USC Football: 7 Reasons Why Lane Kiffin Is the Premier Coach in the Pac-12

Jason ClarkCorrespondent IINovember 4, 2011

USC Football: 7 Reasons Why Lane Kiffin Is the Premier Coach in the Pac-12

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    The Pac-12/former Pac-10 Conference has had some great coaching in its ranks over the years, with names like Jim Harbaugh, Mike Bellotti and Pete Carroll all coaching teams at some point.

    But with those guys leaving for the NFL, or in the case of Bellotti, ESPN, the title of premier coach has been left open.

    One could argue quite easily that Chip Kelly's recent success or Dennis Erickson's history of success earns one of them the honor, but dig a little deeper and things start pointing a different way—the way of USC's Lane Kiffin.

    So without further ado, here is why Lane Kiffin is the premier coach of the Pac-12.

1. Winning Record

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    In his two years as head coach at USC, Lane Kiffin has amassed a 14-7 record.

    While 14-7 is nothing to brag about, it's quite an accomplishment given the situation he was handed.

    Armed with the leftovers of the Pete Carroll era and restricted by NCAA sanctions, Kiffin could have done a lot worse than his record shows.  He has somehow kept his team motivated despite being ineligible for bowl games and has managed to do quite well with a diminished number of scholarships.

    One thing you'll find is that Kiffin doesn't stand out or clearly lead the pack in one category, but the combination of his efforts make him the premier coach of the Pac-12.  His 14-7 record is the epitome of that.  While not being at the top of the pack, Kiffin still would have had his team in bowl games if there wasn't a ban.  

    Coaches eliminated from conversation on winning record premise: Washington State's Paul Wulff, Colorado's Jon Embree, Arizona's Mike Stoops/Tim Kish (Stoops was fired earlier this year and replaced by Kish, who is 1-1 thus far) and UCLA's Rick Neuheisel.

2. Recruiting Impact

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    Recruiting is something that Lane Kiffin has always done well and is continuing to do well in the face of NCAA sanctions.

    Back when he was Pete Carroll's assistant in 2005 and 2006, Kiffin was named the recruiting coordinator.  Those years he was able to bring in future stars Mark Sanchez, Rey Maualuga, Stafon Johnson and Taylor Mays.  Both classes were rated No. 1 in the nation by Rivals.com

    In his few years as head coach, Kiffin hasn't quite lived up to the recruiting gold he collected in 2005 and 2006, but he has done an above-average job.  The immediate impact upon his hiring was that the 2010 recruiting class, which included players like Robert Woods (pictured above), was saved.  Some prized recruits like OT Sentreal Henderson were lost, but 5-star guys like RB Dillon Baxter and WR Kyle Prater stayed with the Trojans.

    Since then, Kiffin has put together the fourth-best recruiting class of 2011 (also according to Rivals.com) and is working on the 16th-best class this year.  That looks like an uncharacteristically low number, but it is still tops in the Pac-12.

    Side note: While Kiffin has had great success so far recruiting, there have been some failures.  The most notable losses are RB De'Anthony Thomas to Oregon, OT Sentreal Henderson to Miami and TE Morrell Presley to UCLA.

    Coaches eliminated on recruiting premise: Utah's Kyle Whittingham, Washington's Steve Sarkisian and Oregon State's Mike Riley.

3. NFL Draft

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    One of the trademarks of the Pete Carroll era was the abundance of Trojans being drafted by the NFL.

    That tradition has continued under Lane Kiffin.

    In the 2011 NFL Draft, nine Trojans were selected, which was the most from any school.  Among these picks were OT Tyron Smith (taken ninth overall by the Dallas Cowboys), DT Jurrell Casey (third-round pick of the Tennessee Titans) and CB Shareece Wright (third-round pick by the San Diego Chargers).

    This year's draft is expected to produce similar results, with OT Matt Kalil projected to go in the top-five overall and QB Matt Barkley projected as a first-rounder should he choose to leave school early.

    But what does this have to do with Lane Kiffin being a premier coach?

    Sending players to the NFL has a lot to do with bench presses and 40 times, but it also has a lot to do with college production.  Head coaches not only identify the talent and recruit them out of high school, but they are responsible for bringing out the talent once they are signed.  While statistics don't say much about draft order, it does take good production to get noticed.  Lane Kiffin has gotten nine players noticed thus far, and we'll be able to add to that total this year.

    Coaches eliminated on draft premise: None. It's kind of unfair to eliminate coaches based on this alone.  If I did, Chip Kelly would be gone, because the only Oregon player selected last year was LB Casey Matthews, who was taken by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth round.  That's not to say a slew of Ducks won't be taken in the next few drafts, though.

4. Coaching Staff

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    Lane Kiffin has one of the best entourages of assistant coaches and coordinators around.

    His assistant head coach and dad is Monte Kiffin, who engineered the Tampa 2 defense.  It's safe to say that he knows a thing or two about football.

    His defensive coordinator is Ed Orgeron, who is also the recruiting coordinator because of his success recruiting with Kiffin during the Pete Carroll years.

    His special teams coach is John Baxter, who had massive success at Fresno State and earned a reputation comparable to special teams mastermind Frank Beamer.

    There is no doubt that half of the excitement of hiring Kiffin came from the fact that his staff would include big, successful names that could take USC back to its top-of-the-world status.

    Coaches eliminated on coaching staff premise: None.  It certainly helps to have a great set of assistant coaches, but it doesn't make or break a team's success.

5. Media Coverage

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    For better or for worse, Lane Kiffin's name appears in newspapers and on websites all the time.  This is partly due to the fact that he coaches Los Angeles's biggest football team, but he was a media magnet before his return to USC.

    Nobody is going to argue that Kiffin doesn't make a splash in the media, so I'll just get to the main question—how does media coverage influence a coach's eligibility as the premier coach in his conference?

    Here's a great example of how media coverage affects the public's view of coaches: Joe Paterno is widely regarded as one of the best coaches of all-time because of his massive number of wins.  However, in 45 years of coaching, he has only won three national championships—the last coming in 1986.  Yet he gets media coverage all the time because he's Joe Paterno, and even if he's only won two Big Ten titles in the last decade, he is still the premier coach of the Big Ten.

    My point is, the media focus on great coaches because expectations are high for them, or they're always on the verge of something amazing.  That being said, there are some great coaches that haven't had the media coverage to be put up on a pedestal.  

    Cal's Jeff Tedford is the poster-child for this situation.  People generally know that Tedford is a great coach, but his late-season falls and lack of national prominence have cost him in this category.  Sorry Teddy.

    Coaches eliminated on media coverage premise: Cal's Jeff Tedford.

6. Head Coach of Big-Time Program

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    Being the head coach of a big-time football program comes with many perks necessary for coaching success.

    For example, you get to pull the "It's [enter school name here]" card when recruiting.  Your team has a huge following and your games are frequently televised in prime time in front of a national audience.

    And if you're the head coach of a big-time program like USC, you had better be the premier coach of your conference.

    There are four coaches left in the competition for premier coach of the Pac-12: Lane Kiffin, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson, Oregon's Chip Kelly and Stanford's David Shaw.

    After last year's national title appearance and their relevance this year, Oregon is clearly a big-time program—graduating the founder of Nike helps as well.

    Stanford has great football history and, despite being the cupcake of the conference every once in a while, they are back in the national spotlight with Andrew Luck.  They might not have the national following of other big-time programs, but everyone knows that Stanford is a premier academic institution, and it is in the hunt for the national championship again this year, so we'll go ahead and give them the big-time program label.

    Arizona State, on the other hand, is more famous for alumni like Barry Bonds and Phil Mickelson than any football players.  They haven't been to a big-time bowl since 1997 and have never won a national championship outright.  Although Dennis Erickson has one of the most impressive résumés of all time because of his success at Miami, he hasn't lived up to expectations at Arizona State.  Erickson was supposed to turn ASU into a big-time program, and he has failed to do that thus far.

    Coaches eliminated on big-time program premise: Arizona State's Dennis Erickson.

7. Experience

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    The thing that sets Kiffin apart from almost all other Pac-12 coaches is his experience in both the NFL and NCAA.

    Kiffin's 36 years of life have been filled with tons of experience, beginning with his assistant gig at USC under Pete Carroll, then going to Oakland in his only NFL stint, traveling to Tennessee to be loved and quickly hated, and finally ending up back at USC for his dream job.

    Everyone knows how badly Kiffin's time in Oakland went (5-15 over less than two years), but it didn't help that Al Davis hated him.  His one year at Tennessee ended up being a lot of talk and very little walk, starting with Kiffin claiming his Vols would beat Urban Meyer's and Tim Tebow's Florida Gators (they didn't), and ending with a loss in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to Virginia Tech, a 7-6 record and a huge fallout when he accepted the USC position.

    However, the experience and knowledge Kiffin has gained from his coaching history is extremely valuable.  Now he has run a pro-style offense in the pros and seen football from both sides of the draft.  His time at Tennessee taught him firsthand the style of football that has won five straight national championships.  This kind of experience can only be matched by Dennis Erickson, and when compared with our two remaining coaches, Kiffin is ahead by a mile. 

    Chip Kelly has only been a head coach for three years, and David Shaw is a rookie.

    Shaw is comparable to Jim Caldwell of the Indianapolis Colts—he inherited a great team with a quarterback that could be the head coach if he wanted to.  Caldwell let Peyton Manning run the Colt's offense, and Shaw is doing the same with Andrew Luck by letting him call plays.  For that reason alone, Shaw shouldn't even be in the discussion for premier head coach.

    Kelly, on the other hand, has made the most of his three years at the helm.  His offense is one of the most prolific in the country, and he has been to two straight BCS games.  It's tough to argue against that.

    Coaches eliminated on experience premise: Stanford's David Shaw.

Final Word

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    The reality is, it's a toss-up between Lane Kiffin and Chip Kelly for premier coach of the Pac-12.

    Yes, Kelly has the on-field results, but Kiffin leads him in just about every other category.  Kiffin's recruiting classes have been better, he has sent more players to the NFL, his coaching staff is one of the best in the nation and he has much more experience.

    The final answer will come in the next few years.  USC will still be feeling the effects of the NCAA sanctions, but they have enough talent to make a serious national title run.  Oregon, despite losing LaMichael James, has great depth and will still be near the top.

    What it comes down to is whether or not Lane Kiffin can take advantage of his opportunity to be great.  The postseason ban has taken away that opportunity for him thus far, but he gets it back next year.

    If he falters and has another slightly above-average season, the honor will go to Chip Kelly.

    But if Kiffin makes the run his team is capable of, he will have defeated not only every team in the country, but will have beaten the second-harshest set of penalties ever handed out by the NCAA.  And nobody can argue against that.