Commentary

How USC went from Carroll to Kiffin

Troy wasn't rebuilt in a day -- it was more like six

Updated: January 13, 2010, 10:32 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Friday

It stayed remarkably quiet until the very end when the news landed thunderously during everyone's lunch break Friday.

Pete Carroll was leaving.

The why and the where mattered little. USC's rock-star football coach was leaving the building just as the applause was beginning to fade. The right time for him, the worst time for USC.

These were already going to be uneasy times for the Trojans. Carroll had pledged to work tirelessly to restore and reclaim his faded empire. Now that job would be left to somebody else.

Was it best to restore or reinvent? To go backward and dip in the well that had painted past glories, or grab a new can of paint altogether?

Throughout the process that played out the next six days, USC always tilted toward the former. To look to familiar faces and ways. To embrace its past and resist fundamental change. The program, in its own eyes, was not broken. Just a classic car in need of a new engine.

One name immediately came to everyone's mind: Mike Riley.

USC had come close to hiring the brilliant and almost shockingly sincere Oregon State coach in 2000 before Carroll's exuberance and charisma blew everyone away in interviews. And the school had developed even more respect for its former offensive coordinator since then, watching from a distance, as he turned the Beavers into one of the Pac-10's best teams.

If there were ever an actual list, Riley was at the top of it. Unfortunately for the Trojans, their feelings for him were hard to conceal. News spreads in a millisecond. Rumors swirl even faster. Carroll hadn't officially left yet, and central Oregon had already Twittered itself into a panic.

Saturday

There is never an easy way to break off such a long relationship. Sometimes, when it's going to be painful anyway, it's best to let the person getting dumped dislike you for a while. To let anger help ease the loss and soothe the initial panic.

But there are rules to hiring a coach in the NFL, and the Seahawks had to follow them. Which is why Friday's thunderbolt was followed by a very soft rain for most of Saturday, as the Seahawks and Carroll worked hard on making things right with the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the caretaker of the NFL's Rooney Rule to promote diversity.

Carroll even placed a call to John Wooten, the chairman of the alliance, expressing how seriously he took the rule and pledging not to circumvent its spirit. He even offered a show of good faith, promising that he would not become both coach and general manager.

At the same time, USC was bracing for the inevitable. Carroll was leaving. It was time to move forward. Riley was the guy. By this point, Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis had already lost several hours of sleep. He read everything he could click on, called everyone he knew.

He had to act pre-emptively to have any chance of keeping his homegrown and wildly popular coach.

Late Saturday afternoon, he told The Oregonian's John Canzano that he was working on a "lifetime deal" for Riley, who was on his way to Orlando, Fla., for the AFCA convention.

"Mike's said he wants to be the Joe Paterno of Oregon State," DeCarolis told Canzano. "So we'll put something together to make [his contract] a lifetime deal."

Sunday

Word of the Beavers' late-night balcony serenade reached USC by morning. This wasn't going to be easy.

The powers that be had already known that Riley wasn't like other big-time coaches. He doesn't have an agent, doesn't play games and doesn't have the same type of motivations many others of his ilk do.

He grew up in Corvallis painting the football stadium. And he had left Oregon State once before, in 1998 for an ill-fated run as coach of the Chargers.

As much as he might wonder what he could do with the advantages that come from being the USC coach versus the Beavers coach, he might not want to leave again.

A lifetime offer and the loyalty that demonstrated might just be enough to persuade him to stay in Corvallis.

It was at this point that USC started formulating backup plans. Next on the list were former Trojans Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio, who had had most of their coaching success in the NFL.

Fisher let it be known that he wasn't interested. Del Rio left the door open.

But USC's boosters were pushing Garrett to consider other options. One prominent group got very excited about former Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, who had the personality and charm to make people forget about Carroll -- as long as he won.

Others pushed for outsiders such as Stanford's fiery Jim Harbaugh and Boise State's Chris Petersen to reinvent the program in their own, already successful images.

Once Riley passed on the job late Sunday evening, the most influential people in the room only had eyes for the two bright young stars Carroll had trained and sent out into the world on their own: Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian.

At about the same time, Carroll officially resigned as head coach. The informal search that had been going on for the past three days was now starkly official.

Monday

When asked for his opinion by the types of people who matter at USC, Carroll had given it.

"I talked to some people, yeah, I love the program so much, I care, and I did tell them what I think," Carroll told ESPN's Shelley Smith.

Asked about the Del Rio option, which Garrett seemed to favor, Carroll said, "I don't want to contribute to the fact that guys from the NFL are coming back to USC because I don't think that's going to happen. I think that's media talking. Don't think they'll do that, that's my guess.

"My guess is that they'll stay in the college ranks."

Although Carroll wouldn't say exactly which candidate he had endorsed, multiple university sources have indicated that he recommended Sarkisian and Kiffin. In which order is harder to pin down.

Outwardly, Sarkisian's name took off faster. He even had to offer public statements denying that USC had asked about his availability.

Some of the disparity could have been because Kiffin came dragging along a bag full of secondary rules violations in just his first season at Tennessee, which some saw as a liability.

Carroll's opinion carried a lot of weight, but it only reinforced what many were already thinking: To restore what Carroll had built, USC needed a coach he himself had built in his image.

Garrett seemed locked in on Del Rio for most of the day, but was always open to Kiffin or Sarkisian. The question very quickly became whether Kiffin and Sarkisian were open to USC and Garrett. Monday afternoon and evening were spent on that question.

While Sarkisian was a popular choice, he clearly had reservations about leaving Washington after just one year. Had he actively pursued the job, it could've been his. He did not.

Kiffin was more open to the idea. Although he's still very young, 34, he has always been savvy -- more savvy than people give him credit for. The decision was difficult to make, but clear: Tennessee was a good job for him. USC was better.

As he said in retrospect, as he left Tennessee in a hastily assembled news conference, "I really believe that this was probably the only place that I would've left here to go."

Very late Monday night, as the Del Rio option was fading -- he just could not walk away from the $15 million owed to him in Jacksonville, and was not a flashy enough hire to follow Carroll -- support coalesced around Kiffin.

Hiring Kiffin would be popular with the alumni. Hiring Kiffin, his father and Ed Orgeron would be a home run.

Adding Norm Chow to complete the resurrection would be a grand slam.

Tuesday

By early Tuesday morning, details and contracts were being discussed and Orgeron was en route to Los Angeles. Kiffin, who had been in Orlando at the AFCA convention, hastily left after an SEC meeting. USC had reached out to Chow, whom Garrett viewed as essential to the deal.

The wheels were turning quickly, but because of the sensitivity of the situation, everyone involved tried to move without making a sound. At about the same time Carroll was being introduced as the new coach of the Seahawks, USC was preparing to shock the world again.

In the early afternoon, Heritage Hall was rumbling. Something was in the air. A news release was being drafted. Contracts were being finalized. Kiffin was on a plane back to Knoxville, thinking of how he would tell his players and the school that was still learning to love him.

No matter what, it would be uncomfortable to leave. So Kiffin decided to rip the Band-Aid off. Tennessee's players were told to come in for a meeting. As soon as that call went out, news reports flooded the airwaves and Internet.

Within an hour, Kiffin was a trending topic on Twitter. It would take an accounting firm to count the number of text messages that flew back and forth throughout the country in the first few hours after the story broke.

Kiffin thanked his players and the Volunteers fans, but not many wanted to hear it. They were angry. As Carroll had proved just days earlier, breaking up is hard to do.

But getting out of Los Angeles and getting out of Knoxville are two completely different things. Groups of angry fans stormed the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center. It devolved into a mob scene, with police moving in and barricading Johnny Majors Drive in front of the football complex, according to ESPN's Chris Low.

The reaction in Los Angeles was more mixed. The local media were skeptical. Alumni and USC supporters were ecstatic. Then when news leaked that USC was trying to lure Chow away from UCLA and back into cardinal and gold, they hardly knew what to do with themselves.

The boys were back in town.

Wednesday

The message to USC's mad search for a coach was clear: Restore and rebuild. Reinventing never felt right.

Carroll had built an empire that presided over West Coast football for the better part of a decade. In his last year, that empire began to crumble. But a fall was not inevitable.

The people and players who had helped him build it were gone, leaving Carroll to hold it up and together on his own.

At the end of the season, I had asked him whether USC needed a makeover or a new approach. He did not hesitate. "We have to fight our way back to where we have been," he said. "We need to find it again."

Now that task is left to Kiffin. A coach groomed by his legendary father, Monte, and by Carroll, with the guts to strike out on his own and the moxie to recover after he failed.

But most importantly, a coach who was there when Troy was built and just might be able to re-create it from memory.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.