Lane Kiffin’s firing as USC football coach early Sunday morning reminds us that the explosive tenure of former athletic director Mike Garrett still hangs over the Trojans. Garrett, the 1965 Heisman Trophy winner, authored some of the damnedest hires in his 17-year tenure as AD, and Kiffin was one of the last, named to replace Pete Carroll when he jetted to the Seahawks after the 2009 season.
We have to call Kiffin what he was: An unmitigated disaster. Yes, he had to navigate USC through sanctions caused in the Carroll era (more on that in the Monday edition of the Times), but he put the program through some embarrassing incidents last year (managers deflating footballs to make them more pliable in games, etc.), obviously didn’t win enough and ultimately, this year’s offense showed Kiffin to be shockingly bereft of coaching chops.
Back to Garrett: He was the man in charge when the USC/Reggie Bush improprieties went down. Though there are lots of reason to question why USC got hammered by the NCAA, the NCAA report made it clear Garrett wasn’t running a tight ship, saying, “Universities may not hide their heads in the sand and purport to treat all programs and student-athletes similarly when it comes to the level of scrutiny required.”
Then there was Garrett’s track record of hiring at USC, including Kiffin: By turns, it seemed random, whimsical, at times reckless and at worst, ill-considered.
He took over in1993 and when George Raveling stepped down as basketball coach, he hired assistant coach Charlie Parker, who turned out to be one of the most inept bench coaches in a long time in the league. He later named Henry Bibby, who had some success there but also three losing seasons and a reputation for having a lack of people skills.
Then came Tim Floyd, under whose watch the O.J. Mayo mess occurred.
Garrett’s first football hire was Paul Hackett in 1998. Hackett has been a valued offensive mind in a lot of places, the NFL included, but he was lacking as a head coach; he had a 19-18 record.
Then came Pete Carroll. The Kiffin firing, and his roots with Garrett, called to mind a visit I had with Garrett late in the summer of 2005 in his office, on the occasion of previewing the Trojans’ football team. By then, Carroll had built an empire with the Trojans, and Garrett, the guy who rescued him from two undistinguished NFL stints, was being hailed for his foresight.
Garrett launched an odd recollection of events when I asked him to recount how he hired Carroll. Essentially, what he said was that he always wanted Carroll but offered the job to somebody else.
Garrett was known to have courted Mike Bellotti of Oregon and Dennis Erickson of Oregon State, both hot items just after the turn of the century. Garrett says he offered the job to Erickson — hoping he’d turn it down.
“The only person I offered other than Pete was Dennis Erickson,“ Garrett said. “I was hoping he would turn me down and he did. But I knew if he turned it down and I got Pete, politically I would be in great shape.”
Here’s what I wrote back then:
It’s Garrett’s story that he had to be seen as pursuing Erickson, the hot choice who was coming off an 11-victory season at Oregon State. Carroll was widely viewed as damaged goods, having gone 34-33 in two NFL stints.
Garrett maintains that he talked to others, like Mike Bellotti of Oregon and Mike Riley, who was then in the NFL, but only to soften the belief that he’d jumped unwisely at Carroll.
Said Garrett, “I told Pete, `When I hire you, I’m going to take a hit. They’re going to say, `You’re nuts.’ So let me do the things I can to mitigate the reaction.’
“I’m just being bottom-line honest.”
Garrett then recalled his impressions of Carroll:
When he met Carroll, Garrett recalls thinking, “He’s a pretty guy. The women are going to love him. He’s going to recruit like a monster in the living room. I just hope we can get some offenses together.
“Did I think it was going to be this good? Come on, give me a break. No one knows that. But yes, I think I made a good decision.”
Whatever credibility you give his story on Carroll, he didn’t make a good decision on Lane Kiffin.