So former Oakland Raiders head coach and Southern Cal offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was announced as the University of Tennessee’s new head football coach on Nov. 30, to the great surprise of many and the expectation of none save perhaps a few insiders at the UT athletic department. Unlike fellow frontrunners for the job Mike Leach of Texas Tech and Brian Kelly of Cincinnati, Kiffin has no previous college head-coaching experience. In fact, his only head-coaching experience is with the Raiders, with whom he compiled a dreadful 5-15 record over the course of a season and change.
If nothing else, Kiffin’s hiring has made for some of the most lively and interesting debate regarding a coaching change hereabouts in recent memory. “At first, most reactions were lukewarm, at best,” says local sports radio host Tony Basilio of WVLZ-AM 1180. “The story broke on a Wednesday, five days before he was introduced. So for five days, people were lukewarm, unsure what to make of this guy.”
Since Kiffin’s generally well-received introduction on Dec. 1, Basilio says fans and observers have—mostly—fallen into one of three camps: optimists who laud Kiffin’s youthful verve and energy, and his time under Pete Carroll at powerhouse USC; pessimists who believe his sparse resume and foundering in Oakland leave him ill-suited for the captain’s chair at a big-time college program; and finally, angry Fulmer loyalists.
Some of the sharpest criticism of Kiffin’s hiring has come from outsiders. Mark May of ESPN called Kiffin a “terrible hire,” a notion seconded by on-air partner Lou Holtz. At Sports Illustrated, Don Banks wrote that Kiffin’s greatest strength is “interviewing and getting jobs.” And Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Ron Higgins leveled perhaps the most brutal assessment of Kiffin’s pending rise to power on Nov. 27: “If Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton hires unemployed 33-year-old Lane Kiffin as the Vols’ next head coach, he’s basically sending the following message to Tennessee fans: ‘I’m cheap and I’m easy.’” (Kiffin’s $2 million package for 2009 ranks him in the lower half, salary-wise, of Southeastern Conference coaches.)
Local media reaction has been generally favorable. At the News Sentinel, reactions ranged from optimistic to cautiously optimistic. Football-beat writer Mike Griffith said Kiffin has “the makings of a future great.... His youth is what’s needed for a program that needs to re-establish itself.” Sports editor John Adams admonished fans not to fret over the age and inexperience of their new head coach, pointing out that football greats such as Georgia’s Vince Dooley and Texas A&M/Kentucky/Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant started young, too. And columnist John Pennington averred that the Kiffin move sends a strong message: “We’ll make bold moves to get back in step with Florida, Alabama, LSU and Georgia.”
On Basilio’s own program—the listenership of which seems to be a slightly rowdier crew than the more polite-minded Sports Talk regulars on WNML-FM 99.1—reaction has been more mixed, if still largely upbeat. One fan called to ask Basilio “Who sold this guy to Mike Hamilton? He looks like they bought him off the bargain rack.” Another labeled Kiffin “the Dollar General Store version of [Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach] Jon Gruden—it looks like him, sounds like him, but open him up and there’s a tether string instead of a wireless remote.” Yet another dubbed him “Cotton Candy Kiffin. He looks great, but there’s no substance.”
But then there’s the third contingent of Kiffin-watchers whom Basilio labels the Fulmerites: sore-headed Phillip Fulmer loyalists who believe the now-former Tennessee skipper should never have been issued his walking papers, regardless of who his successor might be. According to Basilio, the latter group includes more than a few big-money boosters, nearly all of whom now have an axe to grind with Hamilton, the man who fired their coach.
“These are people who have sort of a trauma bond with Coach Fulmer,” Basilio says. “And many of them are actually cheering for Kiffin to fail, believing that Fulmer might one day be reinstalled.”
One of Basilio’s regular callers, “Lee,” a UT athletic supporter himself, notes that one of the school’s best-known boosters made his appearance at a game wearing a “Fire Hamilton” ballcap, expounding on how Fulmer would be promptly rehired once the wayward athletic director had been put in his place. “There are a few hardcore Fulmer people who just aren’t ready to turn the page,” says Lee, who prefers anonymity for professional reasons.
For his own part, Basilio says he’s only grown in admiration for Tennessee’s new golden boy in the days since his hiring. “Word is starting to get out that his focus and his attention to detail are so pronounced compared to the last regime,” Basilio says. “One story has it that he recently walked into a recruit’s home and presented him with a plan as to exactly how he would fit into the UT offense over the next four years.
“Some people perceive that Kiffin came here as a third choice. But the word I hear from my sources is that he was Hamilton’s choice from the time he met him. He sat down with Hamilton, had a whole plan laid out as to what he would do, who he would hire, how much it would cost, and Hamilton was blown away. Hamilton doesn’t see this as a risky hire, like some people do. I think he sees it as a slam dunk.”