How good would Tennessee be if Lane Kiffin never left?
It’s unfathomable to believe that it has been 10 years since Lane Kiffin was the head coach at Tennessee. That’s … 10 … very … long … years.
Would things have been better had Kiffin not received a surprising offer from Southern California and suddenly accepted it? Absolutely, but how much better is hard to say.
Kiffin, whose lone season in Knoxville was chronicled by ESPN.com’s Chris Low, has had his ups and downs over the past decade. Kiffin was unceremoniously fired by Southern California after a 28-15 record with the Trojans. However, as if often the case with Kiffin, there were extenuating circumstances. USC’s program was beset by NCAA sanctions. Most coaches would have struggled in that environment.
Kiffin then went to Alabama as an offensive coordinator. He helped the Tide win a national championship before being unceremoniously relieved of his duties after taking the Florida Atlantic head coaching position. Kiffin had success at Alabama, but his exit still had people wondering if he could play well with others.
Kiffin seemed on the fast track back to a Power 5 head coaching position after his first season at Florida Atlantic when he coached the Owls to an 11-3 record. Things flattened after that. Florida Atlantic went 5-7 last season and is 1-2 this season.
Whether it be success, lack thereof, or just his personality, Kiffin has always been an enigma. That makes it incredibly tough to determine what kind of success he would have had if he stayed at Tennessee.
Let’s start with the obvious. Stability certainly would have helped the Vols, who are on their 3rd head coach after Kiffin.
Remove USC from the equation. Sure, Kiffin could have left for another job in the past decade, but that seems doubtful. Kiffin even named his child “Knox.” Kiffin’s dream job was to be the head coach at Southern California. He believed UT was a destination job. He believed that UT offered him a lifeline after his tenure with the Oakland Raiders. I don’t think Kiffin would have left for any other college job other than USC.
Florida week is an interesting time to look back on Kiffin’s tenure. In 2009, Kiffin’s Vols finished 7-6. They stood toe-to-toe with the defending national champion Gators before eventually losing 23-13 in Gainesville. They crushed Georgia, the 26-point margin was the Vols’ largest over the Dawgs since 1993. They lost at eventual national champion Alabama 12-10, when Terrence Cody blocked the Vols’ game-winning field goal attempt at the buzzer. Showing resolve, the next week, the Vols rebounded to demolish Steve Spurrier and No. 22 South Carolina in Knoxville.
Kiffin is clearly better schematically than 2 coaches who followed him at UT: Derek Dooley and Butch Jones. The jury is still out on Jeremy Pruitt, but I’d put my money on Kiffin, especially on offense.
Before the 2009 season began, Kiffin had fans excited about UT’s program thanks to his recruiting. His first Vols class finished No. 8 in the nation even though Kiffin just had a few weeks to assemble it. However, that ranking is a bit deceiving. That class included some duds and future felons. Few actually contributed for the Vols.
So would things have been significantly better had Kiffin remained at UT for the last decade? That would depend on Kiffin, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Vols missed a bowl game 3 times in the next 4 years had he stayed.
Pardon me if I use a first name reference, but I’ve gotten to know Lane over the past decade. He’s always been accessible and we’ve shared some rather interesting text correspondences.
Here is what I know about Lane: First, he wasn’t ready for the challenges and the notoriety that came with being UT’s head coach. Sure, he was an NFL coach for the Oakland Raiders, but that’s not nearly as smothering as being the head coach at Tennessee. When Lane accepted the job at UT, he instantly became the most popular person in the state. He also had far more media scrutiny than he ever faced in the NFL. Remember, UT was used to winning. Phillip Fulmer won 10 games 4 more times after the 1998 national championship season. Lane was expected to return the Vols to glory immediately — if not sooner.
Lane has never said this to me, but I always wonder how being in that fishbowl affected him. He often seemed uncomfortable in public settings. At the time, he seemed like a great assistant coach who had been thrust into a head coaching position. Despite how he reacted at the time, I’m sure that Lane would have grown into his new role at UT. He’s certainly done so since.
Lane is the type of person who attacks weaknesses. He’s done so with himself. Lane is no longer reclusive. He’s outgoing and incredibly funny. He would have undergone the same transition at UT.
I’m confident that the Vols would be a national power had Kiffin remained at UT. He would have certainly won the SEC East a couple of times, especially before Kirby Smart took over at Georgia. Would he have bested Alabama or taken down Cam Newton or Nick Marshall in an SEC Championship Game? That’s an impossible prediction to make.
I truly thought the Vols should have considered Kiffin as Jones’ replacement before settling on Pruitt. Because of the way he left the Vols, that never would have happened. Could it still happen one day? That’s nearly unfathomable, right?