The Kiffin circus returns to Knoxville, and he's bringing some elephants
It’s funny how things work out. Just ask University of Alabama quarterback Blake Sims.
When he was being recruited out of Gainesville, Ga. in 2009, the Crimson Tide was in the process of winning its first national championship under Nick Saban. Sims was considered a terrific athlete, but opinions varied, both regarding his potential and future position at the collegiate level.
Recruiting services put him in the “athlete” category, where 247Sports listed him 19th, Rivals 33rd and ESPNU 63rd. Most of the big programs were after him, with Florida State, Georgia, Michigan and Ole Miss among the top contenders, but one in particular stood out and it wasn’t Alabama.
Sims would have likely landed at Tennessee had Lake Kiffin not left for Southern California.
“This is a crazy guy,” Sims said was his initial impression of his current offensive coordinator. “He’s funny and he was a good guy. The way his attitude was you could tell he was a guy who wanted to win. That’s why it doesn’t surprise me that Coach Saban went and got him for this program because he fits it all the way around.”
Saturday, Kiffin will be on the visitors sideline in Knoxville for the first time since he sparked a riot on January 13, 2010, and he will not get a warm welcome back (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Granted, Volunteer fans probably won’t be carrying pitchforks and lit torches, but this is still the Southeastern Conference, where grudges run deep.
Just ask Saban.
“It was very negative, getting hung in effigy and burned at the stake and just about everything that could happen happened,” he said about his first return to LSU in 2008. “The way I tried to manage that with the players is to let them know that that was going to happen and to not be affected by it, and that it would probably be pretty rowdy when we got off the bus to go to the locker room, but that would really have nothing to do with what happened in the game. That was going to come down to what we did on the field.
“We’ll do the same thing in this game.”
Benefitting Kiffin is that lot has happened since then, including admitted mistakes, spoken regrets and three seasons of Derek Dooley. There’s a different university president and Mike Hamilton is no longer athletic director. Even men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl has a new job after a rough few years.
The signing class Sims was pegged for in 2010 ended up adding 28 players, of which only two are still on the roster: Matt Darr is the Volunteers’ punter, and tackle Marques Pair has played in eight career games but with no starts and isn’t listed on the two-deep depth chart.
None of the players from the class Kiffin signed a few weeks after he was hired in 2009, remain. You may remember the initial splash he made by landing five players in the Rivals.com’s top 100 — tailback Bryce Brown (No. 1), Jackson (No. 17), receiver Nu’Keese Richardson (No. 68), linebacker Jerod Askew (No. 79), and all-purpose back David Oku (No. 97). All were gone within two years.
“We had a great year there,” Kiffin said in August during his only interview with Alabama reporters until its bowl game. “The people were phenomenal there. Really loved being there. It was just a unique situation that came about. You can’t look back. I just don’t live that way, looking back and saying well should I or shouldn’t I have left. I don’t live that way.”
Regardless, Kiffin may not have started Tennessee’s swoon, which is still going on with only one winning season since 2007 (Kiffin’s), but the fans will treat him as such and that’s their prerogative. There’s nothing he can say or do to change that and as Saban has pointed out more than once a lot of the lingering unrest was due to feeling jilted.
It’s a fickle business they work in. A lot of Alabama fans weren’t too keen on Kiffin as coordinator either until the offense started cranking out 500-yard games.
“I think it’s only a distraction if you allow it to be a distraction,” Saban said on Monday. “I always sort of use the analogy that when I was at Michigan State, we always had all these things that were going to happen when we went to play at Notre Dame. The Gipper was coming back to speak to the team … What I always used to tell the team is that doesn’t really mean anything unless it means something to you.
“So if it doesn’t mean anything to us and we can stay focused on what we need to do to do what’s best for our team, then that’s the way you manage it, that’s the way you handle it, that’s the way we need to look at it.”
Actually, nobody in the history of college football might be better at handling this kind of situation than Saban. That first game back at LSU the Crimson Tide pulled out a 27-21 victory in overtime.
He didn’t win with his trip with the Crimson Tide to New Orleans, but won the one that mattered, the national championship game at the end of the 2011 season, 21-0 over LSU. A year later the coach did the same thing in his return to Miami, where Alabama crushed Notre Dame. Did the outcomes change the opinions of his critics? No, but it did quiet them.
Additionally, it’s Alabama. Nowadays the Crimson Tide doesn’t go anywhere without being hated, and when it loses regular season games on the road the fans storm the field.
Kiffin going back to Tennessee a distraction? The fans will taunt them even more? Please. No. 4 Alabama has bigger concerns, like staying in the playoff picture, and besides, they’ve heard it all before.
“You suck is the main thing (yelled),” senior fullback Jalston Fowler said.
Still, it’ll make for an interesting evening, with Kiffin out in front along the Alabama sideline next to Saban and guiding the player who was ready to head to Knoxville all those years ago.
Actually the television cameras may be more on Kiffin than his quarterback.
“It is kinda crazy,” Sims said. “I know it’s kinda crazy for him too and we’re probably going to talk about it later in meetings. It’s going to be a good conversation.
“We have a great relationship right now. He has a great relationship with my father and my daughter. I have a good relationship with his dad. We’re happy to be around each other again.”