USC's Lane Kiffin is the face of modern college football, for better or worse
Lane Kiffin's career is a "Child's Play" movie. He's thrown the babysitter out of the window, blown up the house with gas from the stove, and beaten the adults bloody with a baseball bat, yet he's still grinning like a Chucky doll and enticing people to play his deadly games. He's on his tow-headed, baby-faced, leering way to Southern Cal to get richer, after making a cold-blooded exit from Tennessee, where he leaves behind a stack of potential NCAA violations and a host of betrayed recruits.
Unsuspecting Woman: Look, George. Some child left their doll behind.
Doll: Hi, I'm Chucky, and I'm your friend till the end. Hidey-ho!
You want to scream, "Don't do it! Don't pick up the doll!" But Southern Cal Athletic Director Mike Garrett grabbed the doll with both hands, and now Chucky Kiffin is the Trojans' shiny new toy.
Kiffin is the face of modern college football. Every problem of the current system is reflected in his treacherous person. He's a charismatic poster boy for the Bowl Championship Series and the profit-driven sham it's become. He's the darling of stampeded, sheep-off-a-cliff college presidents who are colluding in a competitive arms race, and inflating coaches' status and salaries at the expense of any real values.
Let's pause and consider Kiffin's accomplishments. His career won-loss record as a head football coach is 12-21, including 7-6 in his only season at Tennessee. His academic credentials consist of a bachelor's degree in leisure service management from Fresno State in 1998. Although he is just 34, he has already built a reputation as an ambitious liar, and an energetic cheat. So far, he shows more promise than results, combined with a stunning determination to do whatever it takes to get ahead.
In 13 months at Tennessee, he racked up six secondary NCAA violations and earned a letter of inquiry from the NCAA. That's in addition to his handiwork as a recruiter at USC from 2003 to '06, years for which the Trojans are also under NCAA investigation. Kiffin apparently never met a rule he didn't flout or skirt. Among the issues the NCAA is looking into at Tennessee is his use of recruiting hostesses, who apparently acted as semi-seductresses, to the point that one parent complained of the brazenness with which one hostess rubbed her breasts against his son. In November, Kiffin had to dismiss two players for armed robbery, including his star recruit, whom he had boasted of luring away from Florida.
Yet, there is no sense that Tennessee officials were disappointed in Kiffin; rather, they were devastated to lose him. They should have known what they were getting into from the terms of his six-year contract: Had the school decided to fire Kiffin, it would have had to pay him $7.5 million under a buyout clause, yet for breaking his contract, Kiffin will owe the university just $800,000, which he can pay in installments over 36 months. Either Athletic Director Mike Hamilton can't read, or he took a huge gamble on Kiffin, and lost.
Kiffin is merely a product of the soured professional environment in which he came up. The BCS culture itself is fundamentally dishonest, a cartel of six major conferences and Notre Dame, ungoverned by the NCAA, that seeks to hoard $1 billion in bowl profits. How can we expect the competitors to be ethical? Or sensible?
Recently, Minnesota Athletic Director Joel Maturi made a startlingly explicit statement to the Sports Business Journal about the nature of the BCS and what it's done to administrators. "The BCS doesn't want to share the money" he said. "Let's be honest. We bring in the money, Why should we share it? We need the money desperately because we're paying coaches millions of dollars."
College football is not beyond repair. It's full of good people and real, hardworking students. College players put in hours and hours every week between weight training, practice, film sessions and travel, and I would argue they're more dedicated than most undergrads, and take on more responsibility. There's nothing inherently wrong with the fact that college football has become transactional, either. Bowl income and TV revenue pay the tab for thousands of athletes in smaller sports to compete and get educations.
The trouble is that too many administrators are unwilling to do the hard work of controlling their costs and their impulses. Hiring Kiffin is an attempt at an easy fix. It's a lot easier than taking the time for a real coaching search, and hiring someone less illustrious who is willing to build slowly, and the right way. Especially if an athletic director is in fear of falling behind in recruiting wars, and their potential effect on the BCS bottom line.
According to a recent report from the reform-minded Knight Commission, in the 2007-08 school year, nearly 80 percent of major athletic programs reported operating deficits. Programs in the red lost an average of $9.9 million. NCAA data shows that the rate of increase in athletics spending in Division I is three to four times greater than the rate of increase for academic budgets. There's more: Since 2006 the average budget deficit for 80 percent of athletic programs has risen 11 percent. At the same time, the average salary for head football coaches has increased 46 percent, to $1.36 million. Obviously, college administrators are hoping that coaches will be miracle workers who will bail them out financially.
Those are the stakes, and the pressures, and it has led to the current state of the game. What once attracted people to college football was its institutions, whether you loved them or hated them: Notre Dame, Joe Paterno, Ohio State. Those old institutions, though they could be accused of hypocrisy by their detractors, at least claimed to stand for something larger than themselves. What does Lane Kiffin stand for? And, frankly, what does USC stand for now?
College football has become all about pragmatism: Do what you can to better your team and damn the consequences, because you'll be long gone (and richer) by the time any bill comes due for the institution you're the caretaker of. That's Kiffin, and that's the BCS.