USC Mercy-Kills Kiffin, Should Eye Gruden

He always was staring down at his color-coded, way-too-big-for-comfort play list. Maybe this was Lane Kiffin’s sanctuary from the mess swirling around him — his mess — but in the end, that damned piece of cardboard symbolized exactly what was wrong with him.

When the year is 2013, and football has graduated from paper to high-tech philosophies, the coach of what should be America’s most progressive college program was an in-over-his-head buffoon.

It isn’t an overstatement to say few men, in any national-level profession, have had more opportunities at such a young age and achieved less with them. He was named head coach of the Raiders at 31 and spent most of his brief time in Oakland battling the man who hired him, Al Davis. He moved on to Tennessee, where he didn’t read the NCAA rulebook, committed foolish secondary violations and found the escape hatch before what seemed an inevitable breakup. Somehow, the same golden parachute whisked him to USC, where the program was in flames after Reggie Bush dragged them into the depths of probation. Because the prison term was the one thing for which Kiffin couldn’t be blamed, he was given time to build the program his way, maximize what he could of USC’s vast built-in resources and advantages, and at least close some wounds.

Instead, he ripped them open wider, becoming a pariah among USC’s big-money, major-influence boosters and alumni and forcing Kiffin’s firing after his seventh loss in 11 games, a 62-41 stinkbomb at Arizona State. Described thusly on the USC website — “known for his high football IQ, as well as for being a master play-caller and a superb recruiter” — Kiffin was none of those things. He actually became known for his abysmal play-calling, limp and blase body language and a series of bumbling, sneaky episodes (switching a player’s jersey number, deflating footballs) that were far beneath USC’s standards and traditions. Fittingly, he was told of his firing in a cartoonish way, after being summoned off a team bus at Los Angeles International Airport by USC president Max Nikias and athletic director Pat Haden, who had made the decision in tandem while huddling during the game in Tempe.

The school released the statement at 4:35 a.m. PT.

Lane Kiffin was fired in the dead of night.

The good news for Trojan Men and Women everywhere is that the foundation for greatness remains. By cutting its losses now, USC has sent an urgent message to a mother lode of southern California high-school talent that was souring on all things Kiffin. Ed Orgeron, the recruiting coordinator, has been installed as the interim coach, and now the bright and able Haden has time to find the right man. USC still has the money, sunshine, recruiting base — and brand name — to woo pretty much who it wants in a Pac-12 Conference that will challenge the Southeastern Conference for national supremacy. With NCAA-imposed scholarship restrictions ending after next season, there’s no reason USC can’t find its next Pete Carroll — without the probation, that is.

It used to be Hollywood’s program, with Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell hanging out at practice. Haden doesn’t want to take it that far — the same open vibe enabled unsavory characters to connect with Bush and his family, remember — but he will want a coach who resonates nationally and taps into the Lakers/Dodgers/USC triangle that always has dominated local sports passions.

That man is Jon Gruden.

He has the ultimate credibility of a Super Bowl ring. He is visible and vibrant as the opinionated, crap-eating-grinned game analyst on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” He works well with young people, as evidenced on the offseason TV specials where he meets with top college quarterbacking prospects and breaks down film in a casual-but-firm setting. He wanted the USC job in 2010 but requested more power within the structure than Mike Garrett, since removed as AD, was willing to give him. He is five years removed from coaching, and if he’s ever going to get back in, now’s the time.

And, besides, doesn’t he look like Hollywood’s football coach?

Gruden is going to deny interest, of course, and you’ll be hearing all these other football-industry and USC-connected names.

You’ll hear Jeff Fisher, an old USC guy who has a strong NFL coaching pedigree and might be ready to run from the stumbling St. Louis Rams — that is, if the Rams aren’t headed to L.A. themselves and insist that he remain their coach.

You’ll hear Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, former coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and one-time USC linebacking star, who is lobbying hard for the job.

You’ll hear Steve Sarkisian, who was Carroll’s trusted aide during the glory years but has moved on to Washington, where he has a Top 25 program in a beautiful, refurbished stadium and may not want to leave. Also, he is KIffin’s close friend.

You’ll hear Pat Fitzgerald, who has turned Northwestern into a legitimate annual force and is dearly regarded by Haden but isn’t necessarily enamored of L.A. as a lifelong Chicago guy.

You’ll hear Brian Kelly, who isn’t leaving Notre Dame for USC, and you’ll hear David Shaw, who isn’t leaving Stanford for USC, and you’ll hear Bobby Petrino, whose affair/motorcycle crash/dismissal at Arkansas wouldn’t cause a blink in scandal-jaded L.A. You’ll hear Kevin Sumlin, who might be ready to capitalize on his creation — Johnny Football — and make the leap from College Station. You’ll hear another hot name, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, and you’ll hear Greg Roman, offensive strategist of the San Francisco 49ers, and you’ll hear Chris Petersen, who may be ready to leave Boise State now that the new college football playoff system will squeeze out miracle programs.

I keep coming back to Gruden. Any hour now, we’ll hear he has been spotted shopping for real estate in Manhattan Beach, even though he’s with Mike Tirico in New Orleans. The golden parachute won’t be visiting Lane Kiffin again, but don’t be surprised if it’s seen somwhere above Tampa, where the president of the so-called Fired Football Coaches of America runs his office behind a strip mall.

That is not Jon Gruden’s destiny. A return to coaching is.

In L.A.