As the competitive Pac-12 rises, USC has hit a low point with the firing of head coach Lane Kiffin. The players and coaches say they'll try to right their season under interim coach Ed Orgeron
LOS ANGELES -- Lane Kiffin's firing the morning after a disastrous night in Tempe, Ariz. – a 62-41 loss to Arizona State that gave Kiffin and Southern California a 3-2 record and seven losses in its past 11 games – made clear that whatever was left of the Pete Carroll glory years is long gone.
The Trojans' newest head coach is an interim choice. USC athletics director Pat Haden announced Sunday afternoon at USC that Ed Orgeron, the team's assistant head coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, will take over for the rest of the season.
In one sentence, Haden also summed up that one of the most storied programs in college football is not currently at the top of its game.
"Our history has been great," Haden said. "We need to be great again."
For now, that starts with Orgeron trying to salvage a successful season while Haden courts a coach. The former USC star quarterback tried to put the focus on the current players as he declined to discuss candidates for a permanent coach to lead the Trojans out of their current mediocrity.
"We'll try to find the best coach, but I don't want to talk about the search now," Haden said. "We have some really great kids, and it's about them now."
The struggling Trojans are taking two days off before they return to practice to prepare for their next game, at home against Arizona on Oct. 10.
The presssure now shifts to Orgeron to find away to avoid what, for a progam such as USC, is shaping up as another lost campaign – following the collapse of 2012, when the Trojans opened the season ranked No. 1 and stumbled to a 7-6 finish.
"I think we're going to kind of circle the wagons a bit, play these eight games and let the chips fall where they may," Orgeron said. "I'm going to have some energy, some excitement, high-fiving guys. That's what I like to do."
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Orgeron, a former head coach at Mississippi, has been given no commitment beyond this season.
"I'm excited to coach the next eight games and we'll see where it takes us," he said. "We'll answer the bell. We're all accountable for what happened."
Haden and Orgeron had nothing but nice things to say about Kiffin, who simply did not win enough to maintain Haden's support. His firing was a surprise only in terms of the timing, although was a striking turnaround for Haden, who had released a video before the season saying that he was "behind Lane Kiffin 100%. I have great confidence in him."
Haden's explanation Sunday was he wanted to give Kiffin support as he tried to right the ship: "We support our coaches 100% until they're no longer our coaches," Haden said. "It came down to a gut feeling that we weren't making the progress that I thought we should be making."
Kiffin was told of his firing by Haden after the team arrived on a charger flight at Los Angeles around 3 a.m.
"He really, really tried to keep his job, and I respect him for that," Haden said, who said after he told Kiffin a group text message was sent to the team.
"I was surprised," center Marcus Martin said. "Now, we'll just try to move forward and focus on the next few games and bond with the Trojan family."
Orgeron said that offensive coordinator Clay Helton will call plays, previously Kiffin's job. Orgeron said the offense will probably look about the same. Of course, Orgeron and everybody at USC hopes the defense will be improved.
Lack of depth
USC's biggest problem – under Kiffin or Orgeron – is a lack of depth, a result of the ongoing NCAA scholarship sanctions. The Trojans were down to 56 healthy scholarship players Saturday, and the defense was about as thin – and effective – as paper.
"We've just been fighting," said fifth-year USC linebacker Devon Kennard. "I think we'll put a better product on the field the next game."
It will be a while before he can put Saturday's game out of his mind.
"It was tough for all of us," Kennard said. "Coaches, players – we were all hurting."
USC is not without talent, though sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler is still finding his way. A duo of young running backs – Tre Madden and Justin Davis – has shined.
But the Trojans' best player, All-America wide receiver Marqise Lee, was knocked out of the game Saturday with a leg injury. His status is unknown but points to the lack of quality backups.
The issue was spelled out clearly by Orgeron before the season.
"The sanctions have created a depth issue that has hurt us," Orgeron said. "You can see it on the field.Our first team is where it used to be. We still don't have a full second team that you feel really good about putting those guys in. And no third team."
The sanctions last another year; the Trojans are limited to 15 initial scholarships and 75 total again in 2014. But Kiffin said before the season the impact of the penalties will be felt longer than that as the small scholarship classes advance through the program. USC might not be back to a deep, talent-rich squad reminiscent of Carroll's teams until 2017.
Even at full strength, USC has plenty of competition in the Pac-12. Oregon and Stanford are powers, while Washington, UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona are on the rise.
Former USC wide receiver John Jackson, now an analyst on Trojans radio broadcasts, says the setbacks and the negativity in the program now do not signal that USC will cease to be a power. There is still that unquestioned tradition of success.
"Pat is challenged with a big decision," Jackson said of the coaching search. "There will be rumors about everybody, and you're going to see all the big names."
And the top high school players? Will they turn their back on USC and head elsewhere, such as cross-town UCLA, which has emerged as a force under second-year coach Jim Mora.
"UCLA is the hot team now, but USC has a great opportunity," Jackson said. "Freshmen want to play, and all USC has to do is show them their depth chart."