Now that Derek Dooley has officially begun the next story in Tennessee football history, the time has come to close the book on Lane Kiffin's time in Knoxville. It's been a wild 14 months to say the least, and I think that we're all ready to just let the past be the past and look forward to the future. And so, this will serve as my final words on Lane Kiffin as a Tennessee head coach. If he comes up in context of discussion, so be it, but I have no plans of focusing on him and UT any more. Closure is good, but obsession is unhealthy.
Now, while I don't normally like to write directly about myself, I should provide a little context in this case. I'm not a person who holds a grudge and I don't tend to lead with emotions. I like to look at the positive sides of things and I have a tendency to play devil's advocate - especially in heated conversations. Because of this, I really don't have any desire to bash Kiffin or to launch into another rant about him. To be perfectly honest, I'm really not even mad at the guy anymore. I'll explain that in a bit.
First, a little reminder of the context in which Kiffin was hired. Heading into the 2007-2008 offseason, the Volunteers had a big problem. The team was getting passed up by the reinvented teams in the league (especially the two big rivals, Florida and Alabama). Rivalry wins were getting scarce, and because the program was plodding along in the same direction it had been going for nearly 20 years, there was little sense of Tennessee adapting to the new landscape. That's why David Clawson was brought in - to reinvent the offense and bring something new to the table. We didn't know how it would work, but being the optimistic bunch, we certainly hoped.
When the 2008 season hit, we found out that our dice roll had come up snake-eyes when, during the UCLA game, the team couldn't manage more than 14 points in the first half, despite four interceptions by the defense. Then we found out just how difficult it was to re-roll ones throughout the rest of the seasons. Snake-eyes became snake-bit. The change didn't work; UT was still losing ground; and the second problem hit - the one that ultimately brought in Lane Kiffin.
We were tired of seeing Fulmerball. Those who might like to run Mike Hamilton out of town for firing Fulmer must remember that the firing was not optional. The athletic department was losing money in a big way. Ticket sales were down. Marketing revenue (e.g. t-shirt sales) were down. Booster donations were down. And everybody was flat-out angry. The program cannot survive without income, and the income was not coming in. This is why we got Kiffin.
What Kiffin did well for UT.
Emotions have a way of polarizing our view of the world - of filtering out the glare that obscures our opinion. The fact is that Lane Kiffin did a lot of positive things for the program in his time here. Recruiting was going very well - very well. Not only was top-end talent coming, but it was coming in a cohesive way that would have formed a great team. The players were having fun again. Special teams still needed work, but the offense and defense were humming along quite nicely, all things considered.
Player grades were up. Off-field incidents were down. The majority of credit belongs to the players, who did most of the turning-around by their own pride in themselves. (Aside: note that none of the players who were here before Kiffin were arrested.) But Kiffin does deserve some credit. He did tighten down classroom requirements and he did actively check up on the players.
And Kiffin worked tremendously hard for the team. We can't ignore his positive contributions; it's not fair to him and it's dishonest by us. If we're going to promote Tennessee values, we have to start by living up to them, and that means giving credit where it's due.
Where Kiffin failed UT.
Today, we point to a lack of respect for the NCAA and for Tennessee tradition as reasons to not want Kiffin around anymore. A week ago today, we pointed to his aggressiveness and willingness to challenge the rules as simply doing everything he could to win. And we saw his willingness to change things as not allowing tradition to keep UT from developing into its full potential. There are pros and cons to both sides of those issues. We chose to ignore the bad before, and it's easy to ignore the good now. But these are not failures, per se. Kiffin was simply doing what he thought would bring the most wins, and we were cheering him on for it. He was right: win and nobody will care how you got there. It's true for every fan base, whether we like it or not.
His ultimate failure was that Lane Kiffin did not give himself a chance to be a part of the Tennessee family. Let's be honest here. He was raised in privilege as the son of a very famous and obsessively hard-working coach. He grew up around NFL players, TV networks, and high rollers. He had everything he wanted in life, and he is used to getting whatever he goes after. He's learned how to not get turned down, and he's absolutely brilliant at that. But ultimately, all of that has taught him to view the world in terms of himself rather than viewing himself in terms of the world. It's Kiffin's universe, and we're all witnesses to how great he can make himself.
And that's why I'm not angry with him.
I'm a little sad, really. He's a very good coach. He's a great recruiter and organizer. He is an effective head coach and he has the potential to win championships. And he has no idea how to celebrate that with the community at large. It's why he couldn't see that, even though USC may be his dream job, that being a UT coach for only one year should have ethically prevented him from taking the job. At 35 years old, he had plenty of time to become the USC head coach - especially if USC does end up in trouble with the NCAA in the near future. But a few more years at UT would have allowed him to finish what he started in Knoxville and give back to the community that trusted him to change things.
Even though he did many very good things here, Tennessee's anger toward him has nothing to do with what we're now missing in him. Our anger stems only from the way he left.
But it's over now, and I will never see the sun rise on a day where I set out to write about Lane Kiffin, Tennessee head coach. Like all of us, Lane Kiffin is human. The memory of his time here serves as a reminder of what that means.
I wish him well. I wish USC well. I never really had any interest in USC before and I don't now (not even to cheer against them).. But I do look forward to enjoying the Tennessee community - a group of people in gaudy orange whose ability to sing in harmony at a football stadium intrigued me long before I thought it even possible I'd be in the middle of them.