A joyful scene at Reser Stadium Friday was indicative of an element missing from USC football in its underwhelming, 10-8 run through 2012 and into the first half of 2013. Trojans players lifted Ed Orgeron onto their shoulders, carrying the interim head coach away in triumph after the program's first win there since 2004.
The 31-14 victory was USC's third straight in Pac-12 play, all of which have come since Orgeron replaced Lane Kiffin. It was enough to carry him off the field that night, but it shouldn't be enough to carry him into the vacancy full-time.
Chatter of Orgeron becoming the long-term solution already began. In an ESPN.com piece following the Oregon State win, fourth-year junior Dion Bailey said, "if [Orgeron] isn't the head coach [at USC], he will be a head coach somewhere else."
Orgeron has a lot to offer the program. He is doing an outstanding job with limited resources—there's no denying that. The Trojans are 6-3 overall and 3-1 in his tenure, good enough remain in the Pac-12 South divisional race in the season's final four weeks.
The plan Orgeron is selling is the same one Pete Carroll emphasized during the Trojans' glory years of the 2000s. Another Carroll philosophy he's emphasizing in the final four weeks of the season is taking tangible strides late in the season.
"Get better in the month of November," Orgeron told reporters Sunday, per The Los Angeles Times.
A strong performance in a month that includes showdowns with rivals Stanford and UCLA would certainly bolster Orgeron's case.
And none of that should derail athletic director Pat Haden from an external job search for USC's next head coach.
Clemson was rewarded for naming Dabo Swinney its head coach after his interim run, but the young Swinney is much more exception than rule. Other programs, like West Virginia, were not so fortunate.
West Virginia made the late Bill Stewart its head coach following his 2008 Fiesta Bowl win in departed Rich Rodriguez's stead. Stewart's tenure was only notable for the messy ending and transition of leadership to Dana Holgorsen.
Orgeron fits certain criteria expected from the next leader. He’s well familiar with the program’s legacy—in part because he helped add chapters as an assistant coach for over 10 seasons.
Removing the interim from Orgeron's title might address a few short-term question marks: Most notable is recruiting. Orgeron is a celebrated recruiter, and the program’s current instability has left USC with the fewest verbal commitments for the 2014 signing class of any Pac-12 team.
Orgeron continues to recruit, and can solidify the 2014 crop—as an assistant. The next head coach inherits one of the strongest brand names in college football, so recruiting savvy isn't necessarily the A-1 trait required of the next head coach.
The last USC head coach, Lane Kiffin, was a celebrated recruiter, like Orgeron. He was intimately familiar with the USC program from his time as an assistant, like Orgeron.
And, like Orgeron, Kiffin never proved he could win with regularity at any of his previous stops.
Orgeron's 3-1 run as USC's interim leader is nice, but it's a very small sample size. The more telling record is his 10-25 run in three seasons at Ole Miss.
Because of his failing in Oxford, Miss., Orgeron said he didn't anticipate another head coaching opportunity upon being tabbed as the USC interim. Running a program that achieves at the highest levels is a yearlong task with countless responsibilities.
Orgeron has proven he can win over the course of a few weeks, but has yet to excel in the other 11 months of the job. His current run with the Trojans is unquestionably better than any of his three seasons at Ole Miss, but USC is not a program that can afford a training period for its head coach.
The Trojans are at a pivotal crossroads. Since the end of Carroll's tenure and the outset of NCAA sanctions, USC has watched other programs in the Pac-12 pass it.
USC isn't far from its prior greatness, but can't afford to take a detour with the wrong head coaching choice.