Lane Kiffin had few answers in a 10-7 loss to Washington State in the second… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
There was no singular moment. No play call that went awry or ill-advised timeout. No sideline blowup that prompted Athletic Director Pat Haden to fire Lane Kiffin as USC's football coach.
Fans had been screaming for the coach's head for weeks and he paid no attention. But when his gut told him the Trojans weren't getting better and it was time to act, Haden didn't hesitate.
Early Sunday, less than six hours after a lopsided loss to Arizona State in Tempe, Haden fired Kiffin during a meeting at Los Angeles International Airport. He is the first Trojans football coach to be dismissed in the middle of a season, according to a school spokesman.
"It's never the perfect time to do these things," Haden said during an afternoon news conference on campus, "but I thought it was the right time."
USC's 62-41 loss to Arizona State dropped the Trojans' record to 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the Pac-12.
Kiffin, who succeeded popular Pete Carroll as coach in 2010, had been under fire since the end of last season, when the Trojans opened ranked No. 1 in the nation and tumbled to a 7-6 record. USC has lost seven of its last 11 games dating to last season.
Kiffin, 38, compiled a 28-15 record at USC. His best season was 2011, when the Trojans finished 10-2. That glory had long faded in the minds of fans, who filled the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with boos this month during an upset loss to Washington State. Late in that game there were chants of "Fire Kiffin."
That Haden did came as a surprise to Trojans players.
"Rough," said Marqise Lee, an All-American receiver. "My whole thinking was finishing out the season at least."
USC film student Monica Rodman wondered what took Haden so long. "Wow," she said while constructing a set on campus. "Finally."
Kiffin did not respond to a voice-mail message seeking comment.
Haden announced that Ed Orgeron, USC's fiery defensive line coach, would serve as interim coach as the school seeks a permanent replacement for a program that has won 11 national championships and produced hundreds of NFL players. Orgeron formerly was head coach at Mississippi, where he had a 10-25 record.
Haden declined to discuss whom he was targeting, but Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin, Boise State's Chris Petersen, Vanderbilt's James Franklin, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Miami's Al Golden and Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a former USC All-American and NFL head coach, have been mentioned as possibilities by college football pundits.
"Our history has been great," said Haden, a national championship-winning quarterback and Rhodes Scholar for USC in the 1970s. "We need to be great again."
After Saturday night's game, as USC's team and traveling party boarded a plane back to Los Angeles about 1 a.m., Haden said he told Kiffin that he would like to meet upon arrival at LAX. They spoke about 3 a.m. for 45 minutes in a private room at the airport, Haden said.
Kiffin "was clearly disappointed and battled me," Haden said. "He really tried to keep his job and I respect him for that."
USC then sent a text message to football players informing them that a change was being made and that a team meeting was scheduled for 11 a.m.
Haden met with Orgeron and then addressed players at the meeting. "Definitely surprised," senior linebacker Devon Kennard said. "Now, it's time to move on."
Kiffin was a USC assistant coach in the early and mid-2000s when Carroll revived USC into a national power. Kiffin left USC after the 2006 season to become head coach of the NFL's Oakland Raiders but was fired midway through the 2008 season. He was hired by the University of Tennessee in 2009 but left the Volunteers after one season to take what he said was his "dream job" at USC in January 2010.
He returned to campus six months before the NCAA, the governing body for major-college sports, hit USC with some of the most severe penalties in college football history. The penalties were for rules violations related to former Trojans running back Reggie Bush, and they included a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years.
Haden appealed to the NCAA last week to restore some of the scholarships. The request was denied.
Haden said Kiffin "did a lot of things well under some very difficult circumstances" but also noted that college sports is "a winning business."
Kiffin's firing comes during a break in the Trojans' schedule. USC does not play until Thursday, Oct. 10, against Arizona. "That made it a little bit easier," Haden said. "The fact that we could just take a little bit of a deep breath, exhale and have this bye week to gather ourselves."
The timing also has ramifications for USC recruiting because some top high school players in Southern California reportedly were concerned about Kiffin's status.