Wiedmer: Kiffin-year capers just won't go away for Vols

Wiedmer: Kiffin-year capers just won't go away for Vols

September 28th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Lane Kiffin

Lane Kiffin

Ah, the Lane Kiffin era, otherwise known around Big Orange Country as the Year of Living Stupidly.

Like an old septic tank that won't stop stinking, another Kiffin caper emerged late Monday night on Yahoo! Sports involving former Volunteers assistant coach Willie Mack Garza and notorious talent scout Willie Lyles.

According to the website, Garza wired Lyles $1,500 in July of 2009 to cover plane tickets for running back prospect Lache Seastrunk and his mother, Evelyn.

If the names Lyles and Seastrunk sound familiar, they should. Both are at the center of the NCAA's ongoing investigation into Oregon, where the player eventually signed before transferring to Baylor University in August.

August, of course, also is when the NCAA announced its two-year probation against the UT athletic department; Aug. 24, to be precise. The most damaging part of the story for Volniacs is that Lyles says he didn't speak to the NCAA about the money wired from Garza until Aug. 30, six days after the NCAA released its UT sanctions.

Two thoughts swiftly come to mind here.

No. 1, the NCAA doesn't like to be made to look like a fool.

No. 2, regardless of how much more serious this may be in the eyes of the NCAA than sending a carload of coeds across state lines to cheer for a recruit -- and make no mistake, this Garza charge is a major, MAJOR violation -- the UT brass certainly is smart to hide behind the argument (as it did Tuesday), that Seastrunk never signed with the Vols and Garza is gone.

So other than the seriousness of the charge -- which appears already to have been proven true by Yahoo!, given the receipts they've produced -- this particular Kiffin caper is yet another that seems to have provided the Vols with no greater competitive advantage than his previous NCAA charges.

(Side note: In a preverse sort of way, doesn't this call into question just how good a head coach Lane Kiffin really is? After all, if you're going to break NCAA rules, shouldn't you win big doing it?)

Anyway, if Lyles' timeline is correct -- that his conversation with the NCAA came on Aug. 30 -- the NCAA may already have opened a new investigation involving the Vols, which can't be good news for anyone in Knoxville.

Moreover, if UT didn't know about this during its lengthy investigation, the NCAA is bound to ask WHY it didn't know. And that eventually could lead to a "lack of institutional control" charge that theoretically could lengthen the Vols' two years of probation and possibly cost them a handful of scholarships.

Not that UT sees it that way.

School spokesman Jimmy Stanton said Tuesday, "We are aware of the situation, as is the conference office. We've been verbally contacted by the NCAA enforcement staff regarding a recruiting issue in 2009 relating to the former coaching staff and a student-athlete who never attended Tennessee.

"We believe, as does the conference office, that this matter is not subject to the repeat offender provision."

That would seem fair, since the alleged violation occurred during a period of time already investigated by the NCAA. It's not as if this took place after the sanctions were announced on Aug. 24. But it's also a new allegation and a far more serious one than those previously defended by the school. Old regime or not, a direct representative of the school -- which Garza clearly was -- sending $1,500 to fly a recruit in for an unofficial visit isn't easy to dismiss.

This isn't to say that current UT coach Derek Dooley isn't wise to channel his lawyer's background in arguing, as he did Tuesday, "I'm hoping the NCAA is going to stay consistent with what they've done, which is, 'Let's target the people that make these mistakes, not the programs.'"

But at some point, shouldn't the program be held at least a little responsible for hiring these bums? If a school is never penalized for violations beyond the dismissal of the coach who commits them or the games he won during that time, what great incentive is it for the school to monitor its employees?

Heck, just win, baby. Fill those stands. Ring that cash register. Because the only guy in trouble if it blows up in our face is Coach Lowlife.

Of course, in this case you could argue that this is double jeopardy and you might be right. For even if you subscribe to the theory that UT should have uncovered this, so should have the NCAA.

Surely it knew before Aug. 30 that UT had recruited Seastrunk, and if it had, it probably also had dealt with Lyles.

But there is also this: On Sept. 1, Garza resigned unexpectedly from Southern Cal -- yes, Kiffin took him along to USC -- to take care of "personal issues unrelated to USC."

Think about it: Two days after Lyles met with NCAA officials to spill the beans about the Big Orange, Garza resigns. If those personal issues refer to UT, the Vols suddenly could have serious new institutional issues to confront concerning their year of living stupidly.