Kliff Kingsbury’s early departure has left the USC football program with egg on its face. But the Trojans can’t stop eyeing elite coaches.
The USC football program is nothing if not insular. Every athletic director sans for one has had a prior connection with the school, which predictably has resulted in all but two head coaches since 1925 sharing similar ties with the Trojans.
Current head coach Clay Helton was Troy’s offensive coordinator, as was Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin, Paul Hackett, John Robinson and Ted Tollner. Even John McKay himself was on staff before being named USC’s head coach prior to the 1960 season.
Assistants haven’t been disconnected either. Since Helton was promoted to full-time head coach in 2015, he hired his brother, the coach he called his ‘second father’, two former Trojan greats, and then re-hired or retained several coaches who already coached at USC, including defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who chose to hire defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford, whom he coached with twice before.
It’s football nepotism 101. And it’s what USC does best.
So when Helton hired Kliff Kingsbury to turn around the offense in December, it was a move immediately met with acclaim. The former Texas Tech head coach came to Los Angeles with an offensive identity and ingenuity practically every team in America would covet, and had zero ties to the cardinal and gold.
For a program preaching the need for change following a 5-7 bottoming out, it was promising. It was bright. It was refreshing.
USC hired a coach who didn’t know the words to ‘Fight On’ and who wasn’t just a guy. He was hands down the best offensive coordinator on the market. Kingsbury was the most progressive acquisition since Pete Carroll wrangled in Norm Chow and there wasn’t a doubt that he’d get the Trojans’ broken offense fixed in a hurry.
Just 35 days after signing on the dotted line, Kingsbury is off to the NFL as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, having never coached a down, much less a practice.
It’s disastrous for USC. And embarrassing, although if only for the continued penchant for being college football’s New York Knicks, rather than it being a sign of them doing anything categorically wrong.
The Trojans did right in hiring Kingsbury. So much so it backfired when the game’s highest level one-upped their ambition, a collection of words seemingly unimaginable knowing the set-in-their-ways approach the USC football program has always had.
It’s why no matter how bad this feels for Clay Helton and Lynn Swann, they cannot use Kingsbury’s quick departure as a reason not to aim high.
They can’t finally hire a coach everyone wants, and then turn around to use his borderline unprecedented demand from the NFL as evidence for why targeting ballyhooed coaching talents isn’t worth the trouble, thus reverting back to the ol’ reliable arms-length coaching searches.
That’s not the takeaway here.
Rather, the act of hiring a Kingsbury should’ve always been the manta of a university preaching the need to be faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous and ambitious.
Had it been, they likely wouldn’t have been in the position to desperately put all of their eggs in the basket of a highly desirable coach who was never going to be at USC for the long haul, hoping his forward-thinking offensive scheme would bail out the unimaginative appointment of a mediocre Trojan assistant.
Hire the best, expect the best and go from there. Always.