Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Lane Kiffin mess; A great trip to Charlottesville

Boy this Lane Kiffin thing is a mess. Anytime a coach leaves a big-time job with big-time expectations after one season it is going to cause havoc. I’ve been to football games at Tennessee and I know how seriously they take it. Of course that’s true of the entire Southeastern Conference. It’s sort of like what football would be like if it had existed in the wild-west years ago.

Back then, Kiffin and Urban Meyer probably would have met up at the OK Corral one night at sundown. Meyer probably would have shot Kiffin cleanly through the heart and he would have jumped up and said, ‘nice shot Urban, guess I’ll just mosey on down the road to a better deal than I’ve got here.”

Actually, I don’t blame Kiffin for taking the job. It isn’t his fault that Pete Carroll decided to beat the NCAA posse out of town—and anyone who thinks that wasn’t a major factor believes in Santa Claus and the BCS—to take the job in Seattle. Kiffin has coached at USC and I’m betting his wife wasn’t exactly upset about moving from Knoxville to Los Angeles. She may be on The View before 2010 is over. (or is that taped in New York, I have no idea. So maybe she’ll play Elin Woods in a TV movie.)

I DO blame Mike Garrett although he technically did nothing wrong since Kiffin had an out clause in his contract. What I blame him for his hiring a guy who was 5-15 as a head coach in the NFL and 7-6 in one season at Tennessee. Putting aside The Look that Kiffin (and his wife) have, exactly what did Kiffin have on his resume that leads Garrett to believe he’s just hired the next Joe Paterno? Or, for that matter, the next Pete Carroll?

People talk about Kiffin’s coaching pedigree but let me make two points: Monte Kiffin made his reputation as a defensive coordinator. As a head coach at North Carolina State he pretty much washed out. My second point is this: Does the name David Shula ring a bell? One’s last name is not a reason to make a hire.

Maybe Kiffin DOES turn out to be Pete Carroll. It is difficult to judge anyone yay or nay based on two years of working for Al Davis and one year in a college job—any college job. Clearly though, Garrett was looking for some kind of a big hit, someone who would win the press conference That sounds a lot like Dan Snyder and we all know how THOSE press conferences have worked out the last 11 years once they were over.

There’s also the issue of recruiting. We all know how cutthroat it is and that coaches who change jobs routinely try to take players who have made commitments to play for them to their new school. (See Calipari, John et al). That said, for Kiffin to stand up at his press conference in LA and say he would only recruit kids who had committed to Tennessee if they contacted him is about as disingenuous as you can get. EVERY kid who made a commitment to Kiffin is going to contact him at some point. This isn’t even taking into account the fact that Ed Orgeron, the recruiting coordinator at Tennessee until Tuesday who now has the same job at USC said he DID contact kids (which technically means Kiffin did not) although he (and Garrett) refused to go into any detail about what was said.

The whole thing FEELS so smarmy. One coach fleeing because an NCAA investigation is about to conclude, another bolting from a job after one year and then trying to recruit kids away from the school he pledged body and soul to a little more than a year ago.

I’m really sorry to see Carroll leave USC because I always thought he was a breath of fresh air in the college game. His practices were open, his players were accessible and he didn’t act as if winning football games was more important than world peace. (Remember Nick Saban once mentioned 9-11 when discussing a loss to Louisiana-Monroe so I’m not exaggerating). It seems clear though that his program had gotten too big in LA and had run amok and now there will be a price to be paid. It isn’t anything that’s going to kill the program because the NCAA never really brings the hammer down on the glamour programs in either football or basketball. But it will probably make Lane Kiffin’s new job a little bit tougher for a while.

I doubt if many people will lose much sleep worrying about him. Maybe he can hire Ari Fleisher to put together a PR campaign for him.

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As I mentioned yesterday I went to Charlottesville last night to see Virginia play Georgia Tech.
It was pretty close to a perfect afternoon and evening. The drive down Rte. 29 has changed very little (except that it now bypasses Warrenton) since I first made it when I was in college and when I was a young Washington Post reporter frequently sent to cover Virginia since it was a secondary beat and I more or less volunteered to go down to football and basketball games.

The last 50 miles, on a sunny winter afternoon, is about as pretty as any you’ll find, the mountains rising up to the south of you as the sun sets almost directly in front of you. (Bring sunglasses).

I had dinner at The Aberdeen Barn, another place that hasn’t changed since I first went there. Same breadsticks, same menu, same great steaks. (Please don’t tell my cardiologist). My old pal Doug Doughty, who I first met when he was a hot-shot young reporter covering his alma mater (he was, as he likes to point out Phi Beta Kappa at UVA. I KNEW some people who were Phi Beta Kappa at Duke) and I was an undergraduate doing stringing work for papers in North Carolina, met me for dinner as did Gene and Lena Corrigan—one of my all-time favorite couples.

I first met Corrigan when he was the AD at Virginia and I was the kid reporter, as I mentioned, at The Post. On one of my first trips to Virginia I had spent some time with football coach Dick Bestwick and came back down the hall to the office of the late, great Barney Cooke, who was Virginia’s SID back then. (Barney was the first SID to ever offer me a drink while I was writing a game story. He did this when I was still working for The Duke Chronicle and not old enough to buy hard liquor. I had gin. I don’t know if it helped me write but it really was cool.)

When I walked into Barney’s office, Corrigan was sitting there. I was about to introduce myself when Corrigan said, “young man I’m sure Barney’s got a lot for you to do but would you mind getting me a cup of coffee? (I was about to go get the coffee when Barney said, “Um, Gene, this is John Feinstein from The Washington Post. He’s down here working on a football story.”)

Gene was horrified. He jumped up from his chair and said, “John, I’m so sorry, I didn’t recognize you.” (That would have been tough since we’d never met). I was 21 at the time and no doubt looked like the student assistant he initially thought I was. We still joke about that to this day.

Corrigan of course went on to be the AD at Notre Dame and then the commissioner of the ACC. He was always one of the class acts in college athletics: he might disagree with you but he always told you just how he felt; he never tried to hide anything and if you called him you could bet he’d call you back.

He was the AD at Notre Dame during the ill-fated tenure of Gerry Faust as football coach. (He didn’t hire Faust but he had to fire him. Then he hired Lou Holtz). In 1984 I was out there doing a story on how badly things were going for Faust and I talked to Digger Phelps who shook his head and said sadly, “it’s gotten so bad we can’t even bring our recruits to football games anymore.”

When I repeated that line from Corrigan—who wasn’t Digger’s biggest fan—he said (through clenched teeth) “we’ve had years when we couldn’t bring football recruits to basketball games!”

I liked UVA’s new arena but I miss old University Hall. I like the intimate old gyms without all the bells and whistles and screaming scoreboards and PA guys. The good news is the parking is still very good and my seat—since there was no TV—was right at midcourt. It was nice seeing a lot of UVA people I hadn’t seen for a while.

Seeing them all still there after all these years reminded me (as so many things do) of a Dean Smith story. When I was doing my ACC book, “A March to Madness,” back in 1997 I was standing with Dean outside his locker room about an hour before tipoff. That was always a good time to talk to him (as with many coaches) because he was just killing time.

One of the old ushers who worked in the building walked up to say hello to Dean. “John, you need to meet this gentleman,” Dean said. “He’s been working here at Virginia forever.” He turned to the usher and said, “How many years have you worked here now?”

The man puffed out his chest and said, “Coach, I’ve been in charge of this hallway for 21 years.”

Dean looked at me and said, “He’s been here 21 years. Isn’t that something?”
“Yes Dean,” I said. “That’s really something. Do you realize you’ve been coming here for THIRTY SIX years?”

Dean somehow didn’t think that was as impressive. I saw the man last night, still patrolling the hallway in the new building. He’s now been there for THIRTY FOUR years.

Which is still two years short of Dean.

9 comments:

Jimmy LaRoue said...

Living about a half-hour north of Charlottesville, I can attest to how beautiful the area is. Love the reminiscing and glad you got to see a good game. Hope you'll get a chance to write about some good D3 hoops too, especially with Eastern Mennonite University knocking off #1 Randolph-Macon last night too.

Joe said...

There was no TV coverage of this game? I am amazed, what with a dozen ESPNs and local networks and web only networks.

Anonymous said...

Joe - ESPN doesn't have the full package of ACC like it does with the SEC.....speaking of that, how long till ESPN starts touting the SEC as the best basketball conference in the country? Maybe they'll just start setting it up to not be so obvious over the next 8 years (or however long the contract is).

Greg said...

Rats!

My wife's family lives in C-Ville, and I had hoped I learned about a new (to me) restaurant in the area.

Then I hit the google key and see it is an hour away!

Oh well. It cannot be better than Little Zagreb's in Bloomington!

drbear said...

We don't get much Virginia coverage up here, and I hope Tony Bennett is doing well there.

Anonymous said...

John,
Great piece, especially re your UVA trip.
Gerry

Gunnar said...

Good to hear about Virginia. I hope Tony Bennett does really well, he is a really good guy and coach. I rooted for Washington State when Tony and his Dad, Dick, were coaching there...and I am a Washington alum. I think the tipping point for me, to really like the Bennetts, was a game in Dick's first year at WSU. They were playing at UW in a close match up. The UW student section was getting on WSU, and Dick flipped the bird to the UW students. Dick was about 70 years old at the time, and he gave a very sincere apology at his post-game press conference and to UW coach Lorenzo Romar and the UW AD. I really liked Tony and his teams at WSU, he will be a good coach for a long time.

TeshaNaquin said...

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BigHank90 said...

Regarding Lane Kiffin, it's hard to fault the man for changing jobs if he feels that one job (and location) is a better fit for him and his family. People, even professionals like doctors and lawyers, do it all the time. The timing is terrible for UT, but Pete Carroll left when he did and that's not Kiffin's fault.

It's hard not to find fault, however, with the contact with recruits. You use the word "smarmy" and I couldn't agree more.

As a long time TN fan, and enthusiastic supporter of Kiffin, I looked past his crass and clumsy comments and missteps because he seemed so focused on winning. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, what goes around comes around and now we (UT) are on the receiving end of Kiffin's aggressive win at all costs behavior.