Give Kiffin Time, He’ll Give Tennessee Fans Six

Tennessee Vols fans on Game Day at Neyland Stadium

Legendary Tennessee broadcaster John Ward used to say “Give… Him… Six” on Vols touchdowns.  New head football coach Lane Kiffin will have this program scoring points, wins and more for years to come if he’s given the time he needs to change what has become a culture of average.

Go to any city in the nation and talk to a fans about their favorite teams.  Doesn’t matter if they’re pro or college, they’ll always have something to say about the coach.  He’s wonderful, he’s miserable, he was wonderful last week but get back to me after today’s game because he might be miserable again.  In fact, even if we win, I still might think he’s miserable.

College football coaches are, arguably, the subject of more scrutiny than any coach at any level.

You’ve got alumni, faculty, students, the general fan base, season ticket holders and… the big money donors.  Every group believes their voice is the most significant. 

In the chorus of local, regional and national voices I’ve been listening to over the past few years, I don’t know of any more worthy of my Candle in the Wind Award than fans of the Tennessee Volunteers.  And as a matter of full disclosure, I’m a Vols fan… but I don’t tilt with the direction of the wind.

For the past 17 years Tennessee native son and former player Phillip Fulmer roamed the sidelines as the head man for the orange and white.  This includes 4 games as interim coach in 1992 replacing Johnny Majors who was ill.  He won a lot of games in the 1990’s taking Tennessee to a sustained level of excellence not seen in Knoxville in decades, if indeed ever.  Included in his tenure was an undefeated, national championship season in 1998. 

Most agree it was after that season things began to change, both with Fulmer and the program as a whole.  Never again did Tennessee hit the heights it regularly hovered at during the 90’s.

Ultimately, Fulmer chose to step down after the 2008 season.  Rather, he was encouraged to voluntarily step down.  One man’s resignation is another man’s firing, but does it matter?  It does to Fulmer. 

This is something that still burns the man but that’s life.  No matter what you’ve done, you’re only as good as what you’re doing now.  And in big-time college football, you had better hope the Interstates named Perception and Reality are running parallel under sunny skies.

Enter Lane Kiffin.

The joy, and outcry, over Kiffin was as deafening as it was instantaneous.  But in the end, most Vols fans came around.  In less than a few months on the job, the man and his very capable staff assembled a top ten recruiting class… and he managed to anger a whole host of coaches and fan bases along the way which, when factoring in where Tennessee had been, was not at all a bad thing.

Spin the roulette wheel; maybe it lands on Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Gators fans, Bama fans… you get the idea.

But Kiffin, while acknowledging some mistakes along the way (calling Urban Meyer a cheater… he wasn’t), made no apologies for the bluster he brought to Knoxville, Tennessee Football and Big Orange Country.  He said i.e. “I’m not here to get warm and fuzzy with the other teams and their fans’ chat rooms… I only care about Tennessee.”

The previous coach maintained the same party line, but in a vastly different way.  Kiffin brought a wealth of confidence laced with an aggressive, brashness that reminded many of a certain guy who used to jab at Tennessee fans every chance he got.  His name was, if memory serves, Spurrier.

Suddenly, Tennessee Football was back.  Well, at least in the media it was.  ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports – The New York Times, for goodness sakes – everyone wanted to talk about the Vols and speak directly to Lane Kiffin.

Under Fulmer and company, the national media was viewed much the way the United States views Iran’s nuclear development program.  Under Kiffin, the media is a recruiting tool.

Kiffin was an assistant under USC coach Pete Carroll.  If there’s a better college coach that understands how to work the media and keep his program in the limelight, I’ve not seen him.  SC being a consistent winner helps that along, but when Carroll got to L.A. the Trojans had practically slipped off the radar.

And so we’ve arrived at the point of actual games. 

Kiffin, with a roster of talent far below what he’ll need to take down Florida, Alabama, LSU et al. began the season with the idea of being competitive; of planting seeds for the rebirth of championship football in Knoxville.

There would be lumps along the way and there would be at least one or two benchmark wins.  But the fans – oh, those fans…

  • After destroying Western Kentucky in the opener 63-7, fans were cautiously giddy.
  • A home loss to UCLA had fans questioning the game plan, the personnel… everything.
  • A strong performance at Florida and fans were smiling, even though it was a loss.
  • A less-than-dominant win over Ohio University in Neyland Stadium – the doubters were lining up.
  • An anemic home loss to Auburn and some, incredibly, were calling for Kiffin’s head.
  • The Knoxville humiliation of Georgia netted the silence of the lambs on one side, the “SEE!” crowd on the other.

How fans of any team in any sport believe five games is enough to judge a coach is beyond comprehension.

Message boards and sports talk radio shows, after a game, are forever filled with fans who knew exactly what the team needed to do when something went wrong.  They know the play that should have been called; they know the defensive alignment their team should have been in when the 70-yard touchdown pass was given up; they calculated the direction and speed of the wind, juxtaposed with the ball being on the right hash mark 37 yards away to know a failed field goal attempt should have been bypassed in favor of going for it on 4th and 2. 

When you decide to begin working out to cut into the extra 40 pounds around your waist, it comes off as slowly as it took to put it on.  But it does come off.  It just takes time.

And for Tennessee, as it is with most major programs trying to climb back up the championship ladder to a place they once thrived, the unwanted baggage that dragged down this program for years will be shed.

In year one of Lane Kiffin, the game-to-game scrutiny from fans needs to give way to The Bigger Picture.  It’s a healthy alternative to a quick fix.

Photo credit Garrett Crawford

Filed Under: College footballLane KiffinSportsTennessee Volunteers

About the Author: Christopher serves up sports on 940 ESPN in Fresno with a good deal of pop culture, films, music and the quirky side of life mixed in. Distinguished guests and contributors from across the nation and around the world regularly join the program. He tackles the most complex stories to ones slightly off the radar delivering depth and humor with a thoughtful perspective. When he was in Fargo, the city not the movie, the program was nominated for Best Radio Show in the region in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by readers of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. As a writer, Christopher's work has been been published by the Chicago Sun-Times, Sun-Times Network publications, Reuters, USA Volleyball and Team USA, the Official Website of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

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  1. Jason says:

    Agreed, Christopher. It was a little unreasonable for fans to expect an SEC championship this year. The talent that Kiffin inherited is just simply inferior to Alabama and Florida. The real test for Lane will come in 2-3 years, when he’s coaching his own players, instead of someone else’s.


  2. SomeGuy says:

    Nice article. Vol fans need to realize just how terrible a job Phil Fulmer did the last several years he was there and what a total wreck of a program he left to Lane Kiffin. Whether Kiffin is a great coach or a complete bum it doesn’t change the fact that he inherited a terrible mess, a mess that is far worse than many fans realize. So far, Kiffin seems to be doing an admirable job of cleaning up that mess.


    Christopher Gabriel Reply:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, SomeGuy. As Jason mentioned earlier, Kiffin needs two or three years of his own recruits playing his offense and his dad’s defense.

    My money’s on Kiffin…both of them.


  3. […] on October 11, I wrote that Tennessee Volunteers fans needed to climb on board The Lane Train.  I insisted that Lane Kiffin, if given time, would give Tennessee fans six (the phrase is an […]

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