would do on the fertile California recruiting grounds with “less-intense” competition plus his ties in that arena to the South.
Sarkisian is just 30-25 in his four-plus years at Washington, but he has the Huskies undefeated and ranked (at the moment) No. 16 in the country. He was a USC assistant for seven of the eight years prior to his hiring by UW and grew up in Torrance, Calif., less than an hour’s drive to Los Angeles. It would be beyond surprising if Haden didn’t at least reach out to Sarkisian let alone not make a full-blown effort to land him.
Roman was the offensive coordinator at Stanford for two seasons before following Jim Harbaugh to the San Francisco 49ers. He has previously been linked to openings at Cal and Penn State. With the success Harbaugh had in the Pac-12, and with Roman playing a role in it, this could be a direction in which Haden turns. Keep an eye on this name.
As far as coordinators, it wouldn’t take long to call roll on those more respected than Alabama’s defensive (co-) boss. He’s had numerous opportunities to leave Nick Saban’s side the past couple of years but has remained in Tuscaloosa as the situation simply wasn’t right. Smart’s entire coaching career has been east of the Mississippi; would the bright lights of LA scare him off if the Trojans came knocking?
If Haden is looking to go outside the box, you wouldn’t get much further out than this. Not only has the Clemson offensive coordinator never been a head coach at the collegiate level, he didn’t take his first college job until 2010 at the age of 42 after a highly successful run as a high school coach in Texas. Despite that lack of experience, Morris is one of the brightest and most respected offensive minds in college football — Urban Meyer tried to lure him to Ohio State upon his hiring — and has turned the Tigers’ offense into one of the nation’s best. With college football leaning more and more toward up-tempo offense, especially in the Pac-12, kicking the tires on Morris might make sense on some level.
USC’s offensive coordinator from 1993-96, the 60-year old Riley has spent the past 11 seasons as the head coach at Oregon State. While it would seem unlikely that a coach of his age would make a move, he did reply “you never know” when the Los Angeles Daily News asked a couple of years ago about a potential return to the Trojans. That same paper is already listing Riley as a possibility, although that would be hard to see becoming a viable option if for nothing more than the age factor.
I’m not saying USC will reach out to the Texas A&M head coach, but I’m saying they damn well should. And they’d better do it before the NFL gets its hooks into one of the brightest coaches at the FBS level. It won’t be easy for anyone to pry Sumlin out of College Station, though, as A&M officials will rightly do anything and everything to blunt even flirtatious overtures let alone full-blown pursuits. It wouldn’t seem like Sumlin would leave an SEC job to plow new ground out west, but stranger things have happened.
See above. The Stanford head coach’s name has already been mentioned as longshot possibility, although it seems more likely that he would leave The Farm for the NFL rather than another college job.
In accordance with federal and state regulations, we’re required to include Chucky on any and all lists related to major head-coaching vacancies. Seeing as his wife was not a cheerleader at USC, though, we highly doubt this one has a torso much less legs.