Only four months into his job and Lane Kiffin has easily become the most hated coach in the Southeastern Conference, and the prime target of national and local media. Does he care?
Absolutely not, because in only four months, Kiffin has ultimately changed the entire culture of Tennessee Football. He brings in a culture of openness and visibility.
The only things the national media will report on Kiffin are his rips on Urban Meyer and Florida, his alleged "gas station" comment, his handful of secondary violations, and whatever future Kiff-ism that may (probably will) happen. What the national media fails to cover is the overall accountability and outreach efforts Kiffin has brought to the University Of Tennessee.
His first accomplishment was, above all else, putting Tennessee back on the map. The more ESPN and other outlets showed Kiffin's face, the more publicity the university recieved, and ultimately, the more recruits he reeled in.
He capped off a top-10 recruiting class with the number one player in the country, Bryce Brown. A week doesn't go by that Kiffin isn't on television.
So far he has been on countless sports shows on television and radio. In the last decade or so, Tennessee has been an afterthought.
It was the doormat of the SEC, but Kiffin has changed that for the better. One of Kiffin's first promises to his players and fans was that everyone gets a chance to play, regardless of age and/or seniority.
This was in stark contrast to the Phillip Fulmer era in which talented underclassmen would be buried in the depth chart as a result of Fulmer's loyalty to juniors and seniors. So far in spring practices, younger players who fans have never heard of are starting to emerge as physical, almost violent players that will help Tennessee compete at the highest level of SEC football.
The flip-side of Kiffin’s equal treatment is the fact that everyone is held accountable, regardless of talent or age. He has kicked off several players since coming to Tennessee, all of them for disciplinary and academic problems.
The most notable boot was given to Demetrice Morley, the Vols’ 5 star defensive back who was a sure-fire shot at All-American status this coming year. Morley failed to get on board with this new team first philosophy and was let go.
As much as it stinks for Morley, it sends a message to the rest of the team and the fans: everyone is accountable for their actions. This is a major change from the last regime that gave players enough leeway to screw up and supplemented that with multiple opportunities to come back and screw up yet again.
Local and national media can now come and watch those players excelling in Kiffin's open practices, another example of Kiffin's visibility effort. This was previously unheard of in the 17 years under Fulmer; in fact, the only practices Fulmer allowed local media to come watch were special teams workouts.
Kiffin challenged fans to go to the practice facility at five in the morning to watch his team go through morning conditioning, a challenge that yours truly took on. This open practice policy not only gives rabid Tennessee fans to see some football in the spring, but it gives media the ability to accurately report on player development and team evaluations and chemistry.
Previously, the media had to rely on Fulmer and company’s biased evaluations from practices. Kiffin has also done his part to reach out to those who have given years of service to Tennessee football, the most famous of whom is head coach Johnny Majors.
When Majors was fired in 1992, then-AD Doug Dickey appointed Phillip Fulmer as head coach and basically estranged Majors from the program. For 17 years Majors was left bitter towards Dickey, Fulmer, and the school.
Kiffin, undoubtedly with the advice of current AD Mike Hamilton, reached out to Majors, and good ol' Johnny responded. Two weeks ago Majors was invited to watch practice and interact with players, and Kiffin even let him run a staff meeting afterwards.
Needless to say, Johnny Majors, who led Tennessee to three SEC Championships, is finally back on board with Tennessee thanks to Lane Kiffin. Kiffin has also done his part to reach out to former Vols who are now in the NFL.
He invited a large group of them to his house, got acquainted with all of them, and has said that any former Vol who wishes to visit or workout with the team will be welcomed with open arms. In fact, students around campus saw Kiffin and quarterbacks coach David Reaves taking Tennessee legend Peyton Manning to The Olde College Inn, a local bar near campus.
To further show his commitment to former players, Kiffin tailored and distributed jackets with the words "NFL VOLS" to every current NFL player who played for the University of Tennessee, all on his own expense. Considering how many Vols are playing in the NFL right now, making jackets for every one of them was likely a huge dent in his pocketbook.
But that’s fine with Kiffin, because he is committed to building a strong relationship with those who have given nothing less than their absolute best for UT. Is Lane Kiffin the right fit for Tennessee?
Does he run his mouth too much? Is Florida going to stuff 70 points down his throat?
That is all to be seen in the future. For now all we can judge him by are his actions, and as a fan who loves his school, I can say with absolute certainty that things are different here in Knoxville, and we are relishing every moment of it.