Posted: 10:19 am Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Lane Kiffin: The Great Uniter 

By Post Staff

UT Sports

UT Sports

For eight years, SEC commissioner Mike Slive has tried — and failed — to unify the conference’s coaches and fan bases. He has created new bylaws and levied fines to try to stop the petty bickering between rivals. But unifying 12 loyal, passionate football programs has not been easy.

Lane Kiffin, though, accomplished the feat in one day.

Already the most hated man in the SEC before Tuesday evening, Kiffin officially became Public Enemy No. 1 in the south when he bolted Tennessee for Southern California after barely 13 months as the Volunteers’ head coach.

And while Kiffin was once staunchly defended in Knoxville, now even his most ardent supporters have turned on him.

“Coach Kiffin cared about Tennessee traditions less than the worst Vol hater in the state of Alabama,” Tennessee senior center Josh McNeil told the Web site Fanhouse.com. “That man’s a snake.”

Kiffin trampled through the SEC in one year, lobbing insults at half the league’s coaches and spitting on Slive’s bylaws, earning at least a half dozen secondary violations in the process.

But Florida’s Urban Meyer was undoubtedly his biggest target. Kiffin bragged about beating Florida at his opening press conference. Kiffin stole two of Meyer’s recruits on signing day. Kiffin made fun of Meyer at a booster breakfast and (wrongly) accused Meyer of cheating. Kiffin bought a UT billboard in Broward County and made fun of Meyer for blaming the Gators’ close 23-13 victory over the Vols on the flu.

Kiffin’s antics forced Slive to increase penalties for unruly decorum by the coaches, yet Kiffin never earned a fine. Instead, it was Meyer who got the first (and only) $30,000 fine, for criticizing officials.

But maybe Meyer got the last laugh. Standing in the corner of the O’Connell Center during Tuesday night’s Florida-Kentucky game, he smiled broadly while furiously reading and replying to text messages around 8 p.m., shortly after the Kiffin news broke. Meyer, who dodged reporters, later formed the letters “U-T” with his hands and traded fist pumps with athletic director Jeremy Foley from across the gym.

When asked if Slive would have a comment about the Kiffin era, an SEC spokesman said succinctly, “No.”

Longtime SEC columnist Tony Barnhart wrote Wednesday that Tennessee will be better off without Kiffin. Recently-retired Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, a football coach since 1963, said on Twitter: “I have seen it all now!”

But the reaction in Knoxville was not so light-hearted.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel estimated that nearly 1,000 fans gathered on the UT campus Tuesday night, and police were called to keep the peace.

Fans painted the campus’ famous rock with obscenities aimed at Kiffin and burned Kiffin T-shirts and a mattress. The fans also blocked the exits at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex, preventing Kiffin or his father, Monte, from leaving the building.

The anger grew exponentially when defensive coach Ed Orgeron, who will be joining Kiffin at USC, secretly contacted the Vols’ nine early-enrollees and told them not to attend class on Monday and instead head west to USC, according to several outlets.

Josh Ward, a midday sports talk radio host in Knoxville, called the fans’ reaction, “beyond crazy.”

“Fans are freaking out like I’ve never seen,” Ward said. “The hate that is there for Kiffin is simply remarkable.”

Not all UT fans reacted with anger. Hound Dogs, a Knoxville apparel store, will donate all of its Kiffin gear to the Haiti relief efforts.

But the hate will grow as Tennessee’s 2010 recruiting class continues to dissipate. Already, three recruits — Michael Taylor from Atlanta, Brandon Willis from South Carolina and Zach Fulton from Illinois — have de-committed, according to various reports, while several other recruits are considering their options. Tennessee’s AD told the Associated Press he’d like to have someone in place before Sunday, when coaches are allowed to begin live recruiting again.

Whoever the Vols hire will have a near-impossible task of trying to scrape a recruiting class together. National signing day is on Feb. 3, and most recruits already have their official visits set up for the next few weekends.

“They really only have two weekends to recruit kids and get them on campus,” said Barry Every, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.

“The AD better come up with a magical hire, which probably won’t happen.”

Kiffin may be heading west, but his rivalry with Meyer isn’t finished.

Among Kiffin’s first orders of business — trying to sway California defensive end Ronald Powell, the No. 1 prospect in the nation according to Rivals, away from the Gators.

In an exit interview with Rivals’ UT affiliate, Kiffin was asked if he is going to miss needling Meyer and the Gators.

“No, it’s good,” Kiffin told Volquest. “Now I can do it and not get fined for it.”