Why Tennessee Fans Hate Lane Kiffin

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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. 

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.