How will Tennessee fans react to Lane Kiffin's return to Knoxville?
Drew McElroy says his mind sometimes drifts to strange places. That’s what happened to the Knoxville-based attorney one evening in January 2010, as McElroy drove through the University of Tennessee’s campus.
That week McElroy, a longtime Volunteers football supporter, was one member of a fan base reeling from the abrupt departure of coach Lane Kiffin. Kiffin had left the Vols after one season to take over as USC's head coach, and Tennessee, in turn, went out and hired Derek Dooley. The Vols were set to enter another coaching regime, but McElroy wasn’t ready to forget Kiffin. In fact, he wanted to honor him.
“I’m driving through UT’s campus heading back to my office in West Knoxville,” said McElroy, a Knoxville resident for 57 years. “It was right on the heels of Kiffin leaving. I’m passing Chamique Holdsclaw Drive, Peyton Manning Pass, Phillip Fulmer Way, all these roads. I just thought, perhaps they ought to name something after Kiffin that would reflect the feelings of the local people appropriately.”
McElroy filed paperwork with the Knoxville City Council's Public Properties and Facilities Naming Committee. He didn’t want to rename a campus street; rather, he requested a new name for the Kuwahee Wastewater Treatment Plant, which sits down the road from Neyland Stadium. The name? Lane Kiffin Sewage Center.
“I just kind of put two and two together,” McElroy said.
McElroy’s request was denied -- and his $268 filing fee refunded -- because the city no longer owned the plant. But McElroy’s idea exemplified a larger sentiment shared by Tennessee fans. Almost five seasons and two coaches after Kiffin skipped town, he remains public enemy No. 1 to a large portion of Vols' faithful.
On Saturday Kiffin will return to Knoxville for the first time since leaving on Jan. 13, 2010. Now Alabama’s offensive coordinator, he’ll coach against his former team as a 17-point favorite. Tennessee is not in the same stratosphere as the Crimson Tide in the current SEC landscape. But none of that matters to the fans, who view this game as a chance to finally exact a measure of revenge.
Alabama hired Kiffin on Jan. 11, 2014, almost four years to the day after he left Tennessee. Though the Vols recent history with the Tide is one-sided -- Tennessee hasn’t beaten Bama since '06 -- the Third Saturday in October remains one of the South’s oldest rivalries. Folks in Knoxville hate Alabama, with or without Kiffin. Yet the coach’s arrival in Tuscaloosa conjured up old feelings.
“Immediately there were emotions that came out,” said Josh Ward, a radio host on Knoxville’s Sports Animal AM 990. “Even to this point, if you mention Kiffin’s name, people are going to get upset and have strong opinions against him. Then you throw in Alabama, and people really get upset.”
Vols fans remember Kiffin as the man once tasked with leading Tennessee out of the mediocrity of the final months of the Fulmer era. After Fulmer was forced to resign in 2008 amid his second five-win season in four years, then-athletic director Mike Hamilton hired Kiffin to resurrect the program. Brian Kelly, Gary Patterson and Butch Davis were mentioned in the school’s search, but Kiffin got the job three months after being fired midseason as coach of the NFL's Oakland Raiders.
Even without much SEC clout, Kiffin made waves before coaching his first game. At his introductory press conference he predicted that Tennessee would beat Florida, which had just won a BCS title, in his debut season. He later implied then-Gators coach Urban Meyer made illegal contact with a recruit -- receiver Nu’Keese Richardson -- the Vols ultimately signed and “still couldn’t get him.” (The allegation proved to be inaccurate, and Kiffin apologized for the error.)
Kiffin’s brash approach was unusual for fans accustomed to Fulmer’s famously understated demeanor. But did they embrace him?
“One hundred percent,” said Daniel Hood, who played offensive and defensive line at Tennessee from 2009-13 and redshirted under Kiffin. “The thing that did it was that first press conference. He won over the fans. The first thing he does is start talking about singing Rocky Top down in Gainesville.”
Despite the Vols coming off a five-win season, Kiffin added to the hype by building a coaching staff that included Ed Orgeron, as associate head coach and defensive line coach, and his father Monte Kiffin, as defensive coordinator. Kiffin overcame a shortened recruiting cycle to ink the No. 10 class in the country, according to Rivals.com. That haul included two five-star players, safety Janzen Jackson and running back Bryce Brown, the latter the top-rated prospect in the country.
Kiffin turned that momentum -- and a roster full of NFL-bound players recruited by Fulmer -- into a 7-6 campaign, which stands as Tennessee’s best since 2007. The Vols beat Georgia and a ranked South Carolina and came within a blocked field goal of toppling Alabama in Tuscaloosa. By the end of the ’09 season, most fans had bought into Kiffin’s direction, something they now seem to largely forget.
“What you’re hitting on there is a little bit of revisionist history with his tenure at Tennessee,” said Austin Ward, a Big Ten reporter for ESPN.com who covered the Volunteers for the Knoxville News Sentinel during Kiffin’s tenure. “A couple of games go differently -- which they easily could’ve -- and you’re talking about a nine-win team that’s really starting to build momentum in recruiting.”
All that changed on Jan. 12, 2013, when Kiffin held a late-night press conference on campus to announce his departure. Angry fans gathered outside the football complex. Some burned T-shirts and mattresses stolen from nearby dorms; others tried to force their way into Kiffin’s heavily guarded presser. Fans scoffed at the perception of Tennessee as a stepping stone.
“I was on the [dorm] balcony just watching,” Hood said. “I saw the mattress get burned. I saw all the students on campus, how they were about to break into Neyland [Stadium] and riot on the field. There was such unity between the team and the players and everyone else, and they just felt betrayed. They’d put so much trust into one person who ended up leaving them.”
Unlike the fan base, Hood said most of the players understood Kiffin’s decision to return to his roots at USC, where he served as an assistant from 2001-06. Hood also gave the coach credit for addressing the team prior to his exit. Still, Hood admitted the locker room was “shell-shocked” during Kiffin’s goodbye speech. Tennessee had had two head coaches in the 31 years prior to Kiffin’s arrival. Suddenly, it was searching for its second one in 14 months.
“The week before he left, there was a UT basketball game,” Josh Ward said. “Lane Kiffin and Bruce Pearl hugged each other after Tennessee upset No. 1 Kansas. Fans looked at that and said, ‘There’s our future.’ They obviously loved Bruce Pearl, and they thought Lane Kiffin was going to get Tennessee back to winning.”
The NCAA later determined Kiffin and his staff committed 12 secondary violations related to recruiting during his year in Knoxville, and Tennessee was placed on two years probation. Kiffin, already at USC, received no penalty. The Vols are 23-29 since Kiffin’s exit.
Kiffin has spent the 2014 season coaching from the Alabama sidelines. He’ll likely be on the field again on Saturday, which comes at an interesting time. Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek sent out a campus-wide email on Oct. 6 condemning the Volunteers' student section for profanity-laced chants directed at Florida during the Gators’ 10-9 victory on Oct. 4. Given fans’ reaction the last time Kiffin was in Knoxville, most expect a cold welcome for the coach this weekend. “The calls on the radio shows and the emails that we got, it’s almost hard to even believe at this point there was so much hatred for the things that he did,” Austin Ward said.
Kiffin haters are back in full force. An East Tennessee candidate for state representative was compared to Kiffin in a recent political ad. A Knoxville TV station ran a faux-exposé alleging Kiffin owes a local barber $14 for a haircut.
Yet current players on Alabama and Tennessee don’t seem worried about the Kiffin storyline. On Monday Vols coach Butch Jones said, “Nobody [on Tennessee's roster] knows who Lane Kiffin is." Nick Saban echoed that sentiment, telling reporters, “It’s only a distraction if you allow it to be a distraction.”
The Vols’ lack of depth and staggeringly young offensive line don’t pose major threats to the Crimson Tide, who are fresh off a 59-0 drubbing of Texas A&M last weekend. That’s why a Tennessee upset seems nothing more than a pipe dream in Knoxville. But Kiffin’s return is a more enticing headline for most orange-clad fans. It’s what they’ve been waiting for since the day Bama hired him.
“I hope we’re classy about it, but knowing that Alabama will be right in front of the student section -- I mean, we just got chastised for saying F-U Florida,” Hood said. “I don’t think that they’ll actually curse at him, but they’ll probably chant something at him. Hopefully it doesn’t turn too ugly.”
Said McElroy: “As long as there’s an Internet, Lane Kiffin and sewage will be inextricably tied together for eternity, which is appropriate.”