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USC Football

Kliffhanger

January 8, 2019
1,662

Sometimes, I still think about Gary Klein’s answer during a mundane afternoon of spring camp.

It was years ago now, back when I was on the beat for Scott at 247Sports and Gary still covering USC for the Los Angeles Times before he eventually switched over to the NFL after the Rams came to town. By then, Gary was well over a decade in – an eternity on the same beat at the biggest paper in town. In a different time, newspaper custom would have reassigned him to a fresh team years earlier than the Times ultimately did.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as the sun bore down during a fairly inconsequential practice, whether he still enjoyed it. Did he ever get sick of covering USC?

It turns out he didn’t. Because, he told me, there’s always something interesting going on.

Trojan Insider
Kliff Kingsbury was officially hired by USC on Dec. 5.

Nothing about Kliff Kingsbury was supposed to be interesting in early January. That figured to come in late March when he took the reins of the Trojans’ floundering offense, transforming those dull days into something more dazzling. Yet here we are, months early and mere weeks since USC announced him as their greatest coaching coup in years. Naturally, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

We know so little right now, which in itself tell us so much. Kingsbury may be here or he may not be, and he now has Lynn Swann’s permission to interview with NFL teams after Swann supposedly became the first-ever athletic director to block a coach from doing so. The expectation is that Kingsbury won’t leave for anything short of an NFL head coaching job, something no one knows if he can genuinely land this early into his coaching career. Unless, that is, he’s changed his mind in response to Swann’s obstinance, which we don’t know, either. The entire thing is murky, messy and regrettably on par for the course with where this program has been for so much of the past decade.

However this plays out, USC was always going to amount to a layover in Kingsbury’s career, a safe harbor to lick his wounds and rehabilitate his image after his alma mater, Texas Tech, fired him after compiling a pedestrian 35-40 record across six seasons. In an ideal world, this amounts a short-term marriage of convenience for both he and Clay Helton, one in which the former eventually jets off to the NFL or another college head coaching job and the latter regains solid footing at USC after the Trojans again light up scoreboards and again win double-digit games.

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But Kingsbury was never supposed to leave now, because there didn’t figure to be anything worth leaving for. If he wanted an NFL offensive coordinator job, he could have had one before signing on at USC And who would seriously consider him for an NFL head coaching job with his current bona fides, or lack thereof?

As it turns out, at least two teams. Such is life when the league’s churn rate has seven franchises looking for coaches and a paucity of good candidates to fill those vacancies. Each of those teams are stargazing at the Chiefs and Rams, wondering how to engineer a similarly high-powered passing attack of their own. When it comes to aesthetics, both on and off the field, few at any level can match Kingsbury.

Swann knows this, and found himself in a bind. He shouldn’t have to let Kingsbury interview, not after he just agreed to terms with USC. He certainly had the option to wait for the NFL if he so chose. But, realistically, Swann couldn’t afford not to. Kingsbury would be interviewing for the pinnacle of his profession. The optics are horrible and the implications are even worse: Kingsbury may not be long for USC but forbidding him from even talking to his dream employers only risks truncating that tenure even further. It could even damage the Trojans’ prospects of landing similarly-touted coaches in the future, who might worry that their boss would stand in the way of their career advancement instead of empowering it.

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY
Lynn Swann initially blocked Kingsbury from interviewing with any NFL team.

Until yesterday, it appeared Kingsbury faced an uphill climb to get one of those jobs. That’s where Swann should have played some game theory and weighed the lower probability of actually losing Kingsbury to the NFL against the much higher chance that it could damage the school’s relationship with its star coordinator or create a public relations gaffe. There’s a reason, after all, that no man or woman in Swann’s position ever barred the NFL from talking to one of their football coaches until now. The athletic director backed down, of course, but only after reports circulated that his initial refusal was enough to make Kingsbury consider paying his own buyout and doing the interviews anyway. It reads more like capitulating than a genuine reconsideration, especially coming from someone who proved so dogmatic about retaining Helton despite so much backlash.

The result is the same either way but this is a case where the methodology matters, because Lynn Swann has far more say and is much more deeply entrenched at USC than Kliff Kingsbury ever could be. If nothing else, this needs to be a teachable moment. It may yet be too late to salvage the relationship with Kingsbury, which only puts further onus on Swann to pivot the program somewhere – anywhere – in the direction of genuine hope.

It remains anyone’s guess whether he’s up to the task, just as no one knows where Kliff Kingsbury will coach this spring. But as a friend of mine once taught me, something is going to happen. And, since this is USC we’re dealing with, it certainly won’t be boring.

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