For Tennessee, Progress is in the Risk

By Christopher Gabriel,

The Phillip Fulmer Era at the University of Tennessee has ended.  The final statement in his long tenure on the Vols sideline was a 28-10 win over Kentucky.  After several Gatorade showers, a brief interview on ESPN and lots of hugs, smiles and a few tears, he was carried off the field by his players while clutching the game ball given to him by quarterback Jonathan Crompton.  Finally disappearing into the darkness of the Peyton Manning Locker Complex tunnel at the north end of Neyland Stadium, it was the film going to black before the credits. 

And opening fall of 2009, The New Era starring Lane Kiffin.  Mr. Kiffin, welcome to the madness that is football in Knoxville and the SEC.  Are you ready for your close-up?

You thought Los Angeles and the Pac-10 was pressurized in your days as a USC assistant coach, think again.  I attended USC and lived in Los Angeles for a number of years.  Even a loss to UCLA stings only as long as it takes to get to Marina del Rey for an evening walk along the beach.  Down in Knoxville, it’s all just a bit different.

With the reported hiring of Kiffin, the critics are already lining up.  From ESPN to writers in Tennessee to fans all across Big Orange Country, everyone has a theory why hiring Kiffin is tantamount to the apocalypse.  Bear in mind, all this is coming before the press conference that will introduce him as the new head coach. 

Apparently, many in the media and the fan base are hung up with his age (33) and the fact he’s never been a head coach at the college level.  He did coach the Oakland Raiders for 20 games, compiling a 5-15 record.  However, several games into this season he was fired.  The press conference was an incendiary, embarrassing performance by Al Davis detailing in PowerPoint why Kiffin was unqualified, in his view, to be a football coach much less a human being. 

While this next press conference will be a far better experience for Kiffin, it won’t silence the critics.  Still, some of these football geniuses need to gain a little perspective before running him out of town.  And that perspective comes from looking west, about 800 miles, to Norman, Oklahoma.

Roaming the Oklahoma Sooners sidelines for the past 10 season is the commanding presence of Bob Stoops.  And while he’s had great success at Oklahoma it’s easy, or convenient, to forget his extensive head coaching background before arriving in Norman.  That experience – in a word, none. 

Prior to taking over OU, Stoops was Florida’s defensive coordinator. Before coming to Gainesville he was at Kansas State as the co-DC from 1991-1995 while coaching the secondary there from 1989-1990.

He was offered the job in Norman at the advanced age of 38 (turned 39 in September of his first season), having never held a prior head coaching job unless it was in high school or Pop Warner.

Of course his talent as a defensive coach is considerable and cannot be overstated. But at the end of the day that’s not the point. The point is the man had never been a college head coach prior to landing at what has been one of the most successful programs in college football history.  

All things considered – OU’s history of both conference and national championships, bowl wins and appearances, sending players to the NFL – you’d have thought the Sooners surely would want a coach with an extensive head coaching pedigree.  Anything less would be foolish, right?  Apparently not.  

The hiring of Bob Stoops in Norman was considered inspired and no one questioned it. Not ESPN, not ABC, not CBS, not FOX, not the BBC and not the Russian News Network. Why, because he had Name Value as Steve Spurrier’s right-hand man in part 1 of the Gators heyday.

Meanwhile, Lane Kiffin’s hiring is being called “confusing…questionable…a mystery…wrong.” I’m not trying to suggest Lane Kiffin is the next Bob Stoops. But at the same time, there was no body of head coaching work to look at Bob Stoops and ever for a moment imagine he’d have the kind of success he’s gone on to have.

When Stoops got to OU, Sooners fans were out of patience and practically out of their minds much the same way Vols fans are right now. OU was well off the college football radar going through head coaches Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake in short order. Three mistakes over 10 seasons that produced zero conference championships and just three bowl games. And in the case of Gibbs (37 in his first game) and Blake (35 in his first game), neither of them had previously been head coaches before taking over the Sooners yet OU continued taking risks on unproven commodities.

So Lane Kiffin may indeed end up being a mistake. Or he may end up being brilliant. But to suggest he’s the wrong hire because he’s never been a head coach at the college level, or because he’s too young, isn’t a terribly strong argument. 

The Tennessee football program, top-to-bottom, has a well-deserved reputation for prefering their own when it comes to head coaches.  Going outside the “Tennessee family” and finding someone with no previous ties to the Vols is a striking departure for the school and athletic director Mike Hamilton is to be commended for what many are calling a major career risk for him.   

There was no way he would satisfy everyone with this hire, no more than a CEO satisfies every employee in a company when he makes a bold move.  And who’s kidding whom – it’s a lot easier to criticize Hamilton’s selection of Kiffin than it was for Hamilton to actually pull the trigger on the selection.

In the nearly 30 years I’ve been in the professional world, It’s been my experience the greatest accomplishments often come from the greatest risks. That cuts both ways, but my sense is the risk of Lane Kiffin is one worth taking. 

And let’s be clear, this isn’t life and death.  It’s simply football in Knoxville . . . though some would argue the two are the same. 

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Filed Under: College footballESPNKnoxvilleMediaSportsTennesseeUSC


About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.

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