People are the most curious creatures. One of the more fascinating pastimes is to watch how people behave in the light of uncertainty and transition. From "people-watching" to full-fledged worldwide anthropology studies, there is a strong interest in human behavior.
I'm certainly not an anthropologist, but I do like to people-watch from time to time. In that sense, I've had no end of delight in the reactions I've seen to the coaching transition. For example, take a look at the way the UT fanbase itself has responded to the transition.
The Initial Press Conference
By this time, we had a couple of days to get used to the concept of Lane as the head coach. We didn't, however, know what to expect of him when he took the podium. Nobody knows what to do with his Oakland time, and it was hard to understand exactly what he did at USC amid all the well-known coaches there.
Here are Rocky Top Talk, we spent most of the press conference finding positive spin to put on his statements. Read through the comments if you wish, but the poll question gives a basic summary of thoughts: we loved what we heard.
But that's not to say that there wasn't a fair share of hesitation. Clay Travis succintly boiled down the "con" argument thusly:
My problem with Kiffin's ascension is that you're using Al Davis's initial hire of Kiffin as the justification for hiring him as a head coach. Only you're not handicapping Kiffin for being fired, not having success with the Raiders, or the fact that lots of bright football minds would never have taken the Raiders job to begin with. Put plainly there's no way that Kiffin gets hired at Tennessee if he's still USC's offensive coordinator. So, effectively, the [Fulmerized] crazy Al Davis made Lane Kiffin a potential hire for Tennessee by naming him head coach of the Raiders. Is no other Vol fan troubled by this?
There's positive light in the Travis article that's worth the peek, but that does sum things up nicely from the other side of the coin. A lot of people expressed the sentiment of "what is the justification for the hire?". But we were so wound up by the thrill of it all, that most of our concerns had nothing to do with Lane deliviring championships, but with Layla delivering. It's not like photos of Layla hadn't circulated beforehand, but seeing her with the UT backdrop in the press conference room provided a heck of a glandular deflection from the unease we all felt.
The Assistant Coach Searches
One of the first orders of business was to assemble the staff around Lane. Surprisingly, we seemed to take him at his word when he said it would "take time" because he wanted "to do it right, not to do it fast". The defensive staff was dismissed immediately, which we took as an implication that the next defensive staff was informally in place already and simply waiting for the right time to break from prior obligations.
Yes, that means Monte.
Imagine, for a second, if Monte Kiffin had decided not to come to UT. Who would Vols fans have accepted as a reasonable alternative in the wake of the Chavis firing? On this point, UT fans were surprisingly silent. We were still entrenched in hope and seemingly refused to dwell on the possibility that Monte might not come. I really think that this response is the best indication of just how nervous we were/are about the new coach and coaching staff. You see this response often when alternatives seem disastrous: people refuse to consider disaster as an alternative.
We, as UT fans, went through that exact same phase this summer with the new offense. Even I had assumed that the Clawfense was going to be this brilliant, unstoppable force that ravaged the SEC for years to come. When the offense struggled in the first game, we chalked it up to newness and used the UAB game to show that the direction was right. (Never mind that the UAB blowout was predicated on a power run game that had little to do with the West-Coastish presnap reads.) When Florida came through, we chose to leave the stadium (well, not me, since I wasn't there) rather than continue watching the offense. When forced to face the disaster that was the 2008 offense, we went on a witch hunt that ended in the termination of one of the winningest all-time college football coaches.
The Recruiting Trail
It didn't take long for UT fans to see Lane chase down the future players he'll need. In his opening press conference, he all but committed a violation (mentioning a recruit by name) in explaining his plans to travel that very night. With the offseason and no bowl game, recruiting was the first (and only) place that we could look to get a feel for the new future of football at UT. And again, we responded with optimism, by and large. Prior to Fulmer's firing, UT had a clear top-10 recruiting class and plenty of room to build. Talk of having the top recruiting class in the nation might have been a bit hopeful, but wasn't entirely unfounded. After Fulmer's firing, and well into Kiffin's new tenure, we watched UT slip down the recruiting boards (currently #15 Rivals, #21 Scout), yet we didn't seem to mind.
There are a lot of recruits expressing interest in the new UT staff. We haven't had much in the way of solid responses yet, but those recruits are asking questions. So, like people wishing to avoid that worst thought (what if this doesn't work?), we spin this positively. By gum, we just know that the class will end strong. And even if it doesn't, the foundation is there for classes for years to come!
And with that thought, we now look back at the end of the Fulmer era in a sense of relief. Now that we have somewhere to hang our hat, we feel more comfortable in calling the Clawfense a disaster. We feel better about believing that the decline over the last several years wasn't going to get any better. We can stare into the previously-unviewable abyss because we have now escaped it.
But we don't know what the future will be like. Nobody does.
What if things do indeed deteriorate? Will we call it growing pains, or will be carry our torches and pitchfork's to Hamilton's office - for his head this time?
Likewise, how will we react when Lane gambles on playcalls and draws the short straw? What if that fake punt backfires and yields terrific position to Florida? Will that simply be the price paid for unpredictability, or will it be the foolishness of youth?
As a fanbase, we will have to face a lot of questions in the future. As a fanbase that is - like many - a little too invested into college football, those questions will undoubtedly swamp our lives and be primary drivers for our personalities.
To a people-watcher, this is going to be fun.