Wednesday, January 13
He ran through the T . . . and kept on going.
Lane Kiffin seemed like a weird hire to me even back in December of '08 when he was first announced as Phil Fulmer's replacement at Tennessee. There were a few things that made sense about hiring Kiffin from a UT perspective -- as I pointed out over at Dr. Saturday in an article about the big Kiffykins-Urban Meyer battle royale earlier this season, UT is a place that's used to long-tenured coaches, and if you're looking for someone with the potential to be a "lifer," you might as well start with a young up-and-comer -- but otherwise he hardly seemed to fit the mold of either Tennessee or the SEC in general. His southeastern ties were minimal; he didn't have any trace of a Southern accent unless he affected one; and after a series of crusty, older guys in Knoxville such as General Neyland, Johnny Majors, and good ol' Phil Fulmer, Kiffykins definitely looked like the odd man out.
I'm sorry if it seems like I'm being provincial here, and making it sound like Southern-ness is the be-all, end-all of someone's coaching cred. You could just as easily look at it from the other side, because it seemed equally strange (to me, anyway) that Kiffin would go to a place like Knoxville. Tennessee is a relatively high-profile job, and they can certainly write big checks to bring a coach to town, but there are any number of programs on the west coast -- where Kiffin has spent the vast majority of his playing and coaching career -- that could say the same thing. After having played in Fresno, been an assistant in Los Angeles, and reached the supposed pinnacle of his industry (i.e. a head-coaching job in the NFL) in the Bay Area, what possible appeal could a place like little ol' Knoxville hold for a guy like Kiffin? And I don't even mean that as a slight against eastern Tennessee; it would be just as difficult to picture Kiffykins staying entertained in a place like Athens, Oxford, or Tuscaloosa.
Well, now we know just how little Kiffykins was actually engaged in his job at UT -- disengaged enough to bounce for supposedly greener pastures after only one year. And if this rather astonishing report from Clay Travis is remotely grounded in truth, it looks like Kiffin never had any interest in or respect for SEC traditions to begin with. Not only that, but he had one eye on L.A. the entire time. Those doubts I had about Kiffin being a good fit for Big Orange were justified, but not for the reasons I thought: Tennessee seemed to get along just fine with him; Kiffin, on the other hand, just wasn't that into Tennessee.
So while I'm just as inclined as any SEC fan to gloat about the UT football program receiving the administrative equivalent of a late helmet-to-helmet hit just three weeks before National Signing Day, there are a couple things about the whole situation that make me mad -- and not just mad on behalf of my diehard-Vol-fan girlfriend, I mean legitimately personally mad. For one thing, Kiffin bolted Knoxville before Georgia could get a chance to exact revenge for this past season's blowout loss to the Vols, meaning that Lane Kiffin will more than likely end his coaching career undefeated against the Dawgs. Words can't describe how frustrating that is.
But in a larger sense, I feel like Kiffykins just hocked a loogie in the face of the entire SEC. Matt Hinton perfectly summed up the ice-cold truth about the situation when he said that the Vols have been "treated like a Bowling Green-level steppingstone." Look, nobody is less inclined to say nice things about the UT football program than I am, but at the end of the day, even their most hated rivals have to admit that it's a program with a lot of wins, a lot of tradition, and a lot of pride to its credit. Did any of us ever think that a program like that would ever be used as the "fluffer" for a Pac-10 coaching job? And what would we think if it happened to our school? As much as I'm tempted to chortle at the shambles the UT program is in right now, or at the near-riots that erupted in Knoxville last night once the announcement is made, I can't imagine I'd be any less pissed if UGA had been treated similarly by a head coach. Georgia fans, think back to how incensed we all were when Glen Mason turned down our head-coaching job back in '95, only to bolt for the friggin' Minnesota Golden Gophers one season later; imagine if Mason had taken the UGA job, coached there for one so-so year, then left us in the lurch to head up to Minneapolis. (And then imagine if all the new "traditions" for which he'd tossed out Georgia's proud old rituals turned out to be bogarted from Minnesota, and that he went out the door in Athens trying to take our top recruits with him.) Think you would've been ready to pick up a torch and/or pitchfork then? I know I probably would have.
Or to look at it another way, in my lifetime, 13 SEC football coaches have resigned or retired; two have died while still under contract; three have gone to the NFL; and thirty-four have been fired. Only nine, counting Kiffin, have voluntarily left for other college coaching jobs, and four of those guys left for other jobs in the SEC. Clearly, the Southeastern Conference is seen as a destination, not a waystation, in coaching circles; what makes Kiffin think he's so fuckin' special? (Actually, I guess that's a question better left to USC folks to answer, but if their initial reaction to the hire is any indication, they don't have any more idea than the rest of us do.)
So while I have no particular desire to see Tennessee field an elite, or even competitive, football program in the indeterminate future, I stand in some degree of solidarity with the UT students and fans who feel like they've been royally played this morning. Even if it was a dick move that screwed over one of my most hated rivals, it was still a dick move, and what it says about Kiffin's respect (or lack of same) for the winning traditions of the best and most heritage-laden conference in the country is something we should all take offense at. Kiffin is clearly a slimeball of the highest order, to the extent that he and his assistants appear intent on leaving that trail of slime all the way to Los Angeles.
Again, maybe I'm just being more sensitive to this than I ordinarily would be because I've got a UT-alum girlfriend to console. (Holly, to her credit, didn't need as much coddling as you might think; she raged about it for a few minutes, collected herself, then got right to the task of making a list of replacements. This shit's a business, son.) But the fact that it happened to one of my most hated rivals doesn't make this situation any less outrageous. I'll still hope Tennessee loses, for the most part, but at this point I think I'll be rooting just as hard for Kiffin to lose big wherever he goes, just like I'll continue to root for, say, Spurrier, Urban Meyer, and/or Paul Johnson to lose should their careers take them anywhere beyond where they are today. Once a shitbag, always a shitbag, and shitbags like Kiffin need to learn a little humility. They may never learn it in the end, but that doesn't mean the rest of the world should quit trying to teach them.