The Return of Kiffin
Tennessee fans have now had approximately nine months to get used to the idea of former head coach Lane Kiffin returning to Knoxville as the offensive coordinator of Alabama, one of UT’s most bitter rivals.
It’s a story that might not pass in Hollywood. For those not as familiar, Kiffin was named the head coach of UT in 2008, following the legendary Phillip Fulmer, and promised to usher in a new era of UT football after it had slipped later in Fulmer’s tenure.
Kiffin was brash. He made promises, committed a few NCAA violation and got the fanbase energized. He also won – at least more than UT has been used to in more recent years. The Vols finished the regular season 7-5 before falling to Virginia Tech in the Peach Bowl. Weeks later, Kiffin abruptly left for Southern California, calling it his dream job, leaving UT in a bad place with just weeks remaining before National Signing Day for recruits.
Derek Dooley was hastily hired and now in the fifth football season since then, the Vols are still working on putting all the pieces back together.
So in the grand scheme of Tennessee’s football program, the return of Lane Kiffin, who was fired from his position at USC in 2013, is a massive deal. But Butch Jones – always thinking about the present and what’s to come – has worked to downplay it as much as possible. After all, only one player on UT’s roster, redshirt senior tackle Marques Pair (who doesn’t play regularly), even committed to Kiffin. Nobody on the roster actually played for him.
“The game means everything to our football program and our fans because it is the University of Alabama, not because it is Lane Kiffin,” Jones said. “Three-quarters of our team, he is a great coach, but nobody knows who Lane Kiffin is. Again, that is for the fans. We have to concentrate on the game.”
“We are just focused on playing football,” added Corey Vereen. “It’s our team against their team. We aren’t really focused on the exterior things, Lane Kiffin or whoever coming back. We’re focused on playing football.”
Per Alabama’s media policy, Kiffin himself hasn’t been able to speak publicly about his return to Knoxville this week. All we really know is that he will coach the offense from the sideline, as he normally does. He did, however, tackle the subject in the preseason when asked about it.
“As far as going back to Tennessee, we had a great year there,” Kiffin said back in August. “The people were phenomenal. I really loved being there. It was just a unique situation that came about. You can’t look back.
“I just don’t live that way of looking back and saying, ‘Well, should I have left?’ I don’t live that way.”
Kiffin doesn’t have to look too far around the Alabama football complex to find somebody who somewhat understands what he’s going to be faced with in Knoxville on Saturday.
Head coach Nick Saban had to make a return to LSU after leaving the Tigers in 2004 for a job as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
Saban won a national title with the Tigers – that’s far more than Kiffin accomplished in Knoxville – and there was resentment for him leaving and then returning with another SEC West school. Saban took over the Tide in 2007 and returned to Baton Rouge in 2008 for the first time in a game No. 1 Alabama won 27-21.
“The only experience I have is when I went back to Baton Rouge, and it was very negative, getting hung in effigy, burned at the stake, just about everything that could happen happened,” Saban said. “But the way I try to manage it with the players is let them know that’s going to happen in advance, and not to be affected by it. That it would probably be rowdy when we got off the bus to go to the locker room, but that really would have nothing to do with what happened in the game.
“That was going to come down to what we did on the field. I would hope it’s our approach to do the same thing in this game.”