Kiffin defends his staff

Kiffin defends his staff

December 11th, 2009 by Wes Rucker in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE - One day after a New York Times story turned the nation's eyes on the University of Tennessee football program's use of student ambassadors, first-year Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin sat behind a microphone inside Neyland Stadium and said he hasn't spotted a single irregularity.

"Myself and our staff take the rules and the bylaws of the NCAA and SEC extremely seriously," Kiffin said to a packed room for the Chick-fil-A Bowl news conference. "We work extremely hard to follow those. In this situation right here, I don't know of any wrongdoing of any members of our staff in this, or of the kids that are being questioned in this."

The Times' story centered around multiple female members of UT's Orange Pride group traveling nearly 200 miles to attend a high school game in South Carolina. At least three UT prospects played that night, and two of them - highly touted Byrnes High School defensive lineman Brandon Willis and Corey Miller - have committed to sign scholarship papers with the Vols.

Families of Willis and Miller said they hadn't seen any problems in their sons' UT recruitment, or with the Orange Pride members' visit to the game. They claimed their sons have developed close connections with the "Vols hostesses," who started planning the South Carolina trip while Willis and Miller attended camp in Knoxville this past summer.

Nonetheless, the visit could be interpreted by the NCAA as an illegal recruiting trip off campus by nonsanctioned Tennessee personnel.

UT had several weeks to research the situation, and it didn't self-report any violations. It's doubtful the NCAA would accept any self-reported violations after a third party gave the initial notification, but several sources inside UT's athletic department claimed the program saw nothing outside the voluminous rules.

"When we hear about anything out of the ordinary, we immediately look into it," a UT administrator said. "And if we see (a violation), we report it, and that's that. We stay on top of it. We play by the rules."

Kiffin said the situation was comparable to freshman tailback Bryce Brown's recruitment - another story that became national news following an appearance in the Times.

Brown, considered the nation's top prospect by many analysts, signed with the Vols but missed a few preseason camp practices while the NCAA reviewed controversial circumstances during his recruitment, particularly his relationship with adviser Brian Butler.

The NCAA forced Brown's family to repay expenses from a summer group tour of several campuses, but he was cleared before UT's season opener against Western Kentucky.

"I like to get all the information in, research what's going on and not jump to conclusions," Kiffin said. "This is something that's had a lot of national run. It's been in a lot of media ... and I go back to the Bryce Brown situation, right before the season. That was a similar situation. It got a lot of national media attention, a lot of 'SportsCenter' attention that the Tennessee staff maybe had some involvement in some illegal recruiting in Bryce Brown, and that Bryce Brown did some things illegal. There was an investigation into that, and it ended up with no wrongdoing.

"I look for this to be the exact same situation - a lot of stuff being said, and in the end, when the research is done and (premature) conclusions aren't being made, the same result will happen."

That will ultimately be the NCAA's decision, though. And that could take time. The NCAA is known for deliberate investigative methods, and it doesn't discuss anything along the way.

UT officials said the school hasn't received an official letter of inquiry from the NCAA, but that doesn't mean one won't arrive. The NCAA often interrogates those on the outside before formally interviewing the college in question. Several programs, including Alabama, have been probed in a similar manner.

The NCAA already has spoken with at least four UT recruits, and at least two more expect talks by the end of this weekend.

Kiffin declined to name any opposing coaches who might have initiated the NCAA review, but he didn't seem surprised at the situation.

"I know we've done a phenomenal job, our staff has, in recruiting," Kiffin said. "I know that it's very competitive around the country with the kids that we go after, and within this conference. I think that any time you're operating at the level we're operating at in recruiting, people are going to come after us, and so they're going to question what we're doing.

"As the head coach, it's my job to make sure we're doing everything by the rules. And we are. We're excited about the direction we're going. People will always try to take shots at us, and they'll always try to bring us down, but it won't matter."

Kiffin said he hasn't been contacted by the Times regarding the story, and Hamilton wasn't notified until a few hours before the article was published.

Hamilton declined to comment on a single reporter or media outlet, but he admitted concern that the industry had reduced its traditional premiums on perspective and balance.

"Is our world different from where it was five years ago, or 10 years ago, or 15 years ago? From a practical, day-to-day standpoint, it's probably not a whole lot different in the terms of how football programs operate," Hamilton said. "But in terms of the attention that's garnered, and the accountability that is there, it's very different.

"What's bothersome sometimes is some of the things that do come out - in the national press, primarily - are sensationalized in such a manner that they get blown out of proportion. By saying that, I'm not saying that we minimize anything, as it relates to running our program in the right way. But I think it's very easy on the surface to read a ticker line, or read a little bit of a blurb in the newspaper, and start thinking about what that may mean, and making it perhaps bigger that it may be.

"In the end, something may be bigger, but it may not be. But we immediately, in today's world, make it bigger."

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