In the nascent stages of the hate-mongering that is likely to ensue, it is easy to dismiss Lane Kiffin as a megalomaniacal 2-D caricature, an artifact of sordid and passionless ambition who hides an inner devil behind the suave smile.
It may be that Kiffin’s defection illuminates interior regions of pain previously unknown to Tennessee faithful, but Kiffin also has every right to fulfill what is in the interests of his career.
Of course, in any other industry nothing professionally would be subordinate to the full measure and extent of one's ambitions, but in no other industry like college sports does one have to be a football coach, a mentor, a secondhand father, and a careerist all rolled into a single job description.
Only in college does a signed contract pass for an expression of fealty and support for the vernacular and traditions of the local school.
Some of this is not fair. A coach should not have to chain himself to the madhouse wall.
But it also should not feel like the coach is betraying the young men whom he recruited, leaving them dazed and confused only weeks before signing day. I don’t think it’s cloying to say that recruiting should still have the feel of an adoption and not a sales pitch. A coach has a responsibility toward the athletes too, since he is selling himself to them.
Of course, the prevalence of men like Bobby Petrino and Lane Kiffin is only going to increase as long as college football remains a lucrative business. It is a coach’s job to get that signature to meet the letter of intent, regardless of whether or not the coach has ambitions that can pivot at the unexpected moment another job becomes available.
The NCAA should rethink the model in order to take into account the fundamental change that has swept through the game. Either admit that Wall Street isn't the only thing that should be regulated these days and impose restrictions on the motility of coaches, or loosen restrictions on the rules that allow players to transfer.
The latter is more likely to happen, but I’m sure that the NCAA doesn’t want an open market on its major commodity, the players.
As for Kiffin himself, he might have ascended to head coach anyway had he just stayed at USC, even though his circuitous route through the NFL now seems felicitous. But it's hard to turn down an NFL head coaching job since there are only 32 of them in existence, even if that job was the sole progeny of a chaotic force known as “Al Davis being Al Davis”, which is a phrase that you never want to hear about anyone in a position of power.
After Pete Carroll absconded to the NFL, Kiffin saw his opportunity and seized it. It is difficult to fault him on that one component.
But Kiffin, who had just as many violations as Tennessee had wins, is also tempting NCAA fate by assuming captaincy of the school that will perhaps incur violations from the improper solicitation of athletes who he himself had helped recruit.
And USC itself is taking a risk.
It is already Kiffin's third stint, and no one quite knows how good he actually is. As mediocre as his overall head coaching record might be, Kiffin has his defense too; he had a conflict of vision with Al Davis and only had a year to rebuild Tennessee. What works in his favor is that he is cobbling together an All-Star coaching staff with the full Monte and Ed Orgeron that will perhaps buoy his overall record.
At least if he bolts for the NFL again, it probably means that he has won a Rose Bowl or BCS Championship at USC, but they are also hiring someone who hasn't yet proven himself, compared to, say, Urban Meyer, who at least won the Fiesta Bowl while with Utah.
USC has no way to hedge against that risk. For now, it is an awkward situation for everybody.
It may have been what Kiffin wanted, but not necessarily what he needed.