Tennessee fans still hate Lane Kiffin, but visit brought healing

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The last time Lane Kiffin left Knoxville, mattresses burned. There was even a grass roots effort to impede his egress.

As exits go, his bumbled effort was about as sloppy and riddled with obstacles as anyone could have imagined. But Kiffin’s departure from Big Orange Country was at least his decision.

It was a decision that enraged an entire fan base.

Kiffin’s exodus from Tennessee wasn’t the first time he and an employer unceremoniously parted ways. And as it turned out, it wasn’t the last either. By examining Kiffin’s last three coaching stops, a pattern emerges.

Kiffin is that friend that just about everyone has — guy or gal — that doesn’t break up well. When ways are parted, no matter the reason, no matter who was at fault, conflict must ensue.

Sure, the separation could have gone down amiably. Yes, the tension that should have been snuffed rather quickly was fueled to a frenzied level. But that’s not how people who don’t break up well handle a split.

Think strain and fireworks. Think stress and eruptions. And in the case of Kiffin and his breakup with the University of Tennessee after just 14 months, think scorched earth … literally.

As terrible as Kiffin’s divorce with Tennessee was, both parties have moved on.

The Volunteers, through a brief rendezvous with Derek Dooley, have entered a relationship with Butch Jones. Kiffin, who appears to have trouble with relationships and has taken a step back on the coaching ladder, has sparked up an affair with Alabama.

Tennessee seems to have a good thing going with Jones, and everyone is happy. No one’s quite sure whether Kiffin’s stay as offensive coordinator is a permanent move, or if he’s just healing; licking his wounds before moving back into the head coaching ranks.

But still, both parties seem happy.

There’s an outside third party, however, that is still holding a grudge. And it’s wreaking havoc on the healing process. Consider Tennessee’s fan base that still views Kiffin with malevolence, the parents of the jilted lover.

The greater good here is for everyone to move on. Let Tennessee rebuild with Jones. Let Kiffin find himself as an assistant. Leave the 14-month relationship, which was obviously a mistake, in the past.

If only the rejected fan base could see that Kiffin wasn’t right for Tennessee.

After six seasons as an assistant at USC, Kiffin was given his first opportunity to be a head coach. The Oakland Raiders came calling in 2007. His first season in Oakland didn’t go well, and ended with a 4-12 record.

Kiffin’s Raiders lost their first game of the 2008 season to Denver, beat Kansas City, and then lost their next two. Losses to the Bills and Chargers in Weeks 3 and 4 sealed Kiffin’s fate.

The Raiders made a decision to fire Kiffin during the team’s bye week. But team owner Al Davis didn’t settle for just letting Kiffin go. He vilified his former coach.

Davis called Kiffin a "flat-out liar" and accused him of leaking information to the media, "bringing disgrace to the organization." In all the mudslinging from Davis, Oakland’s owner even employed a PowerPoint presentation to make his case.

While the saga between Davis and Kiffin unfolded for months after his firing, Kiffin’s numbers in his 20 games at the Raiders’ helm speak for themselves. Kiffin was 5-15 as head coach, and left town with hatred aimed in his direction.

With the mess that was his year and a smidge with the Raiders, Tennessee still brought Kiffin in to coach the Volunteers in 2009. It wasn’t a miserable experience in the beginning.

Kiffin electrified the Volunteer fan base by promising to sing Rocky Top all night after beating the then-national champion Florida Gators. He accused then-Florida coach Urban Meyer of a recruiting violation, and assured Alshon Jeffery his future would involve a career pumping gas if he didn’t choose to attend Tennessee.

Tennessee didn’t beat Florida. And Kiffin’s accusation got himself in hot water, not Meyer. And well, Jeffery is currently a pretty darned good NFL receiver after choosing South Carolina over the Volunteers.

Even though Kiffin’s outbursts didn’t work out for him, the fans loved his boisterous ways. And they loved the way he recruited the top players to come to Tennessee too. Before he jumped ship and swam to USC, Kiffin had built a top five recruiting class for the 2010 season. Tennessee lost a couple of the gems of that class when Kiffin left, but for the most part new head coach Derek Dooley was able to salvage a presentable pull.

But Dooley wasn’t the answer for Tennessee. In his almost three seasons in Knoxville, Tennessee was 15-21 and in a state of neutral instead of the full-speed ahead feel Kiffin had put in place.

Kiffin’s 7-6 record in 2009 is to this day the best finish for a Tennessee team since 2007. But it didn’t come without strings attached.

When Kiffin was offered his "dream job" of head coach at USC, he decided to leave Knoxville. Before he left, he wanted to address the media. What started as a gesture of peace and information, turned into somewhat of a siege. Kiffin’s on again-off again press conference that ended up just being a short statement, was long enough to allow a mob of students to surround the coaching offices. A mattress was burned, and the plan was to block Kiffin’s attempts to leave the building — or even town.

He eventually did leave, but he wasn’t done sullying the program.

Three years after Kiffin left Tennessee, the NCAA hit the Volunteers with sanctions that stemmed from a recruiting visit in 2009. Under Kiffin’s watch, assistant coach Willie Mack Garza was found to have funded an unofficial visit to campus.

While Kiffin remained untouched by the problems coming from his tenure in Knoxville, the Volunteers were punished. But the fans were, and are, still mad that he left.

Kiffin’s tenure at USC started swimmingly. His Trojans went 8-5 during his first season in 2010, and then finished the 2011 season at 10-2.

But then his fortune turned.

After starting the 2012 season with six wins in its first seven games, USC lost five of its next six, including the Sun Bowl to Georgia Tech. Then after going 3-2 to start the 2013 season — but 0-2 in the Pac-12 — Kiffin was fired after a 62-41 loss to Arizona State.

This firing wasn’t normal either.

USC athletic director Pat Haden met Kiffin at the airport in Los Angeles. After Kiffin pleaded his case, Haden disregarded the coach and fired him. This removal from coaching marked the second time Kiffin had been fired during a season.

His record at USC over three and a half seasons was 28-15. Kiffin was 0-2 in bowl games.

The highlights of Kiffin’s three breakups: His boss in Oakland called him a liar and even created a PowerPoint presentation to help announce the canning, a mob was incited when he tried to leave the only place that really loved him, and then he was fired at an airport.

Nothing is normal with Kiffin.

The problem that plagues Tennessee’s fan base, and causes so much of the pure hatred toward Kiffin, is the notion that it never got closure.

Picture the Mayflower truck slinking away from Baltimore in the middle of the night as the Colts relocated to Indianapolis. Think of Bobby Petrino, who resigned as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons after 13 games, and informed his players via a letter that he had bolted for Arkansas.

The city of Baltimore never got closure, and there’s still bad blood even though the Ravens call Baltimore home now. The Falcons weren’t allowed closure either, and Petrino is still a hated man among the franchise and its fan base.

Time will heal these open wounds, but it will take a while.

During that long process, head-to-head matchups can help a little. The city of Baltimore can take solace in its meetings between the Ravens and Colts, even if Indianapolis holds an 8-3 advantage since 1996. Atlanta — not so much, as Petrino has only surfaced in the college ranks.

Tennessee fans began their healing process with Saturday’s rivalry game against Alabama. But it didn’t go well. What was expected from a visit from the No. 4 team in the country?

The third Saturday in October used to mean something big to both these schools. And it still does to a certain extent. But the wide disparity of late has stolen from the rivalry.

Tennessee hasn’t won against Alabama since 2006, when an Arian Foster 1-yard touchdown run with 3:28 to play turned the game the Volunteers’ way. And it hasn’t been pretty during the Tide’s eight-game run.

Amazingly enough, the only close game between these schools since 2006 was the year Kiffin was at the helm at Tennessee. With Alabama clinging to a 12-10 lead, Tennessee kicker Daniel Lincoln had a 44-yard field goal blocked by Terrence Cody as time expired.

Outside of that game, Alabama’s victories during its winning streak have been by an average of 28.7 points, and four have been by more than 30.

Alabama, once again, pasted more than 30 points on the Volunteers. The Crimson Tide’s 34-20 beatdown moved their current win streak against Tennessee to eight and their overall record to 52-37-7.

But for 102,455 fans in Neyland Stadium, and countless more watching on TV, the healing process has begun.

Kiffin’s name will always stir emotion among the Volunteer faithful. But eventually Kiffin won’t need to worry about his well being while on the visiting sideline. Eventually he won’t need six police officers to surround him as he exits the visiting team bus to head into the stadium.

Oranges weren’t chucked toward Kiffin while he was trying to call plays though, even though he was in range of a well-placed citrus bomb from the student section. Expletives weren’t chorused at Kiffin until at least half way through the first quarter — well after Amari Cooper scored on an 80-yard touchdown pass on Alabama’s first play of the game.

"I don’t think it affected any of us. I really don’t," said Alabama head coach Nick Saban on the hubbub surrounding Kiffin’s return to Knoxville. "Lane’s done a really good job for us all year. The players like him, they respond really well to him. He’s really a great coach. I think the reason why people in Tennessee are pissed off at him is because they know he’s a good coach and they were upset when he left. I get that. I understand that.

"I understood why they burnt me at the stake in Baton Rouge the first time I went back there. I get it. We all have fans that really appreciate when people do a good job. I’m sure there’s a lot of our fans, and Tennessee fans, that realize that Lane Kiffin is a very good coach."

He’ll never be just another coach when he comes to Knoxville –whether as an assistant, or if Kiffin ever moves back into a head-coaching gig — but the pain for Tennessee’s fan base will eventually subside.

A win in this rivalry would help ease the pain, dramatically.