Words mean things. And in the fishbowl of big-time college football where any utterance can end up on a locker room wall, message discipline is one of the most important jobs a head coach undertakes. Unfortunately for the Tennessee Volunteers, it’s a lesson Lane Kiffin might never learn.
When asked on Wednesday if he thought his previous dogmatism — be it accusing Urban Meyer of cheating or promising to sing Rocky Top at the top of his lungs after the Vols beat the Gators — might put his players behind the eight ball, Kiffin acted as though it was the dumbest question in the world. “No, I don’t think so at all,” he said. “I think we’ve generated a lot of energy around our program and helped us dramatically in recruiting, signing a top-10 class. I don’t think it put our kids in a tough situation at all.”
Nobody’s buying that. And trying to sell it? Well, that simply gives Kiffin’s critics another sound bite in the rookie coach’s record-setting foot-in-mouth year.
Kiffin doesn’t get it. Just look at his record. After attempting to “fire up” a group of boosters at a February breakfast by wrongfully accusing Urban Meyer of recruiting violations, Kiffin had to offer this mea culpa: “I’ve been made aware by the Southeastern Conference that my comments this morning at a breakfast with our donors violated a conference policy. In my enthusiasm for our recruiting class, I made some statements that were meant solely to excite those at the breakfast. … My comments were not intended to offend anyone at the University of Florida.”
Of course, how could any Gator be offended at having their two-time national champion coach called a cheater? Kiffin meant no harm, you see? Just trying to fire up the base.
But how do you explain Kiffin’s comments after Tennessee’s upset loss at home to UCLA?
“We should have won that game by a couple of touchdowns,” he said one day after his team fell to the Bruins. “We ran the ball a lot in the red zone, which is unusual for us. We normally throw it more down there, so we had to settle for too many field goals and not enough touchdowns.”
Not to be obtuse, coach, but whose fault was that?
Kiffin sounded like one of the fans who watched the game from the seats, not the man in charge of calling all those running plays, or failing to prepare his offense for the pressures of a final drive with less than two minutes to play. He seemed shocked that his quarterback, Jonathan Crompton, was criticized for going 13 for 26 with no touchdowns and three interceptions. “He is a college kid,” Kiffin said. “It blows me away sometimes how much hatred there is toward him when you hear a radio show and people call in with comments. Quarterbacks get frustrated when guys aren’t doing things right around them.”
Especially when those guys include the head coach.
Kiffin went so far as to blame the cosmos for the UCLA loss. “The ball just didn’t bounce our way,” he said. “They had some good karma working for them with those fumbles. I don’t know of anybody who has six fumbles and five of them bounce back.”
Um, coach, you didn’t just think that, you actually said it out loud.
Tim Brando from CBS went so far as to compare Kiffin to another famous person with the verbal discipline of a bus station drunk. “In my estimation, what Lane Kiffin at this point has done is energized the base, sort of what Sarah Palin did for the Republican ticket,” Brando said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to be successful.”
The man Kiffin replaced has his doubts as well, although you have to read between the lines to find them.
“You know, everybody has to choose to do things their way,” Phil Fulmer said. “We were very pleased with what we were able to accomplish the majority of our time at Tennessee. And we did it without having to be brash and so on. This is his style, the way he chose to do it. It’s his turn to do it as he thinks he needs to do it. The problem in this league, you are going to play great football teams every week once you get into the SEC schedule and if you are going to be brash, you better be able to back it up.”
It’s the backing it up part that could be a problem for Kiffin.
“Florida is obviously a great program,” he said. “We’ve lost by a combined 64 points the last two years. They are the No.1 team in the country, the most talented team in the country, maybe the most talented team ever to play, so it’s a big challenge for us. It’s our first year, and our first SEC game together, so we understand that there is a long-term plan here.”
Kiffin’s role in that long-term plan will obviously hinge on his ability to win games. No doubt a victory this week in Gainesville, and all his foibles in Vol-land will be forgiven. But, barring that upset, in the short term, his future depends on his ability to keep his verbal spasms under control.
In his words, “It all comes back on me.”