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Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin looks at the stadium monitor during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Arkansas, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Oxford, Miss. Mississippi won 52-51.(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

KNOXVILLE — The three University of Tennessee female athletes were discussing their weekend plans through the month of October as they exited the Brenda Lawson Athletic Center a couple of weeks ago.

Said Athlete A: "I think I'm going home on the weekend of the 16th."

Chimed in Athletes B and C: "No, you can't go then. That's the Ole Miss (football) game. That's when Lane Kiffin gets to hear how much we hate him."

Now that week is here. And the Big Orange Nation, which sees itself as the jilted lover where Kiffin's concerned, seems more than a little excited to let the former one-year-wonder of a Vols coach know how much he hurt them when he bolted for Southern Cal after the 2009 season.

Or as an old friend and lifelong Volniac told me over the weekend, "I'm just sorry I can't be there to boo him in person."

In a way, it's the supreme compliment. UT fans don't dislike Kiffin for the brief time he coached there, which included a 7-6 record (4-4 in SEC play), a 45-19 rout of Georgia in Knoxville, the narrowest of losses (12-10) to eventual national champ Alabama in Tuscaloosa and the public baiting of both Florida and Georgia.

Or as Georgia native and UT defensive back great Eric Berry told the media after that win over the Bulldogs: "(Kiffin) basically made a promise to us that we wouldn't lose to them anymore, forever or until he leaves. He's not going to let Georgia beat us."

But in the blink of an eye he was off to USC, where he'd previously been an assistant. Let the record show that since Kiffin left, the Bulldogs have won nine of 11 meetings against the Vols, including the last four in a row.

Then again, for every yin there's a yang. While Big Orange boosters the nation over may still hold a grudge against Kiffin, at least they were never able to convince Jon Gruden to coach UT.

In the wake of Gruden's firing by the NFL's Las Vegas Raiders on Monday night for repugnant emails he sent out beginning 10 years ago that were laced with racist remarks, homophobic comments and other disgusting thoughts, it's fair to say the Vols avoided a major headache and embarrassment that might have proved far more damaging than anything Kiffin did or didn't do.

Still, the Blame Lane Game for everything that's gone wrong with the program prior to the arrival of current coach Josh Heupel does carry at least a wee bit of factual weight. For instance, had Kiffin not unexpectedly bolted in January of 2010, Mike Hamilton — the UT athletic director at the time — wouldn't have hired Derek Dooley away from Louisiana Tech.

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Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden speaks to the media after an NFL football practice in Henderson, Nev., in this Saturday, July 31, 2021, file photo. Jon Gruden is out as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders after emails he sent before being hired in 2018 contained racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments. Gruden released a statement Monday night, Oct. 11, 2021, that he is stepping down after The New York Times reported that Gruden frequently used misogynistic and homophobic language directed at Commissioner Roger Goodell and others in the NFL.(AP Photo/David Becker, File)

And had Dooley not failed so miserably that he was let go after just three seasons, Hamilton replacement Dave Hart wouldn't have lured Butch Jones away from Cincinnati. And without the brick-by-brick dismantling of the program under "Botch" Jones, former AD John Currie probably never would have gotten the job, which means the coaching search for Jones' replacement wouldn't have fallen to former UT coach Phillip Fulmer, which also means Jeremy Pruitt wouldn't have been the coach who had to be replaced by Heupel after just three seasons.

Beyond that, Kiffin was 3-0 against Tennessee as an assistant coach at Alabama from 2014 through 2016.

See how easy that was? Just Blame Lane. For everything.

Not that Kiffin seems to be in a mood to throw gasoline on this fire. Not with the Vols having averaged more than 53 points a game in their two SEC victories over Missouri and South Carolina.

Instead, he seemed intent on killing them with kindness during his Monday press conference.

"Awesome place," he said of Knoxville. "I said something in some article last week about houses where we lived and they asked, 'what was your favorite house and where you lived?' I said the house in Knoxville. They said 'why?' And I said it was a great house and a great set up with the river, but the people. I really enjoyed the people there. (I'm) still in contact with a number of them and will see some of them Saturday."

He'll also see Neyland Stadium "checkerboarded" for his return, and, if Heupel's requests are met, Kiffin will be walking into a sold-out stadium where the fans will "be there early, be loud and make it a hostile environment for the opponent that's coming in."

All of this is sure to make for a memorable evening, especially if UT winds up beating Ole Miss on the scoreboard.

But it may also be time for the Big Orange Nation to thank Kiffin for leaving for Southern Cal, regardless of the struggles of the past dozen years.

Because while no one knows how different those years might have been riding the Lane Train, the early returns suggest the future may be brighter with Heupel than it might have been with anybody else, Kiffin included.

Or as UT super senior defensive lineman Ja'Quain Blakely — whose seen his share of coaching struggles as a Vol — said Tuesday of Heupel and his assistants: "Our staff is spectacular. I love their mindset, their vision. And it's all about the players. We couldn't have hired anyone better."

Finally.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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