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3 reasons to believe Lane Kiffin can succeed at Tennessee

Yeah, so my computer, Dreamweaver, and Fate conspired to prematurely vanquish yesterday's intended rebuttal to Kyle's post at Dawg Sports on Monday asserting that "there is simply no basis for believing Lane Kiffin will succeed" (emphasis mine), so I'm a day late to the party. Although I find it quite amusing that the unequivocally-titled (and -written) post appears to have been birthed out of an objection to the unequivocalness of Corn from a Jar's statement that he has "no idea" whether Kiffin will succeed, Kyle is a dear friend in the ‘sphere, and I will not call him on it. Wait, I just did, didn't I? Oops. Sorry, Kyle! Look! It's Kristin Davis!


Kyle loves Kristin Davis.

Seriously, though, Corn and Kyle sparked an excellent conversation and spawned several additional posts all over the place, and I have to say that I was pickled tink that so many of the fantastic RTT community clicked over to Dawg Sports and contributed so well and respectfully to the roughly 11,000 words and 58-entry (as of the time I'm writing (and saving!) this) comment thread.

The thread has grown so active that a line-by-line Fisking is no longer feasible. So I'll just respond to Kyle's main point and try to hold the sniping to a minimum (and only when I can get off a good shot). Kyle, look! Bacon!


Kyle loves bacon.

We can fuss all we want about the degree, but to say that "there is simply no basis for believing Lane Kiffin will succeed" is simply overstating the matter. There are at least three very good reasons to think that he can: (1) he's assembled a fantastic staff; (2) he has done the one thing that he can do at this point -- recruit -- well; (3) he's motivated the team and infused an intensity and discipline into the team that was lacking those things.

1. The Kiffin Chimera

Somewhere along the line, Kyle asked whether Vol fans wanted Kiffin to become Tennessee's new head coach. I'm not sure what that has to do with anything, but thanks to permanent archives, I'm on record as emphatically wanting Mike Leach. Why? Because if we were going to change, we'd better really change and not just swap out the spark plugs. I wanted an innovator, and when Kiffin was hired instead of Leach, I was duly supportive as a fan, but I thought we had whiffed on the innovation angle.

But over the several months after he was hired, Kiffin blindsided us with something so innovative we hadn't even considered it: an entirely new staffing blueprint that broke the mold. While being wooed as a candidate, Kiffin negotiated less money for himself and a bigger budget to use to surround himself with a super star staff.

Tennessee didn't just hire Lane Kiffin; it hired the Kiffin Chimera, and to me, that's solid evidence of an innovative mind, which in turn is "some basis" for believing the new regime can succeed.


We know that's Lane in the middle because his mouth is open in front of a microphone.

I won't go into the entire staff - it took twelve pages in Rocky Top Tennessee 2009 to get to know them - but I will hit a few highlights:

Lane Kiffin

I will concede that "Lane Kiffin's service as Southern California's offensive coordinator is very much open to debate" if we can agree that "open to debate" necessarily means that there is some evidence -- "some basis" -- to support both sides of the debate.

And I will buy this . . .

At a minimum, shouldn't there be some legitimate basis for believing a guy can coach? Steve Spurrier won an A.C.C. championship at Duke and Urban Meyer led Utah to an undefeated season before either of them got the call from Gainesville. Les Miles upended Oklahoma twice ere he was hired in Baton Rouge. Jim Tressel worked out a good deal better than Jim Donnan, but at least both men had Division I-AA national championships on their resumes. Bob Stoops worked out a good deal better than Mike Stoops, but at least both men had established track records as defensive coordinators.

. . . if we can agree that the line separating "evidence of success" from "no evidence of success" was drawn arbitrarily just before it got to someone with qualifications similar to Kiffin's. The examples begin with head coaches sporting ACC Championships and undefeated seasons on their resumes. They then start ratcheting down a step at a time from a head coach who'd beaten Oklahoma twice, to head coaches with I-AA championships, to defensive coordinators. And then there's the separation, between defensive coordinators and co-offensive coordinators like Kiffin.

I will also acknowledge that a "5-15 record as a head coach" is not very comforting but I will note that the phrase conveniently leaves out "in the NFL under Al Davis" and point out that there is evidence in the form Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, and Pete Carroll to suggest that using failures in the NFL to draw conclusions about success in college is at least somewhat dubious.

In short, the lack of absolute proof that Lane Kiffin will be successful does not equate to "no basis" to believe he might be.

Monte Kiffin

I would buy this . . .

[Lane's] father's legendary status is immaterial to anyone who has heard the name Mike Shula . . . .

. . . if Lane hadn't actually hired his legendary father to work for him. As far as I know, Don Shula wasn't on the Alabama staff when Mike was head coach.

That Monte Kiffin is widely regarded as the best defensive mind in football, college or NFL, is about as far away from "immaterial" as you can get precisely because he's our defensive coordinator. Monte's defenses have allowed the fewest total points of any team in the NFL since the 1997 season. He's coached 36 defensive Pro Bowlers. His coaching tree includes Mike Tomlin and Lovie Smith. He's coached both a Super Bowl NFL team and two national championship teams in college. He's probably the most-qualified defensive coordinator in the game, and with Monte running the defense, Lane's workload is essentially halved; Lane can devote all of his time and energy to the offense.

Ed Orgeron

DACOACHO is almost universally regarded as the sport's best recruiter. He helped Pete Carroll orchestrate Southern Cal's turn around by recruiting 14 players who were taken on the first day of the NFL Draft, including Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Shaun Cody, and LenDale White. He's also widely regarded as one of the game's best defensive line coaches.

Jim Chaney

Chaney spent three years with the St. Louis Rams, and, in nine years as Purdue's offensive coordinator, he coached Drew Brees and Kyle Orton into the NFL. Six of his Boilermaker teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in total offense.

Eddie Gran

Whether you root for Tennessee or Georgia, all you need to know about Eddie Gran is that he coached Auburn's Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. He's also an excellent recruiter in the state of Florida and the guy who stole Nu'Keese Richardson from the Gators. His presence on  the staff helped lure both David Oku (the best all-purpose running back in the nation) and Bryce Brown (the best player overall in the nation) to Tennessee in this recruiting class, the latter of which is something that I do not believe has ever been done at Tennessee.


Kyle hates Auburn.

The Kiffin Chimera also includes Lance Thompson (the Recruiter of the Year in 2008 and key contributor to Alabama's two successive No. 1 recruiting classes), Frank Wilson (who coached BenJarvis Green-Ellis to consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, knows Louisiana like no one else, almost lured Joe McKnight away from USC for Ole Miss, and landed Louisiana 5-star Janzen Jackson for Tennessee this year), and a handful of others, the resumes of which are about the same as you'll find on any other staff.

In short, focusing solely on Lane Kiffin's resume to conclude that there is "no basis" for expecting him to succeed completely misses the point. He's not coaching the team by himself, and I'd put the Chimera's collective resume up against any other school's.

2. Recruiting

There is no doubt that Lane Kiffin wanted his coaching staff to be skilled recruiters, but I fail to see why recruiting success is nothing just because it's not everything:

What, precisely, does Lane Kiffin bring to the table as a head coach? If your answer is recruiting, you're well on your way to losing an argument. Plenty of good recruiters have made lousy head coaches; Ray Goff and Ron Zook spring immediately to mind.

This is classic necessary/sufficient obfuscation. With the exception of Texas in 2005, the past six national champions - Florida (2008 and 2006), LSU (2007 and 2003), and USC - all ranked in the top four in rolling average recruiting rankings. That outlier in 2005? Eighth. (There is no link for that information because it's in the annual, which you really ought to just go ahead and pre-order right now!)

So the evidence suggests that recruiting great players is necessary to having great teams, and if you have recruited well, you have "some basis" for optimism. Goff and Zook are merely evidence that recruiting well is not, by itself, sufficient.

Yes, even a team with great recruits must play well to win, but to play well, it first has to play, and it can't do that until the fall. Recruiting is one of the milestones on the way to success, and Lane Kiffin has already demonstrated an ability to achieve that particular goal. It's not everything, but neither is it nothing.

3. A positive, new internal identity

So if all Kiffin's done is recruit well, and if he may or may not actually win games in the fall, what in the world is he thinking thumping his chest and insulting rivals who almost certainly have a significant advantage over his own team?

I think it's quite possible that he's consciously burning bridges to motivate his team. The phrase "burning bridges" has a negative connotation today, but the phrase derives from a common strategy employed by the commanders of ancient armies invading hostile territory. Few things motivate more than foreclosing any and all possibility of retreat. Sure, in war it may get a bunch of your troops killed and result in catastrophic failure, but it does, by motivating the combatants, improve to a degree the chance of success by removing "giving up" as an option, and in any event, the worst case scenario in football is mere embarrassment.

It's funny how this is flowing through to fans as well. Kiffin's audacity has rivals and their fans outraged, which is making them want to not only beat our team but to embarrass them in the process. The prospect of embarrassment is in turn making Vol fans want to beat their rivals even more to prove them wrong. It is not much of a stretch to think the players feel the same way.

When both sides are highly motivated to do their best against each other, well, isn't that what we want? And underdogs have little to lose. If the chest-thumping ends in an utter thrashing, well, what did we expect? But if the underdog manages to keep it close, it will likely be  characterized as the favorite's failure to administer the beating they so wanted to deliver. And if the underdog manages a surprising win? Well, who needs bridges when you've taken up residence in the castle?

Not only is the team motivated, though, it is by most accounts actually better, at least in terms of intensity and discipline. The new intensity on the practice field has shaken the wheat from the chaff, and as of right now, the team has yet to score a point in the infamous Fulmer Cup.

A note on "Fun"

Without looking, I'm almost certain that somewhere some Vol fan has said that Tennessee football is fun again and that that is a reason to believe in the future. Shoot, I may have said it myself.

If said, though, I think what we really mean is not that having fun is a reason for optimism but that it is the result of optimism.

Basis for Belief

And yeah, we can fuss about the degree of proof, but to say that there is "simply no basis" for believing we can succeed with our new coach -- along with the logical inference that anyone who believes he can is foolish -- not only grossly overstates the matter but understandably offends Vol fans looking forward to the future.

Kyle, look! Kristin Davis and Bacon. Love ya, man!

Kristin_davis-1 Crispy_bacon_1_medium
A two-pronged olive branch, customized for Kyle.


This post is not to be construed as anything other than a rebuttal to the assertion that there is "simply no basis" to believe Kiffin will succeed. That assertion is "simply wrong" because there are reasons to think he can do it. That does not mean he will.

But don't tell Vol fans not to believe that he can. It's all we've got right now.