When Tennessee hired him, I asked the question, "Is Lane Kiffin really the best Tennessee could do?" I guess at this point, we all know the answer: almost certainly not.
In hindsight, this really couldn't have ended up any other way. Just what did you expect when:
- His SID at USC publicly warned schools not to hire him (twice),and incidentally now thinks USC's program committed suicide.
- He decided the best way to get out of Oakland was to act like a petulant child (antagonizing his bosses, going for a 76 yard field goal, etc.) rather than work things out like an adult. He forced the team to fire him so he could collect buyout money instead of just resigning.
- He broke one of the cardinal rules of coaching, namely that you don't start talking unless you've won something recently. Even Steve Spurrier follows that one.
- He attempted to show his knowledge of Tennessee's program by going after Florida, a relatively recent rival, while all but kissing up to Nick Saban and Alabama (calling UAT the best coached team in the conference on multiple occasions), the much older and more hated rival.
- He went so far as to replace Tennessee traditions with stuff he got from USC.
- His idea of pushing the limits was to break rules and then apologize later, instead of exploiting loopholes like Saban and Urban Meyer have been known to do.
I'm wondering if I should read too much into the fact that he said in his one-minute press conference last night that USC was "probably" the only job he'd leave Tennessee for. Even if it was inadvertent, it only fits in with everything else.
I feel bad for Tennessee's players. They deserve better than this, and it's possible that all the coaching turnover could ruin the NFL chances (or at least future draft positioning) for some of them. I feel bad for Phillip Fulmer, who had to watch his beloved program get taken over by a hack who skipped town at the first opportunity.
I don't feel quite as bad for Tennessee fans. The warning signs were all there, and having seen the Ron Zook era at Florida in person as a student, I know for a fact there's no rule that says a fanbase must embrace the head football coach no matter who he is. Everyone else in the conference tried to warn you. Kiffin himself practically tried to warn you with all his words and actions. He deserved the cold shoulder treatment from fans far more than Zook ever did.
Even if USC was Kiffin's dream job, he didn't have to take it now. I know you can make the case for USC being a better job than Tennessee's, but UT isn't a stepping stone school. If he stayed around Knoxville longer, accomplished something, and then chose to go out to USC when the job opens up somewhere down the line, I doubt anyone would blame him for it. It is reportedly his dream job.
However even in this era of mercenary coaches, we've seen guys turn down dream jobs to honor their commitments and schools. Les Miles turned down his alma mater to stay at LSU. Meyer has passed on Notre Dame twice now for Florida. Chris Petersen, Gary Patterson, and Bronco Mendenhall have all even passed up BCS school jobs to continue their work at their current posts.
Kiffin going out to USC is in a different class even than Bobby Petrino leaving the Falcons or Saban leaving the Dolphins. In those cases, the guys tried coaching on a different level, found out it wasn't for them, and left for places they'd feel passionate about. Kiffin clearly went to Tennessee for the money and to get his career back on track, not because he held it in any kind of high esteem.
Tennessee will now have to go find a new coach three weeks before signing day. If the school is desperate, it will go after Fulmer or one of his former assistants like David Cutcliffe or John Chavis. I say that because moving on from Fulmer was the right decision for the long term health of the program. It was who they got to replace him that was bad. If the school is smart, it will make a Godfather offer (i.e. one that cannot be refused) to an up and coming coach who will be grateful for the opportunity and will actually embrace the school.
As for Kiffin, he's now more than ever cemented himself as a story that college football will be dealing with for more than the next quarter century. He's not even old enough to be elected president, and he's on his third head coaching job already. Any bets as to how many more he'll have before he's done?