By: Aaron Tallent
As Lane Kiffin stood on the tarmac at LAX on Sunday morning, I can’t imagine the thoughts that were going through his head. He was probably embarrassed and he probably didn’t see it coming. But I’ll bet he was thinking, “I should’ve stayed at Tennessee.”
Some Vol fans are relishing in what happened last weekend. All Tennessee fans and many more across the country think it was karma for the way he left in 2010. Tennessee’s hatred is not just based on his jilting of the program, because Kiffin didn’t just leave. As USC athletic director Pat Haden did to him, Kiffin humiliated a program and fanbase that had slowly come to embrace him.
When Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008, the field of available coaches was a bit weak. Nevertheless, fans were concerned that athletic director Mike Hamilton wanted to hire Kiffin. Sure, he had a been a successful offensive coordinator at USC, but his head coaching gig with the Oakland Raiders – his only one at the time – ended with a 5-15 record and the owner calling him a liar. Since that owner was the late Al Davis, fans took it with a grain of salt but were still worried.
There was more excitement around the fact that his father, legendary Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and recruiting guru Ed Orgeron would join him. Ironically, the defenses fielded by John Chavis at both Tennessee and then LSU were much better than any of Monte’s and Orgeron is now the interim head coach of USC.
Even with those silver linings, Kiffin had a shaky start. At his introductory press conference, he made cocky remarks about beating the national champion Florida Gators the next year. Also, during the recruiting season, he accused coach Urban Meyer of cheating to try to snag receiver Nu’Keese Richardson (Kiffin issued an apology the next day). He also allegedly told recruit and eventual South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery that if he signed with the Gamecocks, “he would end up pumping gas for the rest of his life like all the other players from that state who had gone to South Carolina.”
However, his greatest travesty was firing the staff of the entire football program, many of whom had been with the program for decades. Kiffin even pulled the scholarships of the graduate assistants.
But he could recruit. In just a few short months, he pulled a top ten recruiting class. And he could coach. After starting off with early losses to UCLA, Florida and Auburn, Tennessee reeled off wins against Georgia and South Carolina. They also would’ve beaten eventual national champion Alabama if Terrence Cody had not blocked a last-second field goal.
His greatest achievement though was taking quarterback Jonathan Crompton, whose career to that point had been a dramatic bust, and transforming him into a fifth-round NFL draft pick. While Crompton has not had success in the professional ranks, Kiffin’s feat is still remarkable when you look at the quarterback’s performance in 2008 and early 2009.
The season ended with Tennessee losing to Virginia Tech 37-14 in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, but fans were still excited about the future with Kiffin. The next season would be tough since the Vols were losing a lot of talent, but fans felt that he could be competing for an SEC East title by his third season. They had even accepted Kiffin not playing General Neyland’s maxims before games because his new ideas, like wearing black jerseys on Halloween, were working well.
Then on January 10, 2010, Pete Carroll left USC to be head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Two days later, Kiffin announced that he would be replacing him in a one-minute press conference.
Tennessee fans were justifiably angry and voiced their concerns. Students rioted and set small fires all over campus, as they often do over athletics. To give you a little context, Maryland students staged an intense protest when Bear Bryant left after the 1945 season.
Kiffin’s departure happened at the same time of the Haitian earthquake that killed more than 100,000 people, which the media used to talk about Tennessee fans’ lack of perspective. Jeff Pearlman, a sportswriter who has used his considerable talents to definitively cover issues like Charles Haley’s penis and Walter Payton’s genital herpes, wrote a scathing editorial on Tennessee fans’ lack of compassion towards the Haitian people. Fans have never gotten over the fact they were made to be the scapegoat for the sports media’s hypocrisy that week.
Six months after Kiffin returned to Los Angeles, the NCAA hit USC with a two-year bowl ban and a four-year reduction in scholarships. You know the rest of the story. Kiffin went 28-15 before being fired. Meanwhile, Tennessee has gone 19-23, with Derek Dooley being unable to dig out of the hole Kiffin created.
In the end, Kiffin would probably have been better off staying and trying to rebuild Tennessee’s program. If he had, one thing’s for certain: he would never find himself standing alone at Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport as the team’s bus pulled away.