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In Defense of Lane Kiffin: The SEC "Family Feud" with Urban Meyer

Posted: Feb 06, 2009

There is no other conference more proud of itself than the SEC.  SEC fans from rival teams hate each other with a passion bordering on the pathological, but when success arrives, it is embraced not just for the winning team but for the conference at large.
                                             - Clay Travis from Dixieland Delight

So you thought the SEC talk would quiet down after National Signing Day? Not so much.

In America’s most passionate sports entity, any comment made at any time can cause a national media firestorm.  Lane Kiffin, the new boss at Tennessee, has become the center of some negative attention within the always contentious SEC family.

Initially, Kiffin escaped scrutiny when he was hired thanks to an assist from Auburn.  Kiffin's record as an NFL head coach (5-15) was enough to raise an eyebrow when Tennessee pursued and hired him, especially when he replaced a coach who had deep UT roots, over 150 wins, and a national championship on his resume.

(Addtionally, Kiffin's departure as the Oakland Raiders head coach was truly one of the most bizarre public firings the sports world has ever seen.  Owner Al Davis decided to use it as a platform to systematically destroy Kiffin, not only as a coach, but as a person.) 

Kiffin caught a break, however, when Auburn's hire of Gene Chizik and Charles Barkley's playing of the race card largely insulated Kiffin from further scrutiny.

This has all changed in the wake of Kiffin's comments about Urban Meyer.  In a verbal jab at a post-Signing Day party for UT fans, Kiffin said Meyer "cheated" in the recruiting of Nu'Keese Richardson, a Florida high school player who ultimately signed with the Vols.  Kiffin later apologized, and was reprimanded by the league office.

Kiffin’s comments set off another SEC-styled media uproar (much like Arkansas’ hire of Bobby Petrino last year or Gene Chizik's hire this year) where bloggers and columnists ran to their computers to torch the new coach in Knoxville.  In the same way, we defended both Petrino and Chizik, allow us to do the same with Kiffin.

Most nationally wrote the same predictable columns giving every "holier than thou" sports voice a chance to express his chagrin at the declining nature of college sports, but, for us, the most interesting voices have been sports voices from around the Footprint.  We knew that many would weigh in considering Tennessee's long time rivalries with Alabama and Florida.

Alabama-based Paul Finebaum was ahead of the curve in our Footprint when he slammed Kiffin, previous to this latest uproar, as "not ready for the SEC."  We felt the need to speak up on this one then because it showed how Kiffin, at the very least, was bringing a spark back to the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry. 

In the wake of the Meyer salvo, Kiffin's critics have expanded to include Kevin Scarbinsky from the Birmingham News, Pat Dooley of the Gainesville Sun, and Geoff Calkins from the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal.  Our friends, Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel and Joe Biddle of the Tennessean also wrote columns with Biddle preaching for Kiffin to take a more cautious approach and Bianchi calling Kiffin "a joke."

So, with all this criticism in the air, there's trouble ahead for young Kiffin, right?  Not so fast, my friend (with apologies to Lee Corso).

At the heart of it all, SEC football is all about how much your fans like your coach and your team - not about how much other team's fans like your coach or your team.  All Kiffin has done so far is to make himself hated in Crimson Tide and Gator country.  Maybe this isn't wise knowing that these teams are likely better than the Vols right now, but does anyone think that Urban Meyer was ever going to take it easy on Kiffin's Vols this fall?

The home voices deserve a chance to be heard, and they are unsurprising pro-Kiffin.  However, their support of Kiffin comes with a passion and a sense of relief that someone has finally stood up to the Alabama and Florida bullies that pushed around their Phil Fulmer-led team last season.

John Adams of the Knoxville News writes it best when he says,

Kiffin is sending a message. And if it isn’t received well by Florida or the SEC Office, he shouldn’t despair. His target audience is the UT fan base. His message: This isn’t business as usual.

Appropriate response from UT fans: Hallelujah!

Former CBS Sportsline and Deadspin writer Clay Travis, author of Dixieland Delight whose quote began this piece, is a lifelong Vol fan.  Travis decided to give a little more depth in explaining his Vol hallelujah in a recent blog:

I agree with everything Kiffin said....  [T]he Tennessee football family has been incredibly divided over the past five years.... There's been a ton of infighting. As fans we haven't focused our hate on our rivals at all. Instead we've been poor-mouthing our own situation,...

I wanted a coach who made football games fun again....  [A head coach] who wasn't afraid to spit in the eye of tradition or rattle the proverbial cages of the SEC establishment. Up until the past week I'd only seen glimpses that Lane Kiffin could be that guy.  After yesterday's barnstorming tour of the state, I'm convinced Lane Kiffin is that guy.

In one day, he united the Tennessee football community in a way that I don't remember ever seeing in the past 8 or 9 years....  In one day yesterday Lane Kiffin made football more fun for Volunteer fans than it has been in the last four years....  Bully to Lane.

While we don’t support Kiffin’s accusations, you have to love it when coaches fire up the fan base and keep things lively in our Footprint. Do you really want SEC bosses to become like their corporate NFL cliché-machine counterparts?  Let's not lose sight of the reality that Kiffin was at a booster function to celebrate the Vols recruiting class.

At a similar function last summer, Les Miles thrilled his fans when he was asked about their 2007 win in Tuscaloosa; "not to make too much of that game as it seems like a lot of teams in Louisiana beat that team," referencing Alabama's shocking home loss to Louisiana-Monroe that season. Bama got their revenge in 2008 with a 27-21 win.

Mark Richt had his entire team celebrate in the end zone in the 2007 Cocktail Party, but Florida returned the favor with a blowout win in the 2008 game.

SEC coaches are not supposed to be buddies, and there is nothing wrong with exciting their fan bases when the opportunity is there.

Clay Travis also wrote in Dixieland Delight, "if there's one thing I've learned,... every SEC fanbase hates Florida."  This statement may be the most important of all since Florida reigns as the SEC's current "big brother."

Until Steve Spurrier, the Gators had no SEC relevance, and Spurrier changed that forever.  After a brief down period under SEC laughingstock Ron Zook, the Gators have come back even harder under Urban Meyer winning 2 of the last 3 BCS Championships.

If you want to slay the Florida dragon in the SEC, you can't be faint of heart.  Kiffin's statements might make him a little too bold, but better that than not bold at all.  At least this is the opinion of Vol Nation.

Soon after all the end of the season coaching changes, Swampland Sports asked, "Will Chizik, Kiffin (or Mullen) Meet The Urban Meyer/Nick Saban SEC Standard?"   The 2009 season looms ahead to answer that question.  At the end of the day, Kiffin and his other rookie SEC bosses will be judged on wins over their rivals and Championships, not post-Signing Day commentary.

If the Vols aren’t winning big in 2-3 years, it’s not going to matter what Kiffin has to say at booster functions because he’ll be gone anyway. (But if he is winning big, the fans will just love him even more a la Spurrier.)

What we learned from all of this is that Kiffin gave voice to Vol fans and their frustration over their perceived decline.  Although the hard work still lies ahead for Kiffin & crew, they will be doing it with more "home team support" today than they had a week ago.

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