This is going to be the last thing I write about Lane Kiffin until SEC media days. Or until he opens his mouth again. Or unless I write something about USC from earlier in the decade. Or something.
Anyway, there were two major theories about his now-infamous speech on the day after signing day. One is that he was just being stupid. The other, which I subscribe to, is that he knew exactly what he was doing and was trying to re-energize the Tennessee fan base.
However, I’m beginning to think it was as much for a group of people that weren’t at the booster function. His players.
Rewind the clock a little more than four months. Tennessee conducted a press conference to announce that its ultimate company man was leaving, and it wasn’t his choice. It was a very emotional day for everyone there, and even I, a rival fan, couldn’t help but feel bad for Phillip Fulmer.
But as bad as I felt for him, I wasn’t angry about it. Fulmer’s players were angry about it, and they made sure that the UT administration knew about it. The Knoxville News Sentinel described the scene like this:
“Players marched en masse from UT’s football complex a few blocks away to arrive in the stadium 30 minutes before the 5 p.m. press conference. Some grumbled, while others interjected, including wide receiver Josh Briscoe, who asked [athletics director Mike] Hamilton during the press conference why it was more important ‘that we make a dollar than it is to keep a tradition and keep the Tennessee family the way it’s been for years.'”
That’s right, the Volunteer players practically stormed the castle with torches and pitchforks and openly questioned the athletics director during that press conference. Say what you want about Phillip Fulmer, and someone probably has already, but he definitely created an intense bond with his players.
Now, every new coach has to work to do to win over the players that were there before him. For instance, Urban Meyer’s 2005 team struggled heavily because many of his new guys were unhappy about the vanishing of the player’s coach regime that preceded him. In Tennessee’s case, it was going to be a tall task for whoever followed Fulmer in Knoxville given that they all clearly were not happy about him being forced out.
With his speech that angered rivals and turned the world against him, Kiffin may have turned his team for him. He said at a booster event yesterday that the controversy has “re-energized” the team:
“The bottom line is that our players are extremely motivated, because what’s happened is that, yeah, we’ve said some things that may have ruffled some feathers. We’ve maybe gone in and not been exactly as polite as we can be when we go into a school and wait our turn. But you want to know what? [The players] know we’re doing that, and I’m saying things publicly because they have to perform. When they feel their head coach and their staff have so much belief and so much trust in them, they’re down there working harder than ever.”
It’s probably pretty easy for players to be inspired by a coach who has yet to run them hard or chew them out in practice. When push comes to shove, there will be some guys who don’t fully buy into what Kiffin is selling. That much is inevitable with any new coach.
For now at least, he has them refocused on work. They aren’t sitting around trying to figure out how Coach Kiffin compares to Coach Fulmer, they’re figuring out how they’re going to make sure Kiffin’s verbal checks don’t bounce this fall.
With the goal for 2009 undoubtedly being a return to a bowl after missing one in 2008, that change among the players may be the most important side effect of his speech of all.