In his first three months as the head football coach at the University of Tennessee, Lane Kiffin has already managed something Phillip Fulmer didn’t do in his 17 years.
Whether because of his bravado or the fact he has raided rival SEC teams’ coaching staffs as well as a few high-profile recruits, Kiffin has united the rest of the Southeastern Conference against Tennessee.
From the time he was introduced and said he looked forward to singing “‘Rocky Top’ all night long after we beat Florida next year,” Kiffin has has made it clear to the rest of the league that he couldn’t care less about harmonizing with his coaching peers.
He understands that SEC football isn’t a congeniality contest.
When South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier wondered aloud if Kiffin had passed the NCAA mandated recruiting certification test before he began contacting prospects, Kiffin did something his UT predecessor avoided: He fired back. Noting that he had gotten 39 of 40 questions right on the test, he then added, “I’d like to see what Steve scored.”
I guess now we know the question Kiffin missed on the exam was whether coaches are allowed to call or text recruits while they’re visiting rival campuses.
There is no defending Kiffin’s comments made during Thursday’s breakfast with a large group of UT fans. His first mistake was calling Florida coach Urban Meyer’s actions a violation of NCAA rules. What he should have said was that UT didn’t have to stoop to harassing Nu’Keese Richardson to get the recruit and left it at that.
The fact he was speaking to a group of supporters and not the media doesn’t excuse his blunder. No matter how effective it was in energizing the fans, Kiffin forgot that in an age when so many people have Internet blogs and camera phones, his comments were going to spread instantly.
Michael Phelps would do well to remember that also.
But while it was a stupid thing for Kiffin to say, you have to like the moxie behind it and every other verbal grenade he has tossed at the rest of the SEC.
Typically a guy who has exactly zero wins as a college coach should just keep his mouth shut. But how much did it benefit Fulmer to stay quiet and absorb insults?
Although he was one of the nation’s most successful coaches, Fulmer withstood barbs about everything from his number of Citrus Bowl appearances to his weight without responding. Add to that the fact that his teams often looked uptight and hesitant in big games, and it’s easy to understand how Vol Nation developed an inferiority complex in recent years.
Tennessee has been hammered by Florida and Alabama by an average of 40-12 the last two years, and the program hasn’t won a league title since 1998.
Kiffin has injected an adrenaline shot directly into the heart of Vols fans and, just as importantly, recruits and current players. It’s not by coincidence that Kiffin has gone after Meyer, Spurrier and Alabama’s Nick Saban, who have a combined 10 SEC titles and four national championships.
The type recruits UT needs to compete with those programs are likely to gravitate to Kiffin’s brash personality. You think a few cocky high school kids don’t take notice when Kiffin says things like, “The message to the whole country is that it doesn’t matter where (recruits) are, it doesn’t matter who they like or where we are on their list, we are going to get them.”
He’s not picking on Kentucky and Vanderbilt. He’s taking swings at the biggest bullies on the SEC block. But with as much venom as he has already spewed, Kiffin’s biggest concern now is to make sure the program’s recruiting practices are sqeaky clean.
As much as rival teams want to beat him on the field, they would take just as much satisfaction in catching UT coaches even slightly bending an NCAA rule to land a recruit.
And every team on the Vols’ schedule already wanted to crush them on the field, regardless of how much class or crass Kiffin displays. His comments won’t matter once the teams take the field, but it just might bring in the type players who can once again make Tennessee relevant on the national scene.
If the players can match their coach’s swagger and the Vols adopt the slogan of his previous employer and “just win, baby,” the rest of the league better be ready for a lot more trash talk.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...