On Friday, ESPN’s College Football Live opened with a familiar scene as the face of Lane Kiffin strolled across the screen with the University of Tennessee logo under his name next to the words “NCAA Investigation.”
Kiffin made the news so often during his days at Tennessee that fans felt jilted if there wasn’t some mention of the Vols on Sportscenter. Kiffin insisted that this “swagger”, even his six secondary NCAA violations, were all part of a grand plan to return the Volunteers to greatness by making UT a focal point of the college football media at any cost.
Tennessee fans, many of whom had long been bored with predecessor Phil Fulmer’s twenty year “slow and steady” routine, believed in the “Kiffin Plan” right down to the moment that he bolted from Knoxville in January. No one had told them that ultimately, whether it had been this season or five seasons from now, Kiffin’s plan was about using this circus to land his USC “dream job” at any cost.
UT Athletic Director Mike Hamilton acknowledged on Friday, as he has for months, that there is a very real possibility that UT will receive a letter of inquiry into the football program from the NCAA but suggested that, despite ESPN’s coverage, there had been no real movement on the issue since Kiffin left and reiterated that all investigations regarded Kiffin’s tenure.
Meanwhile, the UT players, after a summer spent with, by all accounts, a “good man” in Derek Dooley (whether he can coach or not remains to be seen) continue to say all the right things. They talk of religious revival among teammates, of respect they have for position coaches and of proving wrong the doubters who picked them to finish below Kentucky in the SEC—a team they hold an NCAA record twenty-five season winning streak against.
Vol fans, as well, speak highly of Dooley and adamantly express their desire to move past Kiffin. Even SEC Commissioner Mike Slive will only refer to him as “the former Tennessee coach.”
Still, the ghost of Kiffin lingers. There continue to be off the field incidents- this summer’s major headlines came from a group of players who were involved in a bar fight that resulted in injury to an off-duty police officer.
Those close to the program suggest this and other related issues are symbolic of the players not having consistent relationships with the revolving door coaching staffs the last three years at UT. Their actions also seem consistent with the self-important “swagger” that permeated the Kiffin era.
In a less noted story, news also broke today that the Vols would likely lose prominent defensive end Ben Martin for the season, weakening a defense depleted by attrition which occurred during Kiffin’s tenure. The Vols depth in all key positions is already hamstrung after Kiffin left UT three weeks before signing day and worked day and night to decommit key recruits from the Vols so he could take them with him to Los Angeles.
Just as details of Martin’s injury were being confirmed by Tennessee beat writers, there was Kiffin’s image next to the orange “Power T” logo, bringing Vol fans a little more “swagger”. It was just one more reminder that Lane Kiffin haunts the Volunteer faithful like Dickens’ ghost of Christmas past, reminding them of the embarrassing moments when they defended a man who used chaos and lies to get whatever he wanted.
While it is unlikely, barring any new revelations, that an NCAA investigation would result in major sanctions, today was another day when UT AD Mike Hamilton, Vol coaches, and players met with the media and when Vol fans gathered around their respective water coolers all to answer questions about the man who left so abruptly but has never truly gone away.
For Derek Dooley and his staff, faced with one of the toughest schedules in the country and a steep rebuilding job, the truest sign of genuine success will be making Tennessee football news about football again, exorcising the ghost that comes back to haunt around every corner.
For Kiffin, and his henchman Ed Orgeron, facing their own ironic rebuilding job, one wonders what dark corners they’ve already found to hide the underbelly of their sideshow in Los Angeles. Seems like they knew a lot of shady spaces from their first stint in L.A.
One also wonders if it might be better for college football if, unlike so many times in it’s slow moving past, the NCAA should be turning over rocks to find evidence of new crimes at USC or punishing the criminal ghost rather than the victimized players. Perhaps the NCAA should be asking why USC intentionally hired Kiffin in the midst of their own investigation, which Kiffin was linked to, despite his list of NCAA troubles at Tennessee.
Instead, like so many times before, it appears the NCAA will continue chasing ghosts in Knoxville.
(Johnny Lewis covers the SEC and Tennessee Volunteers for www.sportshaze.com. Follow him on Twitter @kyvolunteer)