Commentary

Emotions running high in Knoxville

Originally Published: January 12, 2010
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Telling his players that he was leaving for the USC head-coaching job after only 14 months at Tennessee was dicey enough for Lane Kiffin.

Several players who were in that emotionally charged meeting said Kiffin was interrupted several times by players yelling out before he could actually tell them that he was indeed moving on.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Wade PayneLane Kiffin's Tennessee introduction went much better than his exit.

But the real trick for Kiffin was figuring out a way to leave the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center late Tuesday night in one piece.

Groups of angry students and fans began surrounding the football complex after the news leaked that Kiffin had taken the USC job. Eventually, it evolved into a mob-like scene, with police moving in and barricading Johnny Majors Drive in front of the football complex.

Every time a car moved anywhere in the vicinity of the complex, the mob ran in that direction, shouting and chanting, "F--- you Kiffin!"

Even more surreal was the fact that several Tennessee players were standing around watching the whole ugly scene play out. Many of them wore looks of bewilderment.

After all, Tennessee had a grand total of two head football coaches in the 30-plus years prior to Kiffin's arrival -- Phillip Fulmer and John Majors. Now, they're looking for their third head coach in the last 14 months.

Perhaps that's why junior defensive end Ben Martin came running across the street yelling, "Somebody needs to go give Phil [Fulmer] his job back."

That's not going to happen, but Fulmer certainly wasn't taking any joy in Kiffin's sudden departure when contacted Tuesday night, especially since national signing day is only three weeks away.

I'm not going to lie. It hurts, and it definitely feels like he turned his back on us. But he said it was his dream job, and I guess he had to do what he had to do. Good luck to him. Tennessee football will go on.

-- Tennessee defensive end Ben Martin
"I'm like any Vol and as disappointed and PO'd as anybody else at what's happened," said Fulmer, who was fired after the 2008 season, paving the way for Kiffin's hiring.

Junior defensive end Chris Walker did his best to see Kiffin's side of things.

"I'm old enough to know and wise enough to know that it's a business out there," Walker said. "When things come around, you can't turn down the dream job you wanted forever. He spent a lot of years there, and I'm not mad at him."

That may be, but another player leaving the meeting with Kiffin bellowed, "They're nothing but a bunch of traitors."

Martin wouldn't go that far, but he acknowledged that players felt let down, particularly the younger ones who signed with Kiffin.

"I'm not going to lie. It hurts, and it definitely feels like he turned his back on us," Martin said. "But he said it was his dream job, and I guess he had to do what he had to do. Good luck to him. Tennessee football will go on."

Martin said he walked out of the meeting before Kiffin was finished talking.

"I was just so hurt by his leaving after we bought in and did everything he asked us to do," he said. "I just couldn't stay around and listen."

As the players bolted from the football complex after meeting with Kiffin, many of them remained out in the street with the mob of fans and students, which only grew in numbers as the night wore on.

From the second floor of Gibbs Hall dormitory, which houses many of the freshman and sophomore players, somebody screamed, "Go to hell, Lane Kiffin."

And somewhere along the way, somebody set a mattress on fire that was finally extinguished by longtime assistant equipment manager Max Parrott. Others burned a pile of Lane Kiffin T-shirts.

Ben Martin
Jim Brown/US PresswireBen Martin and the Vols were hurt by Lane Kiffin's decision.

Meanwhile, Kiffin remained holed up in the football complex as blue lights from police cars flashed down below.

Earlier, he met with the media and made a brief statement. Kiffin refused to take questions and consented to make that appearance only with the stipulation that none of the local television stations would broadcast his comments live.

Kiffin, who owes Tennessee an $800,000 buyout for breaking his contract, thanked the Tennessee fans for their support. He also said USC was probably the only place he would have left Tennessee for.

"It's been an exciting time, and I know that I can walk out of here and say this: We've been here for 14 months, and there's not one day that I didn't give everything I had to the Tennessee football program," Kiffin said. "And I know -- just leaving that team room and looking around and the players coming in on this roster and what's going on in development -- that we're leaving here 14 months later a lot better team than we were 14 months ago."

Several reporters shouted questions to Kiffin, who made a quick exit down the hall toward his office.

Pressed further as he left his final press conference at Tennessee, Kiffin said he's confident that a good base has been established on his watch.

"We've come a long ways and improved as a team, and Tennessee's going to be great forever," a retreating Kiffin said with a horde of reporters in tow. "It's not about Lane Kiffin. Tennessee's a place that will always be great."

Asked the team's reaction, he said, "You'd have to ask them. I think it was mixed."

Walker said the worst part was not hearing the initial news from Kiffin himself.

"We heard it on ESPN … like always," Walker said. "He was down in Orlando and trying to get back, but it was already out."

Walker had his own message for the Tennessee fans.

"Tell them we're going to be Tennessee today, tomorrow, next year, whenever," Walker said. "We're still going to be here no matter who the coach is."

Chris Low covers college football for ESPN.com. You may contact him at espnclow@aol.com.

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