One of the endemic problems in Tennessee's football program over the past few years was a lack of excitement and interest. Even when the Vols surprisingly made the SEC Championship Game in 2007, most people yawned and assumed they'd lose to heavy favorite LSU. The star of Tennessee, as well as that of its coach Phillip Fulmer, had been eclipsed by those of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and LSU within the conference.
When Lane Kiffin took over in Knoxville, he probably knew that. He knows that Tennessee fans are a very passionate bunch, but the program had stagnated into boredom.
That is why I don't believe for a second that Lane Kiffin did not know that there is no NCAA rule barring coaches from calling players who are on official visits to other schools' campuses. He has been around the recruiting block enough enough times to know what the rules are, and besides, he passed the NCAA recruiting exam. You know, the one that Steve Spurrier hinted Kiffin might not have taken.
In addition a Tennessee spokeswoman said that the school did not plan on turning in Urban Meyer for calling Nu'Keese Richardson while the receiver was in Knoxville. That notice came a couple hours before Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley issued his statement confirming that it was not, in fact a violation. My guess is that Kiffin invented the "violation" for the purposes of firing up the Tennessee fan base. After all, he said so himself in his public apology.
So no, I don't believe Kiffin was ignorant of the NCAA rules, as some have him accused him of being. I can buy though that he was not aware of the SEC ethics rule against publicly criticizing other conference coaches. The guy has only been in the league for just over two months, you know. If he knew a reprimand from Mike Slive was coming (and it did), he probably would have held off.
I also might buy that he didn't know how much of a media firestorm it would create. The SEC is covered like no other league and until you're in it, it's probably hard to understand just how close the scrutiny really is. I wouldn't be surprised if he bad mouthed other Pac-10 schools while at USC booster functions and it wasn't reported widely, because the media attention out there is not like what it is down here.
Florida wasn't the only target of Kiffin and his staff though. Lance Thompson, a former Alabama assistant who joined Kiffin's staff just a few weeks before signing day, jabbed his former employer a bit today as well. Kiffin said that Nick Saban should thank Thompson for eight of the Tide's 2009 recruits. Thompson also referenced Alabama's loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl in a mocking manner.
LSU fans also got ticked off at Kiffin today over former Tiger recruit Janzen Jackson committing to Tennessee. He said he waited until today to announce for his family to be together for it, but also that he had "known for weeks" that he wanted to be a Vol. Jackson reaffirmed his commitment to LSU on Tuesday, but he obviously was lying about it. That has caused some LSU folks to accuse Kiffin of personally orchestrating the episode.
On top of everything today, Kiffin yesterday needed only 40 seconds in his signing day press conference yesterday to boast about turning two former Florida commits to his team. He even tweaked Georgia a bit by implying that Bulldog signee Marlon Brown would have gone to Knoxville if not for his grandmother's objections.
The end result of it all has been to unite Bama, Florida, and LSU fans against him. This EDSBS commend thread lays that out fairly well, and it even has Georgia fans popping in to warn about what happens when you make Urban Meyer mad (hint: for them the answer was 49-10 plus two timeouts).
It's not like Tennessee did any better than that the last time the Vols visited Florida Field anyway.
The national reaction has either been the way of those UGA partisans—warning that a hellacious beat down in the Swamp is coming—or to cheer him on for trying to re-energize the Tennessee program. What everyone seems to agree on though is that he's displaying an inordinate amount of arrogance for someone who has yet to win a game in the SEC and went 5-15 at his previous head coaching gig.
Even the SEC's prince of arrogance himself, Steve Spurrier, largely held his tongue until he started winning. His only public jab in his inaugural 1990 season that I could find was his famous line about 20 books being destroyed in an Auburn dorm fire ("The real tragedy was that 15 hadn't been colored yet."). Florida beat Auburn 48-7 that year and finished first in the conference, though the Gators didn't officially win it thanks to Galen Hall-era probation.
Considering what the Tennessee roster has right now, it would be a tough task for the Vols to beat anyone 48-7, much less an eight-game winner like that '90 Auburn team was.
Regardless of what happens from here on out, Kiffin has achieved what I believe to be one of his first goals when arriving in Knoxville, that of raising the profile of his new program. Mission accomplished, Lane, the nation's eyes are squarely on Tennessee now. Here comes the hard part: capitalizing on it and restoring UT to being a national title contender in the most competitive era the conference has ever known.
Maybe he can do it, maybe he can't. The one thing we know for sure is that the ride won't be boring.