UT moving ahead to fill football post

UT moving ahead to fill football post

January 14th, 2010 by Wes Rucker in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE -- One of college football's most polarizing coaches left frosty Tennessee for sunny Southern California Wednesday afternoon, and it initially seemed impossible to find anyone anywhere who was indifferent about Lane Kiffin's departure.

But at least one person seemed underwhelmed by the news that rocked the state and created a buzz throughout the college football landscape.

"From my perspective, it is a blip on the radar," said Gov. Phil Bredesen, who also is chairman of the University of Tennessee's board of trustees. "I'm sure that UT will find a fine new football coach and all will be well.

"So somebody quit and went. Big deal."

Many of the governor's constituents -- as well as many UT fans in other states -- were significantly less neutral about the situation.

"We share disappointment with fans and supporters," UT system President Dr. Jan Simek said. "But UT is bigger than any individual."

Former University of Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin talks to reporters on his way out of the University of Tennessee Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex Wednesday. After only 14 months on the job and with five years remaining on his contract, the coach broke the news Tuesday night that he was leaving UT to take the head coaching position at the University of Southern California.

Few are bolder than Mr. Kiffin, though, which injected extra emotion into the 34-year-old's sudden, shocking decision to become the University of Southern California's head coach after just 14 turbulent months at UT.

And so, for the second time in 15 months, UT is looking for a new face to lead its prestigious, deep-pocketed football program.

UT athletics director Mike Hamilton and others left Knoxville after a Wednesday news conference and met with at least one candidate and possibly more. One familiar name that Mr. Hamilton dismissed Wednesday was Phillip Fulmer, the former UT coach who preceded Mr. Kiffin.

Most sports columnists and analysts have said over the past two days that UT would, in the long run, be better off without the polarizing Mr. Kiffin. Answers will take time to surface, even after the university finds his replacement -- a process Mr. Hamilton said he hopes to complete by this weekend.

Mr. Hamilton said that, even in hindsight, he did not regret hiring Mr. Kiffin. He added that lessons learned from last year's hiring search would help the current situation -- which again will be aided by Neinas Sports Services of Colorado.

"I believe that Lane did a really nice job for us as coach on the field and in recruiting," Mr. Hamilton said. "He did a lot of really nice things in that regard. I've reflected back on this a lot over the last 24 hours, and I think it was the right decision at the time. It's easier to look back than project forward sometimes.

"I believe if the Southern Cal job had not come open, and he had not been offered that job, he would be here coaching this morning."

But not all of his comments about Mr. Kiffin were so forgiving.

In Denver on business when he learned of Mr. Kiffin's decision, Mr. Hamilton justified the anger from hundreds of students who surrounded the football complex for a Tuesday night protest.

"If they were displeased, they had every right to be," Mr. Hamilton said. "Heck, I might have been out there with (them) if I'd been here."

Mr. Hamilton confronted Mr. Kiffin about his possible interest in the Southern Cal position on Saturday. He said the coach was "straightforward" in explaining that while he wasn't looking to move, he always would be interested in USC. Mr. Kiffin spent several years in Los Angeles before leaving for brief stints with the Oakland Raiders and then the Volunteers.

"I specifically asked him, 'Is this a matter of contract negotiation? Do I need to be discussing your contract?'" Mr. Hamilton said. "He said, 'This is not about money. This is about that particular job.'"

ONLINE CHAT

Talk to Sports Editor Jay Greeson today at 9 a.m. at www.timesfreepress.com

Read in-depth coverage on the UT coaching situation, D1, D4-5

Columnist David Magee didn't expect the coach to remain at UT for long anyway, B1

Clay Bennett weighs in with his cartoon, B6

What's happening to Kiffin memorabilia in local sports stores?, C1

Mr. Kiffin, who would have been given $7.5 million for a firing without cause, will owe UT only $800,000 in buyout money -- and it's believed that Southern Cal will supply those funds.

"You can protect yourself to a certain extent, but the reality is I don't think there's any amount of money from a coach's buyout on the other end that's going to keep them from leaving if they truly want to leave," Mr. Hamilton said. "Most of the time, they're going to a place that's going to help them make that buyout.

"Kind of how I feel right now, honestly, is that if you don't want to be at the University of Tennessee, then you can make the choice to do something different."