The USC Trojans are getting ready for a homecoming matchup against Arizona State with a potential Pac-12 title game berth on the line, yet nobody is talking about USC football today.
As alumni get ready to gather with old classmates with the hopes of watching a Rose Bowl stretch run, they are forced to listen to discussions about their beloved team deflating footballs. Instead of celebrating Marqise Lee and his rise to national prominence or preparing for Matt Barkley to become the all-time conference leader in passing yardage, there is a focus squarely on the behavior of coach Lane Kiffin.
This has been a pattern in the 2012 season. A year that was supposed to be a showcase of USC football succeeding in the face of sanctions has gone sideways with three losses, lots of questions across the board and a series of off-field distractions involving Kiffin.
The latest issue involves USC using footballs in the first half against Oregon that had been deflated below acceptable levels. The balls in question had been tested by the referees before the game and passed inspection, but when they were checked at halftime, they were found to be deflated. USC was notified and the balls were inflated to proper levels.
The Pac-12 reprimanded and fined the university, which promptly put out a release saying that a student-manager had acted on his own by deflating the balls and had been relieved of his duties.
Here’s the current problem for the USC football program: Because of his history, Kiffin has lost the benefit of the doubt in these situations. Kiffin may very well have had nothing to do with the balls getting deflated, but that’s not the way it’s being viewed by the public. The national media is filled with questions about Kiffin’s ethics, and every single person I’ve talked to today said their reaction to hearing about the story was “that sounds like something Kiffin would do.”
When Pat Haden sits down with Kiffin at the end of the year to discuss the state of the program, you have to imagine these issues are going to be part of their talk. Haden has made a big deal about doing things the right way at USC and he is steeped in what the Trojan tradition and culture is supposed to represent.
It’s not that any of these issues from Kiffin are major in nature, but that’s what makes the situation so unnecessary. The media battles, the AP votes, the jersey switching – they are all fairly insignificant but they add up to form a pattern that is diverting attention away from what is really important, Trojan football.
Kiffin himself has often used the mantra “No Distractions” for his team to get them to understand the importance of focusing on the task at hand. He would do wise to pay attention to that saying right now. Kiffin has been given the opportunity to guide one of the elite programs in college football, and that’s where the focus should be -- his players and the Trojan family deserve as much.