Lane Kiffin’s Return to Knoxville

By Alex Norman

Admit it… you can’t wait to see what happens at when the Vols and Crimson Tide renew their rivalry on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

I’m not talking about the game itself.  Tennessee hasn’t beaten Alabama since 2006 and will be hard pressed to end that streak this year.

But the atmosphere in the stadium will be totally unique, something never seen before in Knoxville.

The return of Lane Kiffin, the most hated man in East Tennessee, will stir up all of the memories from January 12, 2010, the night he bolted for the head coaching job at Southern California.

Be warned, UT campus mattresses… you are in danger.

Today Kiffin is the Offensive Coordinator at Alabama.  He remains as polarizing a figure as ever, even though Tide Head Coach Nick Saban’s media policy keeps Kiffin (and other Alabama assistant coaches) from speaking publicly except on rare occasions.

Ever since Kiffin left town the Vols have been floundering.  Despite his assertions that he was leaving Tennessee in better shape than the day he arrived 14 months earlier, the Vols have yet to recover with four consecutive losing seasons.

But the truth of the matter is that Kiffin’s leaving Tennessee was probably the best thing for both parties, and this is despite the fact that neither has succeeded since then.  Think about it.  Had Kiffin stayed, Tennessee likely would have been under intense NCAA scrutiny.  This was at a time when the NCAA was aggressive in its discipline, unlike today when they bury their heads in the sand at the first sign of anything significant (see Winston, Jameis).

Kiffin’s coaching staff played fast and loose when it came to NCAA rules.  And with another year, who knows how many violations would have piled up.  Perhaps enough for USC level NCAA scholarship reductions and probation (yes, Kiffin was on that USC staff too).

Of course you could make a case that the Derek Dooley era of Tennessee football was a de-facto death penalty case, but that’s another story for another time.

Kiffin was never a good fit for Tennessee.  He knew it early on as well.  That job, in this town, means that people are going to ask for your autograph at dinner.  You trade the anonymity for the money and the title.  In Los Angeles, Kiffin’s star shone much less bright.  Here, the Vols head coaching job makes you one of the most well-known people in the entire state.

Johnny Majors didn’t get to leave on his own terms. Phillip Fulmer didn’t get to leave on his own terms. But Lane Kiffin did, and that hurt Tennessee fans to their core.  It’s hard for some to remember now, but many fans had bought in and supported Kiffin’s childish ways.  His jabs at Spurrier and Meyer and Richt gave the Vols some “swagger.”  But at the same time, that “swagger” was destroying Tennessee’s national reputation.

Kiffin would be fired from Southern California after a little over three seasons when the Trojans failed to live up to expectations.  But as has happened throughout his career, Kiffin fell upward, to run an Alabama offense filled with future NFL players.

So when Kiffin runs onto the field with the Tide on Saturday night, the noise at Neyland Stadium will be loud and angry.  Most of the 104,000 in attendance will use that moment as therapy, the result of nearly five years of frustration.

A couple of weeks ago University of Tennessee Chancellor sent a letter to UT students, criticizing what he said were “unacceptable” chants from students, directed towards the Florida Gators during the Vols 10-9 loss on October 6.  Cheek wrote…

Win or lose, we must respect our opponents, demonstrate class, and always show pride for our great university. As Volunteers, we are better than that and our expectation is that this kind of behavior will never happen again.

If the expletives were flying against Florida, what on earth should we anticipate from the bleachers on Saturday night about Kiffin?

Most UT students weren’t on campus when Kiffin was here, but his legend his grown… he’s become a modern day boogeyman.  All your dreams will be shattered by Kiffin, hide under your covers and say your prayers…

The ultimate revenge for Vols fans would be to see the goalposts torn down at Neyland Stadium this weekend following a Tennessee win.

But no matter what the result, Neyland Stadium will be absolutely electric at kickoff.

It’s what Kiffin left behind.

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