By TIM DAHLBERG
AP Sports Columnist
The end for Lane Kiffin came in the middle of the night at the airport, as his team sped off into the darkness without him.
There’s little sentiment left anywhere in college football, but give USC athletic director Pat Haden some credit. At least he didn’t offer Kiffin a blindfold and one last cigarette before disposing of him like yesterday’s trash.
Not that anyone in Southern California is feeling terribly sorry for Kiffin, who never seemed able to connect in any meaningful way with the alumni who were calling for his firing or the media who were simply trying to cover a football team. Football coaches are paranoid by nature, but Kiffin took it to new levels as his team collapsed around him.
He was supposed to not only be Pete Carroll’s successor but his match as a coach and big-time recruiter, someone who would keep the Trojans a national powerhouse. He turned out to be neither, but it’s not as if USC didn’t have a warning.
This was a guy so eager to get to USC that he fled Tennessee after one year, prompting students to burn t-shirts with his name and angering players, who screamed at him that he was a traitor. The same guy, you might remember, who thought he could teach the late Al Davis a thing or two about football when hired by the Oakland Raiders as the youngest head coach in the NFL’s modern era.
Somehow, USC was fooled into thinking he really was a coaching Boy Wonder. Instead, all the school got for its millions was Boy Blunder.
Kiffin should have been gone after last season, which the Trojans opened as the No. 1 team in the country only to stumble to a 7-6 season. He had to go early Sunday morning after USC and its once vaunted defense were pushed around the field in an embarrassing 62-41 loss at Arizona State.
Give Haden credit for finally recognizing that, even if Kiffin had to be told his fate at 3 in the morning in a small room at Los Angeles International Airport. Haden said Sunday he saw things beginning to go bad early in the season, but withheld judgment until the debacle in Arizona convinced him things were not going to magically get better.
“I fully supported Lane Kiffin 100 percent until last night,” said Haden, who assumed his job from Mike Garrett, the man who hired Kiffin in 2010.
Haden said Kiffin pleaded with him for 45 minutes to keep his job, but to no avail. Fitting justice, Tennessee fans surely believe, for a coach that thought so little of his job there that he paid $800,000 to get out of his contract after only one year to return to USC, where he got his start as tight ends coach under Carroll.
It wasn’t that long ago that Kiffin was being hailed as a coaching genius who would shake up the NFL. Now he’s still two years short of reaching 40 and already a three-time coaching loser who will have trouble now getting a high school program to return his calls.
At least Haden had some nice words of farewell for Kiffin, saying he did a good job graduating players and helping USC get through a NCAA probation that limited scholarships and bowl appearances. That was better than Davis calling him a liar and the even more unprintable things people at Tennessee had to say about him.
For Kiffin, it was probably always a case of too much, and much too soon. The son of Monte Kiffin, who helped win a Super Bowl as defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, he was 26 when first hired as a USC assistant and only 31 when Davis and the Raiders came calling.
He had coaching genes and football knowledge. But he didn’t have the maturity to know what to do when things went wrong, or the judgment to stay planted in a place that gave him every opportunity to succeed.
Yes, Kiffin had to follow a coach who won big and won often. He had to deal with NCAA sanctions that weren’t his doing, and he had to figure out how to get recruits who were being told bad things about the future of the USC program. He was given a chance to succeed, but had to walk a tightrope to do it.
That he wasn’t up to the task was evident last year, when the Trojans lost five of their last six games. Further evidence came this season when USC lost to Washington State and struggled to beat Utah State at home, amid boos from those who bothered to show up at the Coliseum for what in previous years would have been a mismatch.
Kiffin tried desperately to turn things around, parting ways with his father — who was making a reported $1.4 million as a USC assistant — and shutting off access to practice to both fans and media. He juggled quarterbacks and tried to fix the defense, but nothing seemed to work.
Now Kiffin is gone, unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the night by an athletic director who couldn’t wait any longer to give him a chance to succeed.
Even worse for Kiffin is he’ll no longer be a Boy Wonder by the time someone else lets him try again.