WE LIVE IN A GOLDEN AGE OF MOB DRAMAS — not just because of movies and shows like The Departed and Boardwalk Empire. The greatest tale of nepotism, backroom deals and power aren’t viewed on HBO, but ESPN.
Don’t look to Atlantic City, but Los Angeles and the University of Southern California football program. Led by Coach Lane Kiffin, the story of his rise puts him in the ranks of Capone, Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel. Stretching from Tampa to Detroit to Tennessee, Kiffin and his staff have left behind a streak of heartache for fans, damaged teams, record breaking losses and a college campus in flames.
THE FOOTBALL “FAMILIES”
Nepotism is endemic in football, with roughly 10.8 percent of bowl subdivision school head coaches having at least one relative on staff. Some cases the talent of the son has justified the hire. But USC’s Lane Kiffin and his former USC linebackers coach Joe Barry have seemingly arisen by their names and connection alone. And it starts in Tampa Bay in 2003…
Tampa Bay Superbowl Victory Trophy
On January 26, 2003 the Tampa Bay Bucaneers won Superbowl XXXVII. Head coach Jon Gruden won with the help of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin (father of Lane Kiffin) who created the innovative Tampa 2 defense strategy. Also in his stable were Rod Marinelli as defensive line and assistant head coach and his son-in-law Joe Barry (son of Detroit Lions offensive line coach Mike Barry) as linebackers coach.
This was a banner year for the Bucs, and a bright future seemed in store for the team and its coaching staff. However, only a few years later things went south.
THE DETROIT DOWNFALL
In 2006 Rod Marinelli was hired as the new head coach of the troubled Detroit Lions. One year later, Marinelli brought son-in-law Joe Barry with him and promoted him to defensive coordinator. The first year was a losing 7-9, but an improvement over the dismal 3-13 first year of Marinelli’s tenure.
But 2008 would be the worst year for any team in NFL history. The Lions went 0-16 and much of the blame was assigned to Joe Barry, with the Wall Street Journal calling Barry “inexperienced” and his choice “controversial.”
But the biggest insult came after a 42–7 loss against New Orleans in December 2008. Detroit News columnist Rob Parker jokingly asked Marinelli if he wished his daughter had married a better defensive coordinator. The move got Parker criticized by the sports media and he resigned, but he only said what everyone was already thinking. Marinelli was fired the next week along with Joe Barry.
“LANCE” KIFFIN DEBUTS
In 2007, while Joe Barry was getting ready to work for his father-in-law’s team, Lane Kiffin was flying high. Oakland Raider’s owner Al Davis, renown for picking young coaches like John Madden, Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden, decided to roll the dice again on Lane. The problems started at the press conference when in announcing his choice, Davis mistakenly referred to his new coach as “Lance”. Meanwhile, he pronounced the name Kiffin impeccably.
Lane was branded “Lance” by detractors who thought he was hired because his father Monte. Lane set about to prove them wrong… but ended up Lance-ing it by going 4-12 his first season. Kiffin began to fight with owner Al Davis and was fired midway through the 2008 season. Lane filed a grievance with the league and took the head coaching job at the University of Tennessee.
TENNESSEE TOPPLES TAMPA
When Lane Kiffin was hired there were rumors that were quickly confirmed that his father Monte would join him. While Tampa Coach Jon Gruden told the media that departure wouldn’t be a distraction, the Bucs suddenly collapsed in their last four games, becoming the first NFL team with a 9-3 record to miss the playoffs. A quote by Monte Kiffin where he said “I’m sure there’s a lot of people that are wishing that Kiff takes the first bus to Tennessee” led some to speculate tension between Jon Gruden and Kiffin contributed to the collapse. In the end, as Monte left there was a huge purge of coaching staff, including Gruden. The Super Bowl winning coaching staff was out.
Lane Kiffin’s future at Tennessee looked promising. His first year was moderate 7-6, but an improvement over the previous coach. And with a six year contract in place he’d have plenty of time to build class of recruits and remake the school. But his stint at Tennessee lasted less than his failed stint in Oakland.
USC coach Pete Carroll had just accepted the head coaching job with the Seattle Seahawks just as the hammer was coming down over violations of NCAA rules. While most young coaches with spotty records might prefer to hunker down and hold their position, Lane Kiffin looked at the trouble USC and felt at home.
Of course, his abrupt departure wasn’t well received by the students. They rioted and set fires on campus to protest Kiffin’s quick departure after only 14 months on the job.
Lane Kiffin took his father Monte with him, and snagged Joe Barry, who’d gone back to Tampa Bay after the disaster in Detroit. Lane took over a team facing a two year bowl ban, reduced scholarship and close monitoring by the NCAA. The 2012 season was the first year out from under the ban, with USC ranked #1 in the preseason polls.
While the season isn’t over, there is much to feel bad about. Losses to Stanford, Arizona and Oregon knocked them down from their #1 perch. Then they lost to long time rival UCLA, despite beating them 50–0 last year. Worse, the shellacking by the Oregon team was followed by sanctions after it was revealed that the game balls were under-inflated during the first half of the game (which would make the balls easier to pass and throw, favoring USC’s style of offense). USC blamed an unnamed student manager and fired them.
While the season isn’t over, there is much to feel bad about. Losses to Stanford, Arizona and Oregon knocked them down from their #1 perch. Worse, the shellacking by the Oregon team was followed by sanctions after it was revealed that the game balls were under-inflated during the first half of the game (which would make the balls easier to pass and throw, favoring USC’s style of offense). USC blamed an unnamed student manager and fired them.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Bring Plenty of Popcorn
USC football is underperforming, plagued by scandal and staffed by coaches with smoldering campuses and wrecked teams in their wake. And while Joe Barry did move on to the San Diego Chargers, the coaching staff still hasn’t overcome the nepotistic professional inbreeding that would put some minor monarchies to shame.
What it does have going for it, however, is a film school full of creative students who, if they’ve learned anything from their expensive education, would do well to start taking notes and outlining scripts for the eventual sports-noir mashup that will be the story of the Carroll-Kiffin era of USC football.
Philip Moon is the creator and one of the writers of the college football comedy web series SUIT UP, available on Yahoo! Screen and Crackle.