A coaching change at USC felt like it had been months in the making—more like a "when" question and not an "if" question for athletic director Pat Haden.
There are few places in college football where a 3-2 start (and 0-2 in conference play) will merit that kind of swift decision making. USC is one of those places. But the rough start this season was tailing on the end of a bigger slide. In 2012, the Trojans were the preseason No. 1 team according to the Associated Press poll. By the end of the year, though, Kiffin's team was unranked at 7-6 coming off an embarrassing Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.
The scholarship reductions handed down by the NCAA three years ago hurt, but they were no longer an excuse for Kiffin, who was still recruiting at a high level. In four years, Kiffin reeled in three Top 10 recruiting classes, according to 247Sports.
(However, the 2010 class had several players transfer, get dismissed, or otherwise depart from the program, including running back Dillon Baxter and quarterback Jesse Scroggins.)
And there was talent already on the roster. The Trojans had 16 players drafted by NFL teams while Kiffin was the head coach, including nine in 2011. However, only one—wide receiver Robert Woods—was actually recruited by Kiffin.
Even in more humbling times, it was clear USC had the talent to play at a high level, even if the team's depth was an issue.
So going forward, there's no reason to think USC can't get back to the top of the Pac-12—and college football.
There's more competition than there used to be in the Pac-12, though. Cal and Washington have shiny, brand new facilities while Oregon is sitting on a Taj Mahal bought and paid for by Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
Some of the best coaches in the country, including Cal's Sonny Dykes and Stanford's David Shaw, are coaching in the Pac-12. And the Cardinal are putting players in the NFL as consistently as any program in college football at the moment.
Is USC still an elite college football job?
Then there's USC's cross-town rival, UCLA. Jim Mora is doing big things in Pasadena in his second year. Our Pac-12 writer, Kyle Kensing, has a great write-up on how the Bruins are selling their program despite competition from the Trojans and several pro organizations.
The end of the college football monopoly in L.A. that former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel promised five years ago seems more realistic now than it ever has.
The rest of the Pac-12 has gained ground on USC, but that's what happens when equal revenue sharing distributes boatloads of money to everyone. It's like the 85-scholarship limit for football programs: there are still dominant schools like Alabama or Ohio State, but talent is more dispersed. Likewise, there's more to like about other Pac-12 programs.
But can USC take back its place atop the conference? Its coaching position is still an elite job despite the hard times. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the Trojans play their home games, is old, but USC opened up the McKay Center in 2012 and it's as impressive as any football facility out there.
Not to mention USC still sits in the center of one of the best recruiting grounds in the entire country and has the brand recognition to recruit nationally as well. Get the right head coach, who will only have to deal with scholarship limitations for a short while, and some of the best high school talent in the nation will still flock to USC.
3 big pluses for #USC in hiring Kiffin's replacement: stunning brand new facility; fertile recruiting base & can pay big $$$.— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) September 29, 2013
There are coaches out there who USC could lure away from their current jobs and this is a program with the money to do it. Boise State's Chris Petersen, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald should all be at or near the top of USC's short list.
Or, USC could go the NFL route like it did with Pete Carroll. That's another reminder that sometimes the best choice doesn't have to be the first choice.
Point being, USC has options. A lot of them. That's a sign of a program that still ranks among the best in college football.