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On Kiffin: Not just no, but hell no

It started with an article by Saturday Down South’s Dan Harralson, saying Tennessee should consider hiring Lane Kiffin if it doesn’t hire Jon Gruden.

Then ESPN’s Chris Low said that Kiffin “would crawl back to Knoxville” for a chance to coach the Vols.

And a disturbing number of Tennessee fans seem to be enthused by this prospect.

Let’s go ahead and establish up front that Tennessee isn’t going to hire Lane Kiffin. You think the prospect of Gruden leaving the ESPN broadcast booth to coach the Vols is preposterous? That isn’t half as nuts as the idea that Kiffin might be coaching in Knoxville next season.

Not that Kiffin wouldn’t crawl back to Knoxville. Of course he would. He would also crawl to Athens, to Baton Rouge, to Gainesville . . . probably even to Lexington, Nashville or Oxford. He’s a coach, and coaches want to coach Power 5 programs. Similarly, Charlie Strong would crawl back to Louisville. Butch Jones would crawl back to Cincinnati in a couple of months.

This isn’t about whether Kiffin would crawl back to Knoxville. It’s about whether the suits in Knoxville would take him back, and it would be a cold day in hell when that happened.

Moreover, it’s about this nonsensical idea that Tennessee fans are actually entertaining the notion.

If you would embrace the possibility of Kiffin’s return to Knoxville, I would seriously question whether you were around for Part One back in 2009. Or, if you were, how much glue you’ve sniffed between then and now.

Joey Freshwater blew into Knoxville in 2009 and blew away almost as quickly. But not before he had dumped on UT traditions, flirted with UT coeds, initiated Hostessgate and landed the Vols on NCAA probation.

To a point, I get the infatuation with Lane Kiffin. He brought swagger to the program, and many UT fans admired that. He turned Jonathan Crompton, one of the SEC’s biggest under-achievers in the history of the quarterback position, into an NFL prospect. The beatdowns of Georgia and South Carolina were fun. The ending of the third quarter against Georgia still ranks as one of the most electrifying moments in Neyland Stadium history.

But you don’t get the good without the not-so-good. Not with Joey Freshwater. He’s a total package. So while he was doing pretty darned good on the field, given the talent at his disposal, he also never met a recruiting violation he didn’t like, stuck his foot in his mouth at every opportunity, thumbed his nose at Tennessee traditions and worked hard to undermine the UT program on his way out the door.

By the time he told Alshon Jeffrey that he would wind up pumping gas for a living if he signed with South Carolina, many UT fans had tired of Kiffin’s shtick. Not even the wins could offset the scrutiny that Kiffin was subjecting the Tennessee program to on a national level. Those who cringe every time Butch Jones is scorned by College Gameday or some national pundit must have forgotten the way Vols were a laughing-stock on the national scene back in 2009.

Kiffin operated under the P.T. Barnum’s presumption of all publicity being good publicity, so he never missed an opportunity to make headlines. But the notion that Tennessee could only be relevant on ESPN or in recruits’ living rooms if he was flapping his gums showed just how little he understood about — or cared about, or respected — the school’s traditions. Which might also explain why he turned the Vol facilities into a shrine for Southern Cal.

No one expected Kiffin to be able to recite the maxims or know the difference between “Rocky Top” and “Down the Field” his first day on campus. But coaches tend to embrace their school’s traditions; wrap themselves in those traditions. You can’t imagine that Butch Jones knew too much about Tennessee’s traditions when he came to the South as a Yankee from Saugatuck, Mich., in December 2012. But he embraced the traditions. Can you imagine Jones hanging Cincinnati pictures throughout the UT football complex? Can you imagine Nick Saban hanging LSU pictures in the Alabama facilities?

All of that — the tradition-dissing, the foot-in-mouth disease, Hostessgate — might have paled in comparison to that night in January 2010, when Kiffin fled Knoxville for sunny Southern California under the cover of darkness. As mini-riots broke out around the UT campus and the press infamously battled themselves at an impromptu press conference, Kiffin left town just three weeks before National Signing Day.

Much has been made of Mike Hamilton’s flub with the Kiffin experience, but if we’re being fair, you can’t blame Hamilton for being blindsided by Kiffin’s swift departure. It’s hard to take Joey Freshwater at his word about anything, but we will assume that he was being honest when he said Southern Cal was the one job he would’ve left Tennessee for. And who could’ve known it would’ve come open so soon? That isn’t to say it’s hard to forgive and forget the fact that Kiffin bolted after just one season, and so close to National Signing Day. It placed Tennessee in an impossible situation that directly contributed to the hiring of Derek Dooley. But the circumstances were unique.

Let’s not be too quick to completely forgive Hamilton, however. Because the one thing he did do was hire a coach of questionable character. Even if we’re assuming that all those stories about DUIs and crashed cars were the stuff of baseless messageboard fodder, Lane Kiffin was a man of questionable character. As former Tennessee kicker Fuad Reveiz said last week, “I’ve known Lane since he was 16 years old and he is not the coach for this job.” Let’s face it: if your wife can’t trust you, how on earth can your athletics director or you fan base trust you? And the fact that Hamilton hired a guy of Kiffin’s character shows that he did not do a very thorough job vetting him.

So that’s where we were left in January 2010. The flea we had been lying with jumped from our back to a new host after one terribly awkward season, but we were left to scratch the bites for several years to come, until Jones finally managed to right the ship.

And now we’re okay with bringing him back? Seriously?

Even if you liked Kiffin’s braggadocious approach so much that you excuse his late-night flight to Southern Cal as an aspiring coach taking his dream job, and you’re willing to overlook the diarrhea of the mouth, the recruiting violations (if he could land Tennessee on probation in one year, what could he do in three years? Or five?), the dissing of the traditions and all the rest, surely — surely — you aren’t okay with what happened on the way out the door. Have we really forgotten the way Kiffin and his right-hand man Ed Orgeron spent an entire evening on the phone with UT recruits, including early-enrollees who were on the verge of signing, in an effort to convince them to forego signing with the Vols so they could jump to Southern Cal?

Lane Kiffin is not a man to be trusted. He’s not a man who deserves to be the head coach of the Tennessee program. Not now, not ever.

Back in October 2008, just about eight weeks before Kiffin was hired by Tennessee, kooky Raiders owner Al Davis stood before a throng of reporters at an unprecedented press conference in Los Angeles and explained why he had fired Kiffin as his head coach, calling him a “flat-out liar,” among other things.

“I think he conned me just like he conned all of you people,” Davis said.

Lane Kiffin, a.k.a. Joey Freshwater, a.k.a. The Conman, fooled us, too. He played Mike Hamilton just like he played Al Davis.

And you know what they say: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice . . .

Lane Kiffin to Tennessee? Not just no, but hell no.


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