Kliff Kingsbury saga is new low for embarrassing USC football

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

In losing Kliff Kingsbury to the NFL, USC football has descended even further down the rabbit hole of embarrassment.

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USC football is just embarrassing at this point.

It’s not necessarily that the Trojans just had their biggest victory of the offseason (and arguably the season) walk away for a job in the NFL after a month of employment.

In fact, USC could hardly be blamed for hiring Kliff Kingsbury. He was the best name on the market and getting him was a major coup for head coach Clay Helton and athletic director Lynn Swann.

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It’s not USC’s fault the Cardinals made the dubious decision to offer a failed college head coach with a record of 35-40 in the Big-12 a job at the top of their organization.

The Trojans can claim an extraordinary level of misfortune in all of this, happening to land Kingsbury in an era when NFL teams are actively searching for young offensive minds regardless of their credentials. And they might warrant the benefit of the doubt in that…if the whole thing didn’t reek of the same kind of incompetence and mismanagement that seems to permeate every facet of the program at this point.

It’s the way rumors swirled over Swann’s apparent decision to bar NFL teams from interviewing Kingsbury, only for the rumor mill to turn with the idea that Kingsbury would consider forcing his way out of town by paying his own disturbingly-low buy out.

It’s the way the Kingsbury saga is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to USC’s problems.

It’s the way Swann, a first-time athletic director, seems to have been taken to task at the negotiating table, not just with Kingsbury, but in giving Helton a favorable buyout when extending his contract in the spring of 2018.


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It’s the way Helton spent his first season after that extension going 5-7 despite pulling in five consecutive Top 10 recruiting classes.

It’s the way the Trojans refused to change any aspects of their approach to practice or personnel despite the clear troubles as the 2018 season progressed.

It’s the way Swann ignored growing calls from around the fanbase, including a banner plane flying over the Coliseum, by keeping Helton on as the head coach.

It’s the way it has become clear Kingsbury was the linchpin to any serious changes for the program despite Swann’s acknowledgement of “deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff.”

MORE: Lynn Swann doubles down on Pat Haden’s Clay Helton mistake

It’s the way USC spouted comparisons to Notre Dame’s 4-8 turnaround without considering the massive and ruthless turnover of staff for that program in the aftermath. The Trojans changed just one of three coordinators in the end.

It’s the way USC apparently plans to keep its questionable strength and conditioning program untouched.

It’s the way Helton called Toa Lobendahn the “love of his life” when questioned over his center’s disastrous snapping mishaps, as though love for the player should determine his ability to do the job in question. The way defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast favored playing former walk-on Rueben Peters over five-star stud Palaie Gaoteote while UCLA ran rampant over the defense. The way special teams’ coordinator John Baxter commands an unusual amount of practice time yet fields a unit regularly penalized or caught with too-few players on the field.

It’s the way, on the same day the Kingsbury situation spun out of control, former five-star prospect Oluwole Betiku announced his decision to transfer from the program. He is the 27th Helton-era player to depart the program for one reason or another. He is also the fifth highly-touted recruit from the class of 2016 to be on his way.

It’s the way the class of 2017 already has just as many departures. Whatever the reasons for those players leaving, whether as transfers or dismissals, the culture at USC sure does feel deficient.

SEE ALSO: USC’s attrition rate is a growing problem under Clay Helton

It’s the way UCLA fans, who just endured a 3-9 season, have more reasons to hold their heads high going into 2019. And they’ve had far more occasions to laugh at their rivals in the past year than Trojan fans have.

It’s the way the 2019 National Championship Game played on Monday night seemed only to highlight just how far away USC is from competing in such a contest. The worst part of watching Nick Saban’s Alabama be crushed by Clemson, 44-16, was the inescapable knowledge that such a Crimson Tide team could still swat the Trojans aside like a fly. And they will have the opportunity to do just that in 2020 if things don’t change quickly for USC.

The Trojans are now in an unenviable situation. With the program slipping further and further into the muddy hole it has insisted on digging for itself, there are few realistic solutions.

In fact, the only palatable conclusion to this particular Kingsbury mess is the only one that seems totally implausible: Make a clean break and start fresh.

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Swann can’t totally wash the stink of this circus off himself, but he could begin to correct the problem by doing what he should have done back in November. He could fire Helton and clean house in the football program, finding a new voice to lead the Trojans.

But he won’t. Money, pride and other excuses will find a way to extend this nightmare.

Which means USC fans and everyone in the vicinity of the program can only look forward to stewing in this embarrassment for awhile longer.