The Ballad of Bryce Brown is Over

March 17, 2009

This year’s Terelle Pryor, at least in terms of length of recruitment, has chose to cast his lot with Al Davis’ BFF up in Knoxville. Is it a good or bad thing for Tennessee? Depends on whose colors you wear.


The Oakland Raiders Put Tennessee On Notice

March 14, 2009

onnotice

“As you are undoubtedly aware, Mr. Kiffin is involved in arbitration with the Raiders. Not withstanding the fact that Mr. Kiffin must have told you about the pendency of this proceeding, we want to put you on notice of it, and the University’s involvement in some of the underlying facts.”

The Raiders have been feuding with Lane Kiffin since before they fired him near the beginning of the 2008 NFL season. The team believes that Kiffin broke NFL rules, breached his contract, and “induced” assistant coach James Cregg to breach his contract by leaving before the end of the season to work at Tennessee.

CBS Sports managed to get a copy of a letter the Oakland Raiders sent to the University of Tennessee, and the quote right at the beginning is in it. It details the team’s list of grievances against Kiffin, but that’s not all.

The Raiders apparently plan to use some of the statements that Kiffin and Tennessee Athletics Director Mike Hamilton made about the Raiders. At Kiffin’s introductory press conference, the two laughed about Oakland and called it “dysfunctional.” The team, however, says any dysfunction was a direct result of Kiffin’s alleged rule breaking and lying to the team and media.

The letter is also notice to Tennessee that the Raiders plan to get access to all of Kiffin’s employment agreements with the university. They feel those documents are necessary evidence for sorting out the grievance Kiffin filed with the NFL over whether he was entitiled to the remainder of the money in his contract. Oakland’s front office refuses to give him any of it since it believes he breached his contract.

That request for documentation really isn’t the biggest deal of this whole thing. UT is a public university, and those documents can probably be obtained as a part of whatever freedom of information act the state of Tennessee has.

The biggest accusation is that the team believes that it is “quite possible” that Kiffin gave information about the Raiders to opponents while unemployed. The Raiders also estimate that the arbitration process will occupy some of Kiffin’s time over the next five months.

The idea that Kiffin would give inside information to opponents should not sit well with any fans, and it certainly wouldn’t go over well in the SEC if proven. For instance, a contingent of Alabama fans became vocally upset last December when news broke that former Utah and current Florida head coach Urban Meyer discussed Alabama with his friend and current Utah head coach Kyle Wittingham.

The idea of devoting time to this case over the next few months will also probably chafe Kiffin himself. After all, he was the person who (fictitiously) said he fired someone over being 25 minutes late to pick him up from the airport to illustrate how much time he wanted to devote to his job.

Whether much comes of this, I can’t say. It seems to me that at this point, just about everyone has his or her mind made up on both the Raiders and Kiffin. If you read the letter it will become clear though that Oakland will drag Tennessee into this arbitration process, and the team practically advocates for UT to fire him:

“It cannot be in the best interest of the University to continue to serve as his ally in his personal, though misplaced, war to rewrite the past.”

I think this will be a story worth watching regardless of what Kiffin has said and done over the past couple of months. I cannot remember ever seeing an NFL team publicly feud with a university, so this fight makes for a unique precedent.

All those who were cheering Kiffin on as he made Tennessee “more interesting” had no idea just how right they were.

UPDATE

Kiffin and his lawyer have fired back:

“Starting with Al Davis’ nationally televised press conference publicizing the firing the head coach Lane Kiffin last fall, the Raiders have continued to attack coach Kiffin in the media…

“Starting next Tuesday at a hotel in Oakland, the Raiders will no longer be able to rely on unsupported allegations made in the media, as a key Raiders personnel, starting with Al Davis, will finally have to answer questions under oath at their depositions, a process that coach Kiffin is confident will demonstrate that he was fired by the Raiders without cause and show that the continuing assault of allegations being made against him are false.”


Kiffin’s Speech Wasn’t Just for the Fans

February 12, 2009

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.


Lane Kiffin: Kickin’ Ant Piles and Takin’ Names

February 6, 2009

One of the endemic problems in Tennessee’s football program over the past few years was a lack of excitement and interest. Even when the Vols surprisingly made the SEC Championship Game in 2007, most people yawned and assumed they’d lose to heavy favorite LSU. The star of Tennessee, as well as that of its coach Phillip Fulmer, had been eclipsed by those of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and LSU within the conference.

When Lane Kiffin took over in Knoxville, he probably knew that. He knows that Tennessee fans are a very passionate bunch, but the program had stagnated into boredom.

That is why I don’t believe for a second that Lane Kiffin did not know that there is no NCAA rule barring coaches from calling players who are on official visits to other schools’ campuses. He has been around the recruiting block enough enough times to know what the rules are, and besides, he passed the NCAA recruiting exam. You know, the one that Steve Spurrier hinted Kiffin might not have taken.

In addition a Tennessee spokeswoman said that the school did not plan on turning in Urban Meyer for calling Nu’Keese Richardson while the receiver was in Knoxville. That notice came a couple hours before Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley issued his statement confirming that it was not, in fact a violation. My guess is that Kiffin invented the “violation” for the purposes of firing up the Tennessee fan base. After all, he said so himself in his public apology.

So no, I don’t believe Kiffin was ignorant of the NCAA rules, as some have him accused him of being. I can buy though that he was not aware of the SEC ethics rule against publicly criticizing other conference coaches. The guy has only been in the league for just over two months, you know. If he knew a reprimand from Mike Slive was coming (and it did), he probably would have held off.

I also might buy that he didn’t know how much of a media firestorm it would create. The SEC is covered like no other league and until you’re in it, it’s probably hard to understand just how close the scrutiny really is. I wouldn’t be surprised if he bad mouthed other Pac-10 schools while at USC booster functions and it wasn’t reported widely, because the media attention out there is not like what it is down here.

Florida wasn’t the only target of Kiffin and his staff though. Lance Thompson, a former Alabama assistant who joined Kiffin’s staff just a few weeks before signing day, jabbed his former employer a bit today as well. Kiffin said that Nick Saban should thank Thompson for eight of the Tide’s 2009 recruits. Thompson also referenced Alabama’s loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl in a mocking manner.

LSU fans also got ticked off at Kiffin today over former Tiger recruit Janzen Jackson committing to Tennessee. He said he waited until today to announce for his family to be together for it, but also that he had “known for weeks” that he wanted to be a Vol. Jackson reaffirmed his commitment to LSU on Tuesday, but he obviously was lying about it. That has caused some LSU folks to accuse Kiffin of personally orchestrating the episode.

On top of everything today, Kiffin yesterday needed only 40 seconds in his signing day press conference yesterday to boast about turning two former Florida commits to his team. He even tweaked Georgia a bit by implying that Bulldog signee Marlon Brown would have gone to Knoxville if not for his grandmother’s objections.

The end result of it all has been to unite Bama, Florida, and LSU fans against him. This EDSBS commend thread lays that out fairly well, and it even has Georgia fans popping in to warn about what happens when you make Urban Meyer mad (hint: for them the answer was 49-10 plus two timeouts).

It’s not like Tennessee did any better than that the last time the Vols visited Florida Field anyway.

The national reaction has either been the way of those UGA partisans—warning that a hellacious beat down in the Swamp is coming—or to cheer him on for trying to re-energize the Tennessee program. What everyone seems to agree on though is that he’s displaying an inordinate amount of arrogance for someone who has yet to win a game in the SEC and went 5-15 at his previous head coaching gig.

Even the SEC’s prince of arrogance himself, Steve Spurrier, largely held his tongue until he started winning. His only public jab in his inaugural 1990 season that I could find was his famous line about 20 books being destroyed in an Auburn dorm fire (“The real tragedy was that 15 hadn’t been colored yet.”). Florida beat Auburn 48-7 that year and finished first in the conference, though the Gators didn’t officially win it thanks to Galen Hall-era probation.

Considering what the Tennessee roster has right now, it would be a tough task for the Vols to beat anyone 48-7, much less an eight-game winner like that ’90 Auburn team was.

Regardless of what happens from here on out, Kiffin has achieved what I believe to be one of his first goals when arriving in Knoxville, that of raising the profile of his new program. Mission accomplished, Lane, the nation’s eyes are squarely on Tennessee now. Here comes the hard part: capitalizing on it and restoring UT to being a national title contender in the most competitive era the conference has ever known.

Maybe he can do it, maybe he can’t. The one thing we know for sure is that the ride won’t be boring.


Is Lane Kiffin Really the Best Tennessee Could Do?

December 2, 2008

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.


Just a Thought

November 5, 2008

It would never happen, but just imagine it for a second.

Auburn fires Tuberville at the end of the season. The boosters there don’t like him anyway, and the community thinks he betrayed their values by going after Tony Franklin and selling out to the spread. They want a return to pound-the-rock football. They want a guy who can recruit and raise money. They want someone Alabama hates.

So they hire… Phil Fulmer.

It would never happen of course. Phil is too close to UT I’ll bet to forsake it for another SEC school that quickly. Still though, what could be a bigger sideshow than Fulmer coaching inside the state of Alabama? Oh please, make it so.


So Long, Phil

November 4, 2008

It’s official – Phil Fulmer is leaving Tennessee at the end of the season.

I knew this news was coming, yet I didn’t fully believe it would happen until the word came down yesterday. He was by far the dean of SEC coaches and he’s been a Tennessee Man all his life. He brought the Big Orange a national title and two conference titles along with 150 wins. Only General Neyland himself has more in UT history.

Fulmer, along with Bobby Bowden, is one of the two great villains of my youth. He is one of just two rival coaches to bring home a national title in my lifetime, and he gave Florida an absolutely crushing defeat in 2001. Georgia and Auburn coaches came and went and LSU was no threat, but Fulmer was there and he was a winner.

Here’s the thing though: I don’t think I ever truly hated Phillip Fulmer. He was an easy target for mockery, from the “Can’t spell Citrus without UT” line to the Krispy Kreme jokes to his players’ frequent off-the-field issues. I can’t ever remember him condoning the injuring of other players like Bowden tacitly did, and he often took the high road in public disputes.

Loyalty doesn’t begin to describe the guy. I can never remember hearing Fulmer’s name attached to any other coaching job, college or pro. He played, was an assistant coach at, and and was head coach at UT. His assistants have almost never had to worry about losing their jobs. I’d even be willing to bet that David Cutcliffe, a guy who probably knows Fulmer better than any coach other than John Chavis, would tell you in private he wouldn’t have taken the Duke job had he known the new offense this year would lead to Fulmer’s departure.

Fulmer was a pivotal character in the growth of the SEC into the premier conference as college football has really hit the big time over the past couple of decades. He and Steve Spurrier kept the conference afloat in the national power rankings during an era when Georgia, Auburn, and LSU were going through troubles and Alabama was only periodically good. His Vols continued to be competitive and relevant for much of this decade too, winning the SEC East three times. He was even better about playing outside the region than just about anyone else in the conference, frequently scheduling road games at places like Notre Dame and Pac-10 schools.

Ultimately, he has not been living up to the standard he created for the program lately. The level that Tennessee attained means that two non-winning seasons in four years will get any coach shown the door. It is usually the guy who follows the legend who gets caught by high expectations, the Ron Zook and (soon to be) Ron Prince types, but Fulmer stayed around long enough to be that guy himself.

It is a shame that someone who won 150 games at one school cannot leave it on his own terms. Tennessee football is a bigger part of his life than any school is to any other active coach not named Paterno. Watching the press conference even made me feel a little emotional, because I could tell he was hurting so badly. There are no winners in cases like these.

So long, Phil. You were a credit to your university and one of the guys who enabled the conference to reach its lofty status. This Gator wishes you well in your life after coaching, and may the fish in the Tennessee River quake at the sound of your voice.