Lane Kiffin disdain was alive and well throughout the Southeast Thursday, as Gators, Bulldogs, elephants and more took to Internet chat boards to crow about the arrests of Tennessee freshmen Janzen Jackson and Nu'Keese Richardson, who are accused of an overnight armed robbery outside a convenience store near campus.
The coach the rest of the SEC loves to hate for obvious (Kiffin has talked plenty of smack since arriving in Knoxville) and not-so-obvious (it's obvious that Kiffin has Tennessee on the road back to title contention) reasons was the butt of a lot of jokes from Gainesville to Lexington and all points between.
"Players will follow their coach's lead," and, "When a coach doesn't follow the rules, neither do the players," seemed to be representative of the bulk of the comments.
Funny thing, though. Kiffin has never robbed someone in a convenience store parking lot. Or been arrested for marijuana possession. Or been charged with a criminal offense of any kind.
The thinking—if you subscribe to this logic—is that Kiffin thumbed his nose at the SEC by criticizing officials, thus his players will follow their coach's lead and disregard the law.
Not only are a conference's rules of conduct and society's rule of law two separate codes not to be confused, but Kiffin was hardly alone in blatantly violating SEC Bylaw 10.5.4.
It was less than one week after SEC Commissioner Mike Slive announced that further violations of the rule would not be tolerated and any coach to do so would be automatically fined or suspended that Florida coach Urban Meyer fired off a shot at officials, drawing a $30,000 fine. Earlier, Mississippi State's Dan Mullen criticized officials knowing it would draw him a reprimand.
Blaming the arrests of Jackson, Richardson and UT defensive back Mike Edwards on Kiffin daring Slive to reprimand him is akin to saying that rapper Lil' Wayne's reference to Kiffin in his lyrics is somehow representative of Kiffin or Tennessee.
Wayne will sing what he wants to sing. And, when you get right down to it, football players will do what they want to do. Coaches can preach character and conduct all they want. But, in the end, arrests happen. Bad apples wind up in the barrel. As certainly as there will be controversy over who is left out of the BCS Championship Game this fall, there will be arrests at big-time college programs.
Coaches aren't judged so much by the players who are arrested as they are judged by how their response to those arrests.
That's why college football awaits Kiffin's decision on punishment for Jackson, Richardson and Edwards. Kiffin has made discipline a priority since accepting the job at Tennessee, and had repeatedly bragged—as recently as this week—that no players had been arrested on his watch in Knoxville.
Prior discipline—which included booting talented receiver Brandon Warren from the team last month and suspending Jackson for a game last week—was for petty stuff: Violation of team rules. This time, Kiffin has a chance to back up his talk.
Frankly, all three should be dismissed from the team. Richardson and Edwards almost certainly will be. Charges against Jackson may soon be dropped, and the extent of his involvement in the alleged crime remains to be seen. But, while he may eventually be absolved of blame in the robbery attempt, he's guilty by association.
The Jackson issue aside, it would be shocking if Kiffin announces a punishment that is any less than what is deserved. It wouldn't fit what the rookie head coach has preached. And while rival fans might not like what Kiffin has preached at Tennessee, he has thus far backed it up.
Meanwhile, fans will continue to talk. That's to be expected. After all, Tennessee fans have gotten plenty of mileage from the fact that Florida has had 24 players arrested since Meyer arrived in Gainesville in 2005. Overlooking the log in one's own eye is what football fans do best.
And, inevitably, the talk shifts from Kiffin leading by example to Kiffin's recruiting practices. After all, the three players arrested were all freshmen, recruited by Kiffin.
But if Kiffin is guilty of recruiting players of questionable character, he certainly isn't alone. Florida wanted Richardson bad enough for Meyer to repeatedly phone Richardson while the Pahokee native was on an official visit at Tennessee. LSU was bitter enough over being snubbed by Jackson that his father (Lance Guidry, a football coach) has had his reputation forever tarnished in Louisiana. And Ohio State and Cincinnati heavily recruited Edwards.
Not to be overlooked is that Alabama coach Nick Saban offered a scholarship to both Jackson and Richardson.
The lesson appears to be clear: College athletes' off-the-field behavior is unpredictable. And no school (or coach), as Kiffin has doubtlessly learned, is immune. Charges against players aren't indictments against their schools or their coaches. The charges are indictments against the players themselves. The coaches are judged by how they respond.
And make no mistake: Lane Kiffin will respond swiftly and harshly.