Commentary

Kiffin's decision a blessing for Vols

Originally Published: January 12, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

The new year started with Tennessee's football team still smarting from its ugly 37-14 loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Kirby Lee/US PresswireA former assistant at USC, Lane Kiffin understands the Pac-10 landscape.

The first day of 2010 ended with four members of Tennessee's nationally ranked basketball team sitting in a Knoxville jail, facing drug and weapons charges.

What a way to turn the calendar.

Finally, there was good news on Rocky Top on Tuesday night: Lane Kiffin is gone.

After only one season as Tennessee's coach, Kiffin is no longer the Volunteers' problem. The 34-year-old wonder boy is going back to Southern California, where he'll replace Trojans coach Pete Carroll, his former boss. Kiffin's 12-21 record in two-plus seasons as coach of the Volunteers and NFL's Oakland Raiders was enough to convince USC athletic director Mike Garrett that he should be handed the keys to one of college football's premier programs.

Although losing Kiffin to USC might sting the Volunteers for a few days, they'll be much better off in the long run. Now they can hire a coach who can actually beat teams such as Alabama and Florida instead of only boasting about the possibility of defeating them.

In his 14 months in Knoxville, it was hard to take Kiffin seriously. He argued with rival SEC coaches like a preschooler on the playground and spent more time drawing attention to himself than he apparently did studying the NCAA rulebook.

As soon as Kiffin's two-minute news conference in Knoxville ended Tuesday night, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton's first telephone call should have been to Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Muschamp was named Longhorns coach Mack Brown's eventual successor last year. But Brown recently was awarded a new contract that will pay him $5 million per season, and he doesn't seem ready to walk away from the sideline anytime soon.

Muschamp played at Georgia and worked as defensive coordinator at LSU and Auburn. He knows the SEC. He'd get more pleasure out of the challenge of beating teams such as Alabama and Florida than he would from trouncing Notre Dame and UCLA every year. Oh, and his agent is Jimmy Sexton, who somehow got Kiffin the USC job.

Will Muschamp
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesTexas' Will Muschamp likely is on Tennessee's wish list.

If Tennessee can't pry Muschamp away from Texas, TCU's Gary Patterson and Connecticut's Randy Edsall should be high on the Volunteers' list, too. Ole Miss' Houston Nutt would be another good choice. At least he could win with star recruiter Ed Orgeron's players again. Regardless, they're all better coaches than Kiffin, who is more about style and flair than substance.

From the day Kiffin arrived on the Tennessee campus as Phillip Fulmer's replacement, he seemed determined to turn the SEC upside down. In his introductory news conference, Kiffin told fans he couldn't wait to sing "Rocky Top" after beating defending national champion Florida in the Swamp. He accused Gators coach Urban Meyer of cheating to sign a recruit, but later apologized to Meyer because he hadn't understood the NCAA rules.

Kiffin is so confident he probably believes Meyer's self-induced leave of absence ended when he boarded a plane and left for Los Angeles on Tuesday night.

In fairness, Kiffin's only season at Tennessee wasn't a complete disaster. The Volunteers finished 7-6 and were surprisingly competitive in narrow road losses to Florida and eventual BCS national champion Alabama. At least Kiffin kept one promise to Tennessee fans. He vowed the Volunteers would never lose to rival Georgia on his watch. The Vols blasted the Bulldogs 45-19 in Kiffin's only game against them.

The Volunteers did better than expected under Kiffin because their defense was so well prepared. Lane Kiffin's father, Monte, directed the Tennessee defense after a stellar career in the NFL. But Monte Kiffin, who will join his son at USC, turns 70 next month and isn't going to coach forever. At some point, Lane Kiffin won't be able to ride his father's coattails anymore.

In Kiffin's only season at Tennessee, it was hard to determine what he would accomplish first: leading the Volunteers to an SEC championship or getting them put on NCAA probation.

In only 14 months, Kiffin committed more lane violations than the aforementioned Tennessee basketball players. In his short time in Knoxville, the Volunteers skirted the NCAA rulebook at least a half-dozen times. Kiffin improperly mentioned recruits by name on radio shows and talked about their committing to the Volunteers on his Twitter page. His coaching staff simulated game-day experiences during recruits' visits to campus, another NCAA no-no.

[+] EnlargeMonte Kiffin
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesMonte Kiffin brings a wealth of experience to USC.

In November, three Tennessee players, including freshman receiver Nu'Keese Richardson (the prospect at the center of Kiffin's cheating allegations against Meyer), were arrested and charged with trying to rob two men with an air-powered pellet gun outside a Knoxville convenience store.

But the most damaging charges came near the end of Kiffin's lone season with the Volunteers. A New York Times investigation revealed that female recruiting hostesses had crossed state lines to entice recruits to come to Tennessee. Kiffin claimed to have no knowledge of the women visiting prospects in South Carolina, but the NCAA has questioned several prospects about the hostesses' role in their recruitment by the Vols.

If Kiffin could recruit like that at Tennessee, imagine what he'll do with USC's renowned sun-baked coeds helping his cause.

There was little doubt the "Lane Train" was headed for derailment in Knoxville -- until the Trojans saved the Volunteers.

Apparently, Kiffin couldn't get the Volunteers on NCAA probation fast enough so he decided to go to a school that also has caught the interest of NCAA investigators.

The NCAA has been camped in USC's backyard since April 2006, investigating allegations that former Trojans star Reggie Bush received improper benefits while playing at USC. This past season, running back Joe McKnight was suspended from playing in the Emerald Bowl because of concerns he was improperly driving an SUV owned by a marketing executive.

USC's basketball program is under NCAA investigation, too, because former star player O.J. Mayo allegedly received improper benefits. Last week, the school banned its basketball team from playing in the postseason and reduced its scholarships.

With Kiffin coming to the USC campus, the NCAA can swap its tents for permanent office space in L.A.

Apparently, Garrett missed the negative headlines surrounding Kiffin -- or, worse, simply ignored them.

"Lane brings a lot to the table," Garrett said in a statement released by USC on Tuesday night. "He has a coaching background both in the pros and in the best collegiate conferences. He has a great command of the X's and O's. He is familiar with the Trojan landscape and will be a great representative of our university. He keeps the game fun. And, very importantly, he has proven to be one of the finest recruiters anywhere."

With only three weeks left before college football's national signing day, the Volunteers are left scrambling for a new coach.

Chances are the Volunteers will find one who is better than the one who just left.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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