USC insider joins Kiffin chorus: Timing right for Tennessee to bring back prodigal coach
With a son being recruited by Tennessee, Southern Cal football broadcaster John Jackson has reason to be concerned about the direction of the Vols’ program.
With close ties to USC for three decades since his playing days for the Trojans, Jackson has gotten to know Lane Kiffin pretty well from Kiffin’s stints at USC as an assistant (2001-06) and as head coach (2010-13).
“There is no doubt in my mind that Lane Kiffin would be my choice as the next head coach at Tennessee,” says Jackson, suggesting that Vols fans need to get over any hard feelings they have about Kiffin’s one-and-done 2009 season in Knoxville.
This all presupposes, of course, that Butch Jones will be fired.
With a 3-4 record, recruits de-committing and an offense that can’t score, Tennessee looks like a team in desperate need of a change. National and local media, as well as Vegas odds makers, already are discussing who’s next.
“Everything in life is about timing,” Jackson told Saturday Down South. “For Tennessee, the athletics director and the fans need to humble themselves and realize, ‘let’s go get the best guy that can turn this program around.’ Lane Kiffin is that guy.”
Jackson played for the Trojans from 1986-89 and has been closely tied to the program ever since. Throughout the years, Jackson has been able to get to know Kiffin since he started as a tight ends coach at USC in 2001 under Pete Carroll.
Marquee names such as Jon Gruden and Chip Kelly are atop most wish lists to become the next Vols’ head coach, but it’s hard to tell if they are realistic options.
Jackson believes Kiffin wants the job, would be a great fit and could win back Vols Nation.
“A lot of the perception about Lane is not true, and a lot of it is overblown,” Jackson said “At the end of the day, he knows what he is doing in building an organization. And he has been there and done that. And Tennessee is also a place where he would want to be.”
A bad perception of Kiffin started when Al Davis fired him in 2008 four games into his second season as coach of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.
After his Oakland departure, the then 33-year-old Kiffin was hired to replace Phillip Fulmer as Tennessee’s head coach on Dec. 1, 2008, and went 7-6 in his one season on Rocky Top.
When he arrived in Knoxville that year, Kiffin did not hold back in trying to regain national recognition for the program. Whether it was calling out Urban Meyer or South Carolina, or declaring the Vols would be singing Rocky Top all night long in Florida, “Kiffin echoed what Tennessee people thought” about being tired of being second fiddle in the SEC a decade after winning their last national championship.
“Kiffin said it when nobody else wanted to come out and say it. He was not afraid to say we are going to sing Rocky Top all night long. Tennessee embraced that, and from that standpoint, when he left for his dream job in USC, people were disappointed.”
Five months after Kiffin arrived at USC, NCAA sanctions were handed down. From that standpoint, Kiffin never had a fair shot of leading the USC program on an even playing field.
Kiffin took the job knowing sanctions were coming, but like many others at USC, he did not think they were going to be so severe — the loss of 30 scholarships and a two-year bowl ban.
In less than four seasons, Kiffin went 28-15 before being fired by new athletics director Pat Haden.
Jackson credits Kiffin’s management and structuring of recruiting classes for the current success of the USC program.
“Winning the Rose Bowl last year is a credit to Kiffin and his planning to get through the sanctions, and how he structured his recruiting classes. … He saved USC by his actions in how to handle the sanctions while his record never fell below .500,” Jackson said. “A lot of good things happening now, people should be thanking Lane for.”
The flip side or the argument, of course, if that Kiffin doesn’t seem to leave places on good terms. His tenures with Oakland, Tennessee, USC and Alabama as OC under Nick Saban all ended rather abruptly. Naysayers will suggest there is a reason he wound up in his current post at Florida Atlantic.
Still, he’s earned his chops as a recruiter and an offensive mind. And a guy brash enough to butt heads with Nick Saban might be just what the Vols need right now.
“The persona he gives off is … always the right thing for the situation. His brashness at Tennessee (in 2009) … is what Tennessee needed then,” Jackson said.
“Lane doesn’t care if other people like him. He wants his players to like him. He is also a recruiting Houdini. The Tennessee athletics department is one that should be forgiving and logical enough to realize ‘this guy helps us win.’
“Tennessee is a school with great football support, a great alumni base, spectacular fans, excellent facilities — they have all this stuff that says ‘top flight program.’ And they are tired of being second fiddle.”