As a politics junkie, I'm always fascinated by the pre-debate commentaries in a presidential campaign season. They are less about what weighty policy issues might be discussed -- who wants to hear about what the candidates think about the future of the country? -- and more about calibrating expectations. As in, "Dick Cheney can win if he doesn't come out with a second head that eats John Edwards, because he'll seem more likable than the American people think." Or, "Joe Biden is known for being a little long-winded, so if he doesn't get buzzed for going over the time limit too often, we have to count that as a win."
And so when Lane Kiffin came out and sounded somewhat, um, reasonable -- do we count that as win? After all, he didn't incorrectly accuse any of his fellow coaches of cheating, he apparently didn't commit any secondary violations (and was outspoken about not discussing recruits) and he didn't attack any small towns.
Sure, some reporters still snarked among themselves about how arrogant Kiffin appeared. But to your humble correspondent, who has been nothing if not willing to criticize Boy Wonder, he seemed less like a villian and more like a young coach a bit too eager to shoot off his mouth. In that respect, I think Kiffin "won" SEC Media Days in the same way Dick Cheney "won" the vice presidential debate by avoiding resorting to cannibalism.
Kiffin showed the sort of self-awareness that he had only hinted at in the past. Disagree with his methods if you must, and I still do, but don't think he enjoyed the show as much as has been portrayed, Kiffin said.
"The plan had to be, we had to create national attention immediately," he said. "I don't think people give you four- or five-year plans any more, especially in this conference. ... Do I love every single thing I've done for my seven months? No, I haven't loved having to do it. But it needed to be done, in my opinion, for us to get to where we needed to be."
I don't entirely buy the idea of a meticulously planned scheme to thrust Tennessee into the national spotlight. I think Kiffin wanted to get people talking about the school and was willing to strike out at targets of opportunity as they emerged. Pahokee, Urban Meyer -- these were just collateral damage in his quest to get Tennessee noticed. Wasn't nothing personal, Kiffin seemed to be saying. Just doin' my job.
Sure, that doesn't mean Urban Meyer won't make it his life's quest over the next few weeks to prove that the scoreboard in Knoxville needs a third digit on the scoreboard under "VISITORS." But, really -- does anyone think Florida isn't going to try to score as many times as they can every time they take the field this year? I still bitterly disagree with how Kiffin is doing this -- but at least I understand where he's coming from, and at least he seems to be aware that what he's doing is distasteful.
The plan, he insists, has nothing to do with secondary violations. "Not one of the violations that occurred to us was something we planned, set out to say, 'We're going to create a violation.'"
This, to me, makes the violations the easiest part of Kiffin's act to swallow. After all, if he knows that what he's saying crosses some lines, and then he says it anyway -- is that really any better? He's taking shots he knows are probably undeserved by his victims, but Tennessee has to win, so that's just too bad? It has the dressings of nobility the way Kiffin says it, but if you look at it this way, it's far more Machiavellian. And more than a little bit disturbing.
And while Kiffin suggested Friday that his month won't be running as many laps in the next few months, he made it obvious that something is coming to South Florida that will mark the next step in his plan.
"There will be a billboard going up there in the next month that I think you'll be excited to see, that will give you something to write about that will help us, too," Kiffin teased. When queried further, he simply added: "I'm not going to give you any more than that. Got to give you something to look forward to."
The man I half-jokingly refer to as Boy Wonder will eventually have to win on the field. But for now, he seems content to win a detente with his critics in the PR war.
So far, so good.