Lane Kiffin

Lane Kiffin goes over plays with quarterback Cody Kessler in the season opener at Hawaii. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In the wee hours after a game in which it had been finally and completely transformed into something else, something small and embarrassing and even irrelevant, the USC football program has finally been slapped with some sense.

Pat Haden has fired Lane Kiffin.

With the grass stains still fresh on the Trojans’ 62-41 humiliation at Arizona State on Saturday night, the USC athletic director finally burned deep enough to do something that many thought should have been done nine months ago, making the only move he could have with the program in a season that has perhaps already been lost.

Less than two months after announcing he was "100%" behind his head coach, Haden finally got 100%  behind the evidence and fired Kiffin.

USC announced the release of its controversial and struggling young coach at 4:35 a.m. Sunday, soon after the team flight returned to Los Angeles, in a transaction that its fans probably wish was trumpeted in prime time.

Even the most blindly loyal of USC faithful had been chanting for Kiffin’s firing at the Coliseum, pushed for his firing in public signs, and most compellingly showed their dissatisfaction by failing to show up for games.

Yet, in the end, Haden was listening not to those critics but to his mandate as caretaker of what was until recently college football’s most prestigious and prolific program.

Haden fired Kiffin not for his off-the-field shenanigans, but because he was embarrassing the program on the field. It was that simple. He was losing. The losses were increasingly unsightly. Even for a team handcuffed with NCAA-mandated scholarship limits, the losses became some of the worst in recent USC history, and Kiffin was finally held accountable.

Although Kiffin had a 28-15 record in his three-plus seasons at USC, he had lost seven of his last 11 games, fitting numbers for the kind of defeats that kept USC fans up all night.

Last season, those losses included a 62-51 defeat to Oregon, a 38-28 loss to UCLA, a 22-13 loss to Notre Dame, and a 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in a Sun Bowl that allegedly featured a postgame tussle between players in the locker room.

This season, those losses were a 10-7 defeat to Washington State and then Saturday’s monumental crash at Sun Devil Stadium.

Before the game, USC officials were privately saying that this night would be the season’s turning point. Nearly four hours later, an unprepared Trojans team had allowed the Sun Devils to dominate them. USC fell to 0-2 in Pac-12 games, turning this season into something that may not be salvageable. Kiffin leaves them as a 3-2 team with the toughest part of their schedule, and a lower-tier bowl at best, awaiting.

Through it all, for most of his time here, Kiffin did not help himself by being in the middle of controversies involving deflated footballs, switched jersey numbers, rotating quarterbacks and strange-for-USC closed practices. The actual games should have been his refuge from this constant madness, but instead they seemed only to expose him further as an aloof young guy who just couldn’t manage a team.

The lasting impression of Kiffin will be of him walking the sidelines with his face buried in his play card while the Trojans stand idly around waiting for him to lead. He was never a great leader. He never seemed to embrace the passion and emotion that had long buoyed this program through the national championship eras of John Robinson and Pete Carroll.

Less than four years ago, Kiffin was hired by former Athletic Director Mike Garrett before USC was placed on probation. Not long after, Garrett was fired and replaced by Haden.

Kiffin was never Haden’s guy, but Haden didn’t want further turmoil in a program already filled with angst, so he tolerated and even embraced Kiffin for as long as the team was moving in the right direction.

On an awful Saturday night in the desert,  when it became obvious that the Trojans had completely and utterly lost their way, Haden finally had no choice but to act.

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