There’s a brash, unapologetic, never-take-an “L,” 40-something coach who completely transformed an SEC program. Even though he hasn’t been there for a decade yet, you could make a case that he’s the best coach in program history. The way his team celebrates isn’t for everyone, and he doesn’t care. It’s part of the experience.

Who did I just describe? Lane Kiffin or Tony Vitello?

The correct answer is “yes.”

I’m neither the first nor the last person to see the similarities in those 2. I’m certainly not the first or the last person to think about how wild it would’ve been to have them coaching at Tennessee at the same time, though they were about a decade off on that.

But maybe I’m the first person to realize how similar their situations are in 2024. Vitello is trying to break through and get Tennessee a national title. Kiffin is trying to break through and get Ole Miss its first Playoff berth.

And if that doesn’t happen? You can bet their detractors will let them know about it.

Shoot, Vitello himself will probably let Kiffin know about it. This is the same man who trolled Kiffin in his highly anticipated return to Knoxville in 2021.

To be fair, Kiffin can dish it right back.

The irony is that Freshwater, er Kiffin, and Vitello would probably become good friends if given the chance. Let those 2 guys play a round of golf together. That’d be a reality show I’d watch. Of course, their respective affiliations probably won’t allow for that to happen.

What their respective affiliations would both agree on is that they’ll be there as long as they continue this pace.

Kiffin ripped off the program’s first 10-win regular season in 2021 then earned Ole Miss its first 11-win season in 2023. Vitello is responsible for 2 of the program’s 5 SEC regular season titles and he already owns half of the Vols’ 6 NCAA Regional titles.

Of course, the former was clinched over the weekend when Vitello and the Vols swept South Carolina to earn the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament.

Make of that what you will. It’s an outstanding regular-season accomplishment, but Vitello knows as well as anyone that legacies aren’t defined in Hoover; they’re defined in Omaha. Vitello has 1 win there. As long as that persists, it’ll be the “yeah, but” that his detractors will reference.

It’s similar to the conversation surrounding Kiffin. He won’t enter the conversation of “best coach in the sport” in a post-Nick Saban world until he can check another historic box. That is, lead Ole Miss to an SEC title. The program has never been invited to the conference title game, much less won it. Maybe the 2024 schedule, which doesn’t feature Alabama and only has 1 game vs. a team that played in a New Year’s 6 Bowl in 2023, will finally yield that.

You could argue that Vitello has been much closer to climbing his mountain than Kiffin. Vols fans will argue that having the best team in America heading into the postseason and succumbing to the often random nature of postseason baseball is a bit different than getting blown out by Alabama and/or Georgia to end national title hopes well before the postseason. Ole Miss fans will argue that the often random nature of postseason baseball actually makes it less of a hurdle to overcome than taking down Alabama or Georgia on the gridiron.

Maybe there’s a bit of truth in both.

What can’t be denied is that both Vitello and Kiffin have been good enough at building up their respective programs that new heights continue to be within reach. There’s a chance that 2024 is the best chance for both of them to win it all, even though both teams endured major transfer portal hits (Tennessee lost Chase Burns to Wake Forest while Ole Miss lost Quinshon Judkins to Ohio State). That’s a testament to coaching.

Vitello and Kiffin have made their respective programs significantly more competitive, but what’s unique is that they both made their respective sports more entertaining. These are the coaches who brought us fur coats, daddy hats, sideline dunk contests and fire extinguishers. Find someone who thinks they’re overrated and they’ll probably reference one of those things.

But what’ll determine the volume of that crowd in 2024 is related to the scoreboard.

Something tells me that Vitello and Freshwater are well aware of that.