Much like The Season of Which We Do Not Speak, there were a myriad of problems during this past Season of Constant Sorrow. Two of the most-cited reasons for the offensive inefficiency we witnessed in 2008 were the inexperienced/incompetent quarterback play and the attempt to implement an overly complicated offensive scheme in a single year with said inexperienced/incompetent quarterback at the helm. As the team plummeted to the depths of irrelevance and obscurity, even the most loyal of Phillip Fulmer supporters were left practically defenseless. When Mike Hamilton pulled the plug on the season in November and sent The Papa on his way, fans sought a bit of cold consolation by indulging in hopeful fantasies about the unknowable future of the program.
As you would expect, there was no real consensus among fans on the question of who Hamilton should hire to right the ship, but there were a lot of fans who hoped that Hamilton's chief goal would be to bring something altogether new and innovative to the table. Some new sizzle that would defibrillate the arrhythmia of apathy threatening the fanbase and re-establish an effective, symbiotic rhythm between the football team and its supporters. Because the most recent struggle came on the offensive side of the ball, it was only natural for fans to look to innovative and effective offensive-minded coaches for the cure. That's primarily why I and others stumped for Mike Leach as Tennessee's new head coach. The guy was challenging the system, making the college football establishment reconsider everything they thought they knew about football, and he was succeeding.
When Mike Hamilton announced that he'd hired Lane Kiffin instead of Leach, this dutiful fan fell in line, lent his support to his program's new head coach, and shelved his desire for something clever and creative. The jury was out on whether Kiffin could be successful, but, to me anyway, the jury had already returned a unanimous "no" on the question of whether Tennessee fans would be treated to something visionary.
Or so I thought. When Kiffin said at his introductory presser that fans would be excited at what he was about to do, I considered it press conference coach-speak. When he told us we'd need to be patient, I viewed it as classic expectations management. When he said that he had a plan, I thought, "That's nice, but everybody's got a plan."
The innovation we did not expect
But Lane Kiffin did have a plan, we did need to be patient, and Vol fans have hardly been able to contain their excitement over the past six weeks or so. The plan Kiffin has unveiled piece by piece is the purest and best kind of innovation because it is not only unprecedented, it was utterly unexpected. Lane Kiffin isn't bothering himself with merely challenging offensive or defensive ideologies; he's challenging an entirely different status quo. Lane Kiffin is turning the traditional coaching staff structure inside out and upside down and re-making the University of Tennessee into Recruiting U in the process.
When it comes to coaching staffs, the current recycled and reused blueprint is for a program to either find the next up-and-comer and hope he turns into the next Urban Meyer or to simply find the next Nick Saban and pay him more than the last Nick Saban. Regardless of which of those alternatives a status quo athletic director chooses, the head coach will take for himself the bulk of the coaching budget, the coordinators will together make some ridiculously small percent of that, and the rest of the assistants will get the decimals. For example, Saban made $4M as Alabama's head coach last year. The defensive coordinator made $360,000, and the offensive coordinator made $325,000. The nine assistant coaches together made a total of around $2M, which means that the seven non-coordinator coaches shared in a pool of $1.3M. Nobody's going hungry, but one guy's getting the meat, a few others are getting the scraps, and the rest of the pack is getting bone soup.
The Tennessee blueprint
Kiffin's innovative conceptualization for the football coaching staff at Tennessee incorporates two key characteristics that set it apart from other staffs: a new structure and a new vision. First, Kiffin has stomped on the traditional, heirarchical coaching structure and flattened that sucker out. Kiffin himself will only make $2M, less than half of what The Next Saban would have cost. Whereas Alabama's pool for its assistants is $2M, Tennessee's will be "significantly" higher than the $1.935M devoted to staff last year. We don't know what the figure will end up being just yet, but we do know that "significantly" actually means 'SIGNIFICANTLY." The defensive coordinator alone is reportedly getting over $1M, far, far, far and away more than any other coordinator in college football history. The recruiting coordinator -- the recruiting coordinator! -- is reportedly getting between $600k and $650k, which is twice as much as most star offensive or defensive coordinators. And the staff wasn't assembled by perusing TheLadders.com or quickly stitched together from a pool of unemployed professionals in between gigs. No, Kiffin decided he wanted the best, he identified who those people were, and then he went and offered them something with which no one else could compete: a lot more money and a new and exciting vision.
That vision? To re-make Tennessee into Recruiting U. To gather together the best recruiters in college with contacts and experience in those locations where the talent resides and who can cast the vision that will lure the best talent in the nation to Rocky Top. And make no mistake, it wasn't just a lofty aspiration, it was a plan with all of the BEHAGS, concretes, and reachables you could ever want.
The first step was to get the product ready. Enter Monte Kiffin, almost universally regarded as the best and brightest defensive mind in football period. Then bring in a sales force excited about the product and able to sell it like no other. Enter Ed Oregeron, almost universally regarded as the best and boldest recruiter in college football and the iconic subject of Bruce Feldman's book about college football recruiting, Meat Market. Next, equip Orgeron with an all-star staff of recruiters. Enter David Reaves, Frank Wilson, Lance Thompson, and Eddie Gran, South Carolina's recruiting coordinator, Mississippi State's recruiting coordinator, Alabama's best recruiter, and Auburn's best recruiter over the past ten years, respectively. These guys aren't just recruiters, they are top shelf recruiters in all of the right geographic locations, and Tennessee simply went out and got them regardless of who they were committed to at the time. Finally, fill out the staff with a bunch of NFL coaching talent, and you have Lane Kiffin's coaching chimera. You have a staff recruited to recruit for the Volunteers.
Can these guys coach 'em when they get here? That remains to be seen. But if Lane Kiffin says he has a plan for that, I'm going to listen this time.