Is Lane Kiffin really the best Tennessee could do?
I look at it this way: if Kiffin did not get the head coaching position with the Raiders, would Tennessee be offering him Phil Fulmer’s job? The answer is almost certainly no. Coordinators in their early 30s rarely if ever get head coaching jobs at BCS schools, and they definitely don’t at such high profile places as Tennessee.
So in essence, the Vols allowed Al Davis to figure prominently in their coaching search. I don’t know about you, but that would make me feel very queasy if I was a Tennessee fan. If you’re letting Al Davis’ judgment sway you significantly, it’s time to head, scratch that, run back to the drawing board as fast as you can.
It would also bother me that a former coworker of Kiffin’s does not exactly give him a ringing endorsement. Chris Huston, a.k.a. the Heisman Pundit, was the sports information director at USC for a number of years and ran Carson Palmer’s and Matt Leinart’s Heisman campaigns. The most charitable thing he has to say about Lane Kiffin is that he’s a good talent evaluator, though he has an “abrasive” personality.
Huston continues on about how Kiffin is not as good a recruiter as he’s made out to be, that he won’t get along well with SEC culture, and that he brings a complex offense that players will struggle to learn. In other words, Huston is basically calling Kiffin a younger Charlie Weis. Well done, Vols.
I don’t know if the two had some sort of personal conflict that keeps Huston from being able to say nice things about Kiffin. That is always a possibility. At the same time, he says Kiffin was “about as disliked as you could get as an assistant at USC,” and he points out that the most common comments he heard from USC players regarding him was, “I hate that #$%&$#!” Even if those remarks are exaggerated, they are big red warning flags.
There was an interesting exchange at his introductory press conference too. He said, “I’m really looking forward to embracing some of the great traditions here at the University of Tennessee, the Vol Walk, running through the ‘T,’ singing ‘Rocky Top’ all night long after we beat Florida next year.” (emphasis mine) The next thing he said was, “That line was Mike’s idea, by the way. All right, Urban?”
So let’s see… he’s bold enough to talk some trash about a rival, but then he immediately pins it on someone else and tries to keep that rival coach from being mad at him. Never mind the fact that it’s been a couple years since Tennessee has been competitive in a game against the Gators, that the Vols could use a strong guy to stand up to a coach that has never lost to them, and that Urban Meyer always tries to crush rivals regardless.
Is that the leader you want, Volunteer Nation? Your rivals are not supposed to like you. Either don’t say the words if you don’t want them to be bulletin board material, or say them and own them. Rivalries are big in the SEC, and you can’t take something you said back. The fact he wanted to attribute his own trash talk to someone else lends some credence to Huston’s doubts about Kiffin’s leadership.
Ultimately, the more important Kiffin coming to Rocky Top is his father Monte. It will be fascinating a couple years down the road to see if his Tampa 2 scheme can counteract the Gators’ spread option attack. I have been a Buccaneers fan my whole life, and I can tell you that Monte is as much a reason for the team’s decade-plus streak of success as Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden have been.
Even so, Tennessee finished fourth in the country in total defense and twelfth in scoring defense. John Chavis was not the problem for Big Orange. It was the offense. Dave Clawson was brought in to install a complex new offense that the players never fully grasped.
Now, Kiffin comes in with his pro-style offense that is complex itself. It will take more than a year to get everything installed, and even then there’s no guarantee it will work well. Tennessee does not have anywhere near the offensive talent USC did, and guys like Bill Callahan and Sylvester Croom have showed what can happen when you try to bring complicated NFL-style offenses to colleges without the talent to run them. There just aren’t enough NCAA-allowed practice hours in a week to pull it off.
The current SEC is not a forgiving place for guys who haven’t been head coaches before (Kiffin’s farcical tenure in Oakland notwithstanding). It is unlikely that Urban will let Kiffin off the hook for his comment, as he’s a master motivator who will use just about anything. Steve Spurrier was already speculating before the official announcement that Kiffin may have broken NCAA recruiting rules, though Lane cleared that up at his press conference. He will also have to face Alabama and Nick Saban every year as his designated inter-division rival, and most years Mark Richt puts a pretty good team together himself.
If you’re going to take a risk, there were worse risks Tennessee could have taken than picking Lane Kiffin. However, if they were going to go for a guy with no ties to the school or the SEC, there were probably better options out there.
Why not Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly, a turnaround specialist who has had near-instant success follow him around everywhere he’s gone? Why not Turner Gill, who took Buffalo from being a perennial Bottom 10 dweller to its first bowl ever in just three seasons? Why not Jeff Jagodzinski, an offensive guy who has improbably led Boston College to two consecutive ACC title games?
All three have more head coaching experience and all three have had success so far. They may not know the southern recruiting territory that well, but how much does Kiffin? Pair any of them up with a recruiting dynamo (and there are several that float around every year), and I’d give the Vols a better shot at near-term success, and potentially long-term too, than I would with Kiffin.
So as a Gator fan, I applaud the hiring of this completely unknown quantity who may not be everything he’s cracked up to be. I can’t wait to see another year of Big Orange struggling to grasp an overly complex offense and thereby waste yet another year (and perhaps the final year) of having the talented and frightening Eric Berry on defense.
But as a college football fan, I can’t understand what Tennessee was thinking.