LOS ANGELES - Southern California fired Lane Kiffin early Sunday morning, ending the coach's tumultuous tenure a few hours after the Trojans lost 62-41 at Arizona State.
Ed Orgeron was picked as USC's interim head coach by athletic director Pat Haden, who dismissed Kiffin at the airport following the Trojans' flight home. USC (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12) has eight games left under Orgeron, Kiffin's assistant head coach and the former Mississippi head coach.
"It's never the perfect time to do these things, but I thought it was the right time," Haden said.
Haden fired Kiffin in a 3 a.m. meeting at the Trojans' private airport terminal, but not before a 45-minute chat in which Kiffin tried to change Haden's mind.
Haden didn't hire Kiffin, but had been firmly behind the coach until Saturday, when the Trojans matched the most points allowed in school history. The loss was the seventh in 11 games for a high-profile program still struggling under the cumulative effect of NCAA sanctions.
"He did a lot of things well under some very difficult circumstances here," Haden said. "No one could have worked harder. He did a lot of the things we asked. Graduated players, never had compliance issues ... and he really worked under some very difficult NCAA sanctions, there's no doubt about it."
USC must finish an already disappointing season without Kiffin while looking for another coach to reboot its proud program. The Trojans are off this week before returning Oct. 10 at the Coliseum against Arizona.
Kiffin went 28-15 in parts of four seasons in his self-described dream job, but USC is 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 2001 after losses to Arizona State and Washington State - and the record only partly captures the discontent of USC's fans and alumni.
The Trojans were unimpressive on offense even in their three victories this season, stoking discontent around a school with sky-high expectations despite the tail end of heavy NCAA penalties stemming from coach Pete Carroll's tenure.
Kiffin received withering criticism for persisting in calling the Trojans' offensive plays himself well into the school's second straight poor offensive season. The Trojans lost their home opener 10-7 to the unheralded Cougars earlier this month, and Coliseum fans serenaded USC repeatedly with chants of "Fire Kiffin!"
USC has been in a slow tailspin since going 10-2 and beating Oregon in 2011, the last year of its bowl ban. After starting as the preseason No. 1 last year, the Trojans finished 7-6 and out of the rankings, followed by this season's disappointments.
"I think it could easily be asked, "Why not last year after the 7-6 season? What do you know now that you didn't know after a 7-6 season?'" Haden said. "The rationale was the prior year, Lane had won 10 games. We thought, and (were) hoping that last year was an aberration. We felt we could rebound, make some changes, and indeed, Lane did. ... But at the end of the day, we just weren't making the progress I felt we needed to make."
The firing comes less than five months after Haden said Kiffin had "been as good as he can be" in the face of USC's sanctions. Before this season began, Haden said he was "100 percent" behind the embattled Kiffin.
"We support our coaches 100 percent until they're no longer our coaches," Haden said. "Why would you support a coach 85 percent?"
The 52-year-old Orgeron went 10-25 in three seasons at Ole Miss, but that failed tenure did little to diminish his stature as a bulldog of a recruiter and defensive line coach. He coached alongside Kiffin at Tennessee before following his friend back to USC.
Orgeron, a Louisiana native with a thick Cajun accent, might sound a bit out of place in Los Angeles, but he's a popular assistant coach and a USC devotee after 11 years over two tenures at the school.
"It's an unfortunate day today that a coach got let go, but we understand the circumstances," Orgeron said. "I want to tell you we're here as a staff to answer the bell. We're all accountable for what happened as a staff and as players. Us Trojans know how to do it."
Orgeron said Clay Helton will be his offensive coordinator and the Trojans' play-caller. Helton, USC's quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, has been with the Trojans since Kiffin returned in 2010.
Most players found out about Kiffin's dismissal by text messages in the middle of the night.