As Crazy As It Seems Lane Kiffin Is Not Really to Blame

Gerald BallCorrespondent IJanuary 13, 2010

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 28:  Lane Kiffin the Head Coach of the Tennessee Volunteers is pictured during the SEC game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium on November 28, 2009 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

All right, I have had my fun at Tennessee fans who who defended Lane Kiffin for behavior against other SEC schools that they would never tolerate if it was Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or someone else doing it to them.

Now time to get serious: what happened really wasn't Kiffin's fault. LOTS of other coaches would have done the same thing had they been put in Kiffin's position. It was not a failure of Kiffin to react in an entirely logical manner to the position that he was placed in, but a failure of Tennessee's administrators in putting Kiffin in that situation to begin with.

I say this because of the term "opportunist." It has a negative connotation to it, but the term really means someone what it says—someone who creates opportunities for himself and takes advantage of them. I don't think that we should be shocked by the fact that succeeding in big time sports inherently requires being an opportunist.

If a guy isn't an opportunist, he won't ever become a big time head coach because he will never even get the chance to become one in the first place. So, the USC opportunity came and Kiffin took it.

So, what's the problem? Even though Tennessee was indeed going to find an opportunist, their challenge was to find someone who would have realized that it was in his best long term career interests to remain with the Volunteers until he had actually accomplished something there.

Or they could have found someone for whom the University of Tennessee was the top of the mountain (rocky top as it were!) instead of a stepping stone. There were plenty of guys out there who fit one or both descriptions, and Tennessee spurned them.

Why? Because the college football culture today is all about the big splash. It is about bold hires that get people talking, puts the university in the headlines, and causes boosters and alumni to open up their wallets. That is the short term goal. The intermediate goal: a national title in four years or less.

When that is accomplished, everyone talks about what genius the athletics director or university president was for making the hire. When that happens, the president or AD, an opportunist himself or herself, moves onto a better job.

The last coach that any president or athletics director would want to hire right now is a Bo Schembechler, Tom Osborne or Jim Tressel: solid hires who gets it done year after year but in a boring, ho-hum fashion. It's not about the product anymore, it is about the presentation.

The person who best identified this new mindset was Barbara Hedges, former University of Washington president. She got rid of Jim Lambright (rustic, dumpy, aging, and overweight, a stereotypical coach for the south or midwest) despite him being a qualified enough fellow and longtime loyal Husky who effectively guided the program through NCAA sanctions that included scholarship reductions and hired Rick Neuheisel.

Why? Because Neuheisel better fit the elite, hip urban university image that Hedges wanted to project for the school, and because it would help fundraising and increase publicity. And of course, improving Washington's reputation and image as president would help Hedges attain her own goal, which was to become president of a more prestigious university down the line!

And don't blame Hedges. Colorado did the same in passing up several very qualified longterm assistants to hire Neuheisel in the first place. Colorado was trying to do their best to move away from the image that Bill McCartney had built on and off the field, and the laid back west coast guy in his early 30s with the exciting offense was the way to go!

Now this has spread from programs whose knowledge of and commitment to the college game were questionable in the first place to the entire game. It explains why the hires across the board keep getting younger and younger, and also this general movement towards not only offensive football, but gimmick schemes on offense at that.

In times past, the major programs wouldn't go with gimmick offense guys because of the feeling that down the road opponents would figure them out. Now, no one cares about whether what this coach is doing will be effective in 14 years because the emphasis is finding a guy who can win it all in four (or less).

So if the college scene is rewarding candidates barely in their 30s with no proven track records and fly by night schemes with big time jobs, how can we act surprised when these guys act like this? If colleges are making boom or bust hires instead of seeking to maintain "steady as she goes" success, why do we act surprised when things go bust?

How we forget that two of the best hires of the decade...Nick Saban at LSU and Pete Carroll at USC, were treated with contempt and derision. Neither guy was a hot property, considered a fast riser. Yet both Carroll and Saban were mature guys with years of experience, including years in the NFL and as head coaches, and you see the result. 

Perhaps the third best recent hire, Mack Brown of Texas: more of the same...a guy who had years of experience at a head coach at Appalachian State, Tulane, and North Carolina.

And the worst part is that these people STILL haven't learned. Case in point: two main candidates for the Tennessee job are now Will Muschamp (age 38) and Kirby Smart (age 34). Instead of reacting to this Kiffin mess with the obvious idea that Tennessee needs stability, someone who will build a program in the short and immediate term, everyone says that the way to recover from the attempt to make a big splash that failed is to make another big splash to get everybody excited and hope that it succeeds. But are Smart and Muschamp any more qualified, any more MATURE than Kiffin? Nobody knows.

And what keeps Smart from going from Tennessee to his alma mater Georgia if that job opens up in a couple of years, which everyone knows is a possibility? Nothing, really. And what keeps Muschamp from accepting a pile of that Texas oil money to return to Austin if Mack Brown runs the table in 2010 or 2011 and steps down? Truthfully, not a thing.

Neither Muschamp or Smart have any ties to Tennessee that would keep them there, have more invested in other institutions, and both are at the stage of their careers where they can fail and recover. Lane Kiffin knows that if he flames out at USC, he can simply go take another coordinator job in college or the NFL and be right back in a few years just like Rick Neuheisel did, and Smart and Muschamp know the same.

That's why swooning over whoever the media says is the best candidate (and it usually is for the people who are only interested in writing stories that interest them) is the last thing that these presidents and ADs of major programs should be doing. They should be looking for a guy who is at the point in his career where he has to make that situation work, and also a guy who is thinking less about having fun trying something new and more into building something great.

As a general rule, that is something that comes with age. How many 35 year olds are taking jobs thinking that they will stay on them for the next 35 years?

This is not to say that Tennessee should have brought back David Cutcliffe, whose recruiting failures—and refusal to fix them—at Ole Miss were a real concern, as were the health problems that caused him to leave the Notre Dame coordinator job. (Duke, a job where he isn't expected to bring in top classes and has no pressure to win titles is perfect for a guy at the stage of his career.)

But promoting John Chavis? Why not? Hiring Charlie Strong? Again, why not? Getting Tommy Tuberville? Again, what's the problem? All of those guys had their issues, but the point is that had they been hired, they would still be Tennessee's coach right now, and more important would have been far more likely to succeed in the long term than a guy promising a quick fix with top recruiting classes and the west coast offense.

Tennessee's next hire should be a good, solid, strong, boring guy who will do nothing but effectively represent the program and win football games. My suggestion? Jim Grobe of Wake Forest. If the guy could take Wake Forest to the Orange Bowl, he can take a big time program to the national title game.

If he can develop his two- and three-star recruits into guys like Aaron Curry into the No. 4 overall NFL draft pick, he can develop the four- and five-star players that he would get at Tennessee. Grobe hasn't gotten a better job yet because he isn't flashy enough, and that is the best evidence that this college football hiring process is absurd, an absurdity that Tennessee contributed to.

Were Tennessee to make a sensible hire of a mature, qualified candidate, that would probably be the best thing to rein in this culture of setting Lane Kiffins and Rick Neuheisels to do exactly what guys placed in positions like that do, which is either fail or run off chasing the first thing that interests them.


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