With 13 games standing between Lane Kiffin and his fate at USC, the Trojans need to be firing on all cylinders this fall.
In 2012, Kiffin and the Trojans went from the heights of a preseason No. 1 to being unranked by the final game of the regular season.
When the dust settled, it was one of the biggest free falls in history, with the once-top team in the nation finishing 7-6, including a 21-7 loss to unranked Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
And don’t forget there are only two programs in the FBS that have recruited better than USC over the past four years (Alabama and Florida). This adds up to few viable excuses for Kiffin, and this is true even with the string of injuries in 2012 and the NCAA sanctions that continue to limit scholarship numbers.
Of all of the hurdles standing in Kiffin’s way to get to double-digit wins in 2013, the one he can’t afford to trip over is team trust.
If Kiffin loses the confidence of his team, it won’t matter how talented they are or what they were predicted to do.
This is why this past week’s story about Marqise Lee’s concerns over the quarterback controversy is more than just fluffy stuff to get us through to opening weekend.
It is significant because it indicates that Kiffin may be in danger of losing his team’s trust.
According to an article by Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles, Lee expressed his desire to have the decision between Cody Kessler and Max Wittek wrapped up by the end of last week.
Dude, this is crazy. I am still waiting. I don’t know when coach Kiffin is going to actually decide but I hope it’s Friday because that’s when we start our (preparation for Hawaii)…It would be good to know by Friday but it’s up to coach Kiffin and at the end of the day I’ll be waiting just like you guys.
Though the comments were reported to be lighthearted, the message is clear, “Dude, the season is about to start, we need a starting quarterback…”
Lee’s public comments are not isolated, which lends more credence to the theory that Kiffin may be losing player confidence.
According to an article written in April by Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports, former USC quarterback Matt Barkley had some interesting observations from his time with Kiffin.
You put your faith in your coaches, but when you see trends, things not happening the right way, and when the team rests on your shoulders, it’s almost like you have to step up. You can’t just let these things go by and watch them disintegrate in front of you. You’ve got to put the glue in somewhere. Looking back, I wish I’d been more forceful.
Another sign of loss of control comes via a report from January regarding a fight that broke out in the Trojans locker room after the Sun Bowl loss.
The incident started when some freshmen questioned the leadership of the team’s seniors and whether they gave 100 percent effort for the Sun Bowl. This led to an argument that eventually escalated, according to witnesses.
Wolf quotes one player, “who did not wish to be identified,” as saying, “It was one of the worst things I’ve seen in a locker room."
ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski reported in January that a few weeks after the Sun Bowl, a USC player—who wished to remain anonymous—told him that “Kiffin had ‘lost’ the USC locker room." He went on to describe the defeat to Georgia Tech as "getting boat-raced by a high school football team."
Even though USC AD Pat Haden has been outspoken in his support of Kiffin, it’s not Haden’s confidence he’ll need on the 13 game days of the 2013 season.
No, when the whistle blows, it will be the full support of the 100-plus members of USC’s roster that will decide whether Kiffin stays or goes.
To capture the confidence of his team, Kiffin must make the shift from being a brilliant strategist to a master motivator.
In his own words, according to ESPN.com, Kiffin said that he had invested so much time into “X’s and O’s and what it takes to win, that I hadn’t grown enough to understand the other stuff that matters.”
Kiffin’s game plans—which may look unstoppable on paper—will come alive and prove fruitful only if he can connect with, motivate and inspire the talented athletes who grace his roster.
This is the “other stuff” that desperately needs his attention.
Putting anything ahead of this could spell disaster more so than another bungled media encounter or questions regarding his suitability as the offensive play-caller.
It all goes back to helping the players, but individual players being successful makes the team successful. Now everybody always says there is no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in win, because the individuals make the team what it is, and how they think and what they do is important to the team. So when you act like the individual is not important, well, its damn important who these people are and what they are.