Hollywood Houdini

Failing upwards, with style
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Lane Kiffin was not necessarily supposed to be the boy king. For one thing, his father — current USC defensive coordinator and untouchable Tampa 2 guru Monte Kiffin — never quite reached the throne. For another, the idea of coaching as a hereditary enterprise seems, blessedly, to be waning. There are still some last names for which coaching is a family business, but no one really thinks that being born with a famous coach’s surname and genetic material confers some sort of coach-ly ability, let alone divine right; we can probably thank the Spawn of Shula for that.  But if Lane Kiffin was never quite supposed to be king, or even to be Monte Kiffin, it seems safe to say that he was supposed to more than this.

Kiffin’s career thus far, pedigree-powered or not, would seem to suggest some prodigious talent. If it were a standalone incident, Kiffin’s hiring as head coach of the Raiders in 2007, when he was just 32 years old, could be seen as another manifestation of Al Davis’ willful and possibly demented late-life team-running. But, given Kiffin’s subsequent and consecutive hirings by Tennessee and USC, that hiring makes a sort of retroactive sense. Not because he has continued to succeed, or ever really succeeded as a head coach; he hasn’t, and his greatest attribute so far has been a preternatural ability to repeatedly fail upwards, and to do so loudly. But, for all that, Kiffin has shown a tremendous and undeniable talent, if not necessarily for coaching, then at least for getting hired.

After briskly working his way up the ladder during his first stop at USC — jumping from Tight Ends coach to Wide Receivers coach to Offensive Coordinator in a matter of five years, all before turning 30 — he took that job in Oakland, and so became the youngest NFL coach since the merger. He followed in the footsteps of Madden, Shanahan and Gruden as remarkably young coaches hired by the Davis regime to lead Oakland-Los Angeles-Inglewood-Oakland Raiders to the promised land. For the moment, age appears to be the only thing he really had in common with those three hugely successful coaches, but Kiffin was younger than all of them when he was hired.

And so Kiffin was quickly elevated from “Monte’s son” to “wunderkind,” if only briefly. Just 20 games, and five wins, into his Oakland career, the “boy wonder” was being described by the man who hired him as “a flat out liar ... [who has] brought disgrace to the organization”. Those were Al Davis’ words during his hatchet job-via-Powerpoint presentation "press conference" following Kiffin’s dismissal.

But this was Al Davis, after all, and Kiffin not surprisingly fought against this characterization; he went so far as to take Davis to court to prove his competence. While the case made its glacial way through the California civil court system, Kiffin got another head-coaching job, this time as the coach of former SEC powerhouse, the Tennessee Volunteers.

If only he had waited for the judge’s decision — which confirmed that the Raiders’ were legally correct in their assertion that Kiffin kind of sucked  —  Kiffin may have taken the longer path to coaching stardom, perhaps finding a high-profile coordinating position before taking a turn at head coaching again. By ruling that the organization was justified in its termination of Kiffin “for cause,” the court spared the Raiders an onerous financial obligation, as Kiffin was due $3.5 million throughout the life of his contract with the team. Had the decision been made earlier, it could have spared Kiffin as well: relieved of trying to justify his place in the sports landscape as the youngest and hottest young hotshot head coach he could have returned to his previous public persona as the genius coordinator he appeared to be when he was running an offense powered by Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. He might, even, have learned the obscure persuasive, motivational and executive skills required from a head coach. That didn’t happen.

***

Instead, Kiffin proceeded to make one bad decision after another following his arrival in Knoxville. There were his unsubstantiated accusations against Florida coach Urban Meyer — the statements themselves managed to be violations of SEC bylaws — about illegal recruiting practices. There was a good deal of brashness and trash-talking, and mostly mediocre results. And then there was his eventual and unceremonious exit from Tennessee to take his dream job at USC — a decision which literally lead to riots as Volunteer fans expressed their displeasure with his decision (or perhaps, his performance) by storming the campus and starting fires. He left Tennessee with just one 7-5 season, and even less friends, in his rearview mirror .

This was Kiffin’s first season at USC in which the program was not under the cloud of NCAA sanctions that were the result of the sketchiness that ruled during Kiffin’s previous time with the Trojans. Out from under all that, Kiffin assembled what was believed to be the best team in the country, quarterbacked by the best player in the country, and led it to another 7-5 record. A season that began with a number one ranking ended with a special guest appearance as the final speed bump on their biggest rival’s barnstorming tour to the National Championship Game.

All of this despite the return of QB Matt Barkley — who before the season was the Heisman frontrunner — and several other key members of a team that had finished 10-2 the previous season. Losses to Oregon and Notre Dame didn’t help, of course, but USC’s blown opportunities against Stanford, UCLA and perpetual Pac-12 cellar dwellers Arizona hurt the team the most. They were simply unable to play to the level of their talent, and ended the season outside of the top 25.

Which, at least this far into his career, is pretty much Kiffin’s thing: failing to meet high expectations that he himself conspired to set, as loudly and brashly as possible, and while pissing off the absolute maximum of people. There are plenty of theories as to why that’s the case; the best of these, to me, came from Grantland's Shane Ryan — whose piece on Kiffin does a much better job of breaking down the comedy of errors that have lead him to the position he currently holds — who postulated that Kiffin’s career reflects a combination of actual merit (as an offensive coordinator) and a real world application of the Peter Principle (that people are promoted to the level of their incompetence). The basic facts of Kiffin’s career are confounding and fascinating enough; there’s a Robert Caro history to be written about each line on his CV, so there's a considerable amount of reason and rightness behind it.

It is worth noting, though, that Kiffin's story doesn't read so much like a organizational psychology book as it does a Joseph Heller novel.  In order to convince others that you are capable of being the head coach of a winning football team, you usually have to be the coach of a winning football team; or at the very least prove that you have the ability to have teams play up to or above expectations. Kiffin, excluding last year’s 10-2 team, has proven mostly incapable of that, but here he is anyway. He does not project calm, or even much executive competence: Kiffin spends a lot of time talking about the changes he wants to make instead of actually implementing them, and jumps from project to project like a middle-manager desperately hoping the higher ups never notice how much time he spends not really doing anything. And yet, again, here he is.

***

So, how exactly did this career path come to fruition? This pure, self-satirizing application of the Peter Principle (somewhat the result of his considerable talent as a coordinator-- which, even if you re-evaluate his success based on his personnel, is legitimate) mixed with a sisyphean penchant for falling up the stairs. Where could it come from?

The whole thing would make more sense if Kiffin was a pro’s-pro type, one of the many personable coaches cycling through jobs on the strength of his network and the length of his resume. But Kiffin isn’t that: he’s brazen, abrasive, and only tenuously competent, but was a head coach in the NFL, the SEC and at one of the great programs in college football before turning 40. He is, more to the point, still employed.

Ultimately, our ability to withstand Lane's "charms" comes from the idea that there’s an aspect of performance art to what Kiffin does, and a certain razor-edged corporate satire inherent in the fact that he keeps getting hired to do it. Even if Kiffin is not a very good head coach, he does at least offer fans some darker pleasures: those of us lucky enough not to be fans of a Kiffin-coached team can enjoy watching Kiffin — and perhaps to a larger extent, USC — flop like a fish out of its tank, gasping and pop-eyed and desperate. There’s also a Wile E. Coyote quality to the whole proceedings — with winning and relevancy playing the role of Roadrunner — as we watch Lane run headfirst into situation after situation, as he did this year with the “I wouldn’t have voted us number one” debacle, without a semblance of a plan or even an acknowledgement of the challenges that lie ahead.

The show might not last much longer at USC, but what’s permanent about Lane Kiffin is what’s permanent about college football and a certain type of corporate culture. He will be back. Somehow.


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