You know what the difference between fact and fiction is? Fiction has to be believable. Fact does not. Which is a good thing when it comes to Lane Kiffin. Because if you wrote the screenplay of his life’s story and changed all the names to fictitious ones, then presented it to a major studio exec, you’d get laughed right out of Hollywood.
Oh sure. The stuff before Kiffin ever set foot on UT’s campus is hard to believe. Especially the scene when he was hired by a once-great NFL owner in one of the many acts of senility that dotted the tail end of his career. Despite the fact that Kiffin had never been a head coach on any level. A stretch at best in terms of believability. But when the script gets to the UT-and-beyond years? Come on, man.
A tradition rich school like Tennessee would trade an older, conservative, integrity-laden, favorite-son for a younger, brash, ostentatious, bro from California? Doesn’t seem likely. But that’s what happened and in so doing, Tennessee went from hearthside pitches to hostesses and helicopters. From checking the film to playing footsie with Weezy. From a culture of respect to one of taking pot shots at national championship coaches. Quite a change, indeed.
Not that some of the changes Kiffin brought weren’t needed. And not that some of the changes weren’t effective. But talk about an overcorrection. Talk about straying from who you were as a program. Kiffin was a hyperbole for the types of changes Tennessee needed at the end of the Phillip Fulmer era. Not the actuality it became. Which is why the next 14 months, in many ways, were surreal.
The crescendo would occur on a cold January night in 2010. The last time Vol Nation had witnessed a press conference announcing a coaching change, it featured a proven champion who held back tears as he spoke of about family. The 2010 version featured an unproven also-ran who rocked back and forth as he spoke of greener pastures. The 2008 version featured a man who deeply loved the Tennessee Football program. The 2010 version featured a man who didn’t even understand it.
The media bickering shortly before. The 60-second statement. The refusal to take questions. The untucked white shirt. All images permanently scorched into our collective retina from a night that will forever live in infamy around these parts.
On that night, Kiffin said he was leaving the program in better shape than he’d found it. There was some evidence to suggest that. He’d scored victories over Georgia and South Carolina. He’d put together a top-10 recruiting class in 2009 that featured a crown jewel in Bryce Brown. And he was in the process of putting together yet another such class.
But it didn’t take a college football expert to realize that the Lane Train’s 90-degree turn to the west would lead to a mass exodus of the class he was building. Nor did it take a college football expert to predict the rampant instability that would follow. Or an expert in anything for that matter. Kiffin’s replacement would mark the third Volunteer coach in just three seasons, a cruel twist of fate for a program that had had just two coaches in the 32 years prior.
The kicker was the timing. With just a few weeks till National Signing Day, the replacement pickings would be slim. After all, what kind of coach would leave his program high and dry like that? The ensuing anger on that bleak winter night was palpable. And it was evident everywhere. On TV. Online. And on campus.
A wise man once told me that mad is often a mask for sad, and when I saw that anger on January 12, 2010, I knew he was right. Because at the center of the white-hot hate was sheer heartache. The team Vol Nation thought was about to return to glory was suddenly thrown in disarray. And early enrollees like Tyler Bray and Jacques Smith and the fans who’d rejoiced at their commitments would be caught in the chaos.
But the irony here is that Derek Dooley, not Lane Kiffin, is the one who truly wrecked the program. And while there’s plenty of animus floating about this town for Double D, it pales in comparison to the animosity for Kiffin. Which makes sense, though. Dooley had the comical combination of arrogance and ineptitude. While the former may have affected his likability, it was the latter that would bring the program to its knees. And as horrific as the end result would be, “thief in the night” trumps “incompetent boob” any day. At least when it comes to hate.
Not to mention the fact that had the thief not slithered away to his dream job, the incompetent boob wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. And while Kiffin’s track record suggests longterm success wasn’t in the cards for him in Knoxville, neither, too, would have been the mass implosion which ensued.
During the three-year blast, Kiffin’s story would continue. And, true to form, it would continue in unbelievable fashion. Forget the notion that a top-flight football program facing NCAA scandal would select an unproven head coach who, himself, had received plenty of attention from that same governing body. Consider, instead, Kiffin’s results at USC. Because they’re hard to believe as well.
In 2012, Lane Kiffin and USC were seemingly on top of the world. But despite a No. 1 preseason ranking, deflated footballs, swapped jerseys, poor media relations, and, most notably, a bunch of losses would soon litter the Trojans’ wake. And what was once a national-title contender limped across the regular-season finish line armed with a meager 7-5 record (matching his lone regular season at Tennessee) and a berth to the Sun Bowl to take on the sub-500 Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech.
Which seemed beneath the Trojans, at least judging from their actions. Kiffin’s team was so late to the Sun Bowl dinner that Georgia Tech finally left, fed up, apparently, with such blatant disrespect. The Yellow Jackets would exact their revenge, however, as the Trojans were a no-show for the game, too. Kiffin’s squad lost an ugly and offensively anemic contest to their far less talented opponents.
When the dust had settled, USC earned the notorious distinction of becoming the first team to ever begin a season ranked No. 1 and end it unranked. This time, Kiffin was on the other side of an unbelievable series of events, and such was confirmed when Pat Haden showed him the door the following season.
How, then, after all that, could Lane Kiffin have been hand-selected to become the offensive coordinator of one of the nation’s preeminent teams by one of the nation’s most revered coaches? And if that somehow does happen, how does it happen at Tennessee’s most hated of rivals? It boggles the mind. It doesn’t seem fair.
Because here we are, with better days ahead to be certain, but still languishing in the ruins Kiffin helped create, while the devil, himself, comes riding into town, still no worse for the wear. On top of the world, even, and in charge of the talented offense of the No. 4 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.
Who in the world would have believed all that would unfold back in January of 2010? It obviously did, though, as unfair as it might seem. The added irony that Kiffin is the only Tennessee coach to enjoy a winning record since Phillip Fulmer, just salt in the wound.
Karma would dictate that Lane Kiffin receive what he so deeply deserves for the role he played in the fall of Tennessee football on Saturday. A big fat L. And should karma have its way, the result would be hard to believe given the struggles of the Volunteer offensive line. And the questions at quarterback. And the fact that the Tide has rolled over the Vols seven straight times. The last four of which by a combined 128 points.
But remember, it’s fiction that must be believable, not fact. Kiffin’s career trajectory would attest to that. So, maybe the Vols really will get the most unlikely of wins this Saturday. If they don’t, however, Lane Kiffin will leave Rocky Top a winner.
But don’t let that fool you.
Because, trust me, that guy’s a loser. And the Vols are better off without him.