With Kliff Kingsbury gone to the NFL, USC football may struggle in 2019. But if it results in long-anticipated coaching changes, it will all be worth it.
If you happen to be a USC fan who believed that Clemson’s rout of Alabama in the National Championship Game was going to be the final college football news Monday, you were quite mistaken. At 9:31 p.m. Pacific, Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com sent Trojan fans into a frenzy.
“A couple of our #USC insiders on @ThePeristyle are saying Kliff Kingsbury is going to be the Arizona Cardinals head coach,” Abraham tweeted.
And as of Tuesday afternoon, Kliff Kingsbury is now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
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The vast array of emotions in response to Kingsbury’s decision from USC fans ranged from sheer rage to sinking despair. Just a month ago the USC faithful rejoiced as Lynn Swann and Clay Helton delivered the home run hire of Kingsbury. It generated the most excitement and hope around the USC program since the 2017 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State.
Yesterday, that glimmer of hope was replaced with misery. Following the debacle that was the 2018 USC football season, Trojan fans dreamed of an instant turnaround due to Kingsbury’s offensive acumen and prior head coaching experience. Unfortunately, USC will never see Kingsbury coach a practice, let alone call an offensive play during a game.
The disappointment from fans is palpable and entirely justified. However, what if Kingsbury ditching USC before helping the team score a single point was exactly what USC needed?
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Make no mistake, Kliff Kingsbury leaving USC 34 days after being hired, and many of the tactical moves by both his camp and the USC athletic department during his tenure, are an embarrassment to the entire Trojan program.
Lynn Swann’s reportedly unprecedented move to block Kingsbury from interviewing with any NFL teams was short-sighted and could limit USC’s ability to hire prominent coaches for as long as Swann remains AD. Plus, allowing Kingsbury’s buyout to amount to the paltry sum of $150,000 speaks volumes to Swann’s deficiencies as USC’s athletic director. Meanwhile, Kingsbury leaving for another job after just over a month will leave certain teams wary of hiring him in the future, especially if he fails quickly with the Cardinals.
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Yet, there is little doubt that USC fans would have forgiven this contentious period if Kingsbury remained with the team and delivered the wins that seemed automatic with his dynamic offense leading the way.
But the reality is that Kliff Kingsbury may be USC’s savior without actually coaching the Trojans.
Picture this: If Kingsbury was USC’s offensive coordinator this season and helped the team win nine or 10 games while playing their way into a Pac-12 Championship Game, he would have undoubtedly left for the NFL after the 2019 season anyway. If teams are interested in him now, a successful season at USC would have elevated his demand to a fever pitch. Meanwhile, USC would be left with Helton who, much like during the two Sam Darnold years, would deserve little credit for the team’s improved performance.
In this scenario, if USC was unable to make a similar caliber hire to replace Kingsbury, the program would immediately slip back to where it was in 2018, and Helton would ultimately be fired during or after the 2020 season anyway.
While this outlook is bleak, it is the most plausible scenario had Kingsbury remained at USC.
The true problem is the cap on USC football’s potential with Clay Helton in charge.
The Trojans’ head coach has consistently proven that he is incapable of making adjustments to his practices and program in order to address glaring deficiencies from lacking physicality to misappropriation of time (the offensive line is a disaster and special teams segments at practice are ludicrously long).
In addition, Helton’s program is rife with the failure to hold its members accountable. During games, the team racked up penalties more efficiently than points, and the lack of punishment for insufficient performance or mental errors destroyed any culture of competitiveness at practice. Why compete when you are unable to surpass those underperforming ahead of you?
Helton simply does not elicit the level of accountability and discipline from his players and staff that is required to win a championship. On Monday night, the Clemson Tigers embodied those traits as an organization and demolished one of the most disciplined programs in college football history. Time and time again we witness coaches like Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick reveal the blueprint for success on a national stage, yet USC’s entire athletic department couldn’t be further from functioning in a similar fashion.
Nevertheless, USC’s cap under Helton is nothing to scoff at, as the Trojans won the Rose Bowl with outstanding talent at Helton’s disposal. Yet, that ceiling does not approach the potential of the USC program. The Trojans are capable of dynastic runs, as Pete Carroll proved in the mid-to-late 2000s, and they will not achieve that with Helton in charge.
So what is USC’s next move now that Kliff Kingsbury is gone?
USC needs to reinvigorate its fan base by generating a similar level of excitement to what the Kliff Kingsbury hire created. The singular method to accomplish this is to fire Clay Helton and bring in Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables (or a similar level hire) immediately. The only USC supporters that would oppose Venables supplanting Helton immediately are the staunch defenders of the sanctity of contracts (who appeared due to the Kingsbury situation).
Of course, there is a zero percent chance any of that actually happens. If Swann did not fire Helton for USC’s egregious performance in 2018, he has no additional motivation to do so at the moment.
No, the best outcome for USC moving forward is for this season to end with Helton’s dismissal, and the probability of that improved with Kingsbury’s departure.
At this stage, it will be increasingly difficult to convince a talented offensive coordinator to join the USC staff, unless one wants to seize the opportunity to potentially succeed Helton.
Yet, the situation is a catch-22 for any candidate. If USC’s offense improves and the team wins more games, Helton will remain in his position, and if USC does not improve, everyone will lose their job.
This is why the team must perform poorly in 2019.
It is Machiavellian, it is depressing, and it is downright unfair to the players (especially the seniors) who have given so much to USC. The players are the ones who are truly harmed by the instability within the program (the number of players lost for a variety of reasons over the past few recruiting cycles is staggering).
The players deserve so much more than what this staff has given them. They deserve discipline. They deserve to have their coaching staff and athletic department stick up for them when they make mistakes off the field. They deserve to receive adequate coaching in order to develop and realize their potential as football players and as young men. Yet, they currently go wanting.
It is painful to acknowledge that without the offensive mind of Kliff Kinsgbury USC may be destined to struggle again in 2019. The Trojans open with a hellish six-game stretch against Fresno State, Stanford, BYU, Utah, Washington and Notre Dame. That may have been navigable with Kingsbury but feels like a near death knell without him.
Yet, if it all results in a head coaching change, and the new university president makes significant alterations within Heritage Hall (the root of most of USC’s problems and a story for another time), Kingsbury’s departure may end up being the utilitarian blessing vital to the Trojans’ future success.