Weekly Affirmation: Lane Kiffin in Full View
By Matt Zemek
Posted Sep 23, 2009
Lane Kiffin caused quite a stir in the college football community this past week, generating spirited debate about moral victories, play calling, public relations wars, and many other ingredients that can always be found in college football's potent cultural stew. If you want to understand Kiffin and the moments he made, set aside some time for this special edition of the Weekly Affirmation.
Mr. Zemek's e-mail: email@example.com
WEEKLY AFFIRMATION SPECIAL ESSAY: Life In The Kiffin Lane
Part I. Preamble: Setting the Scene
Are there moral victories in sports?
Do you throw on 3rd and 8 when leading by four points with 1:30 left in the fourth quarter, when your opponent has no timeouts left?
Is life measured by meeting objective universal standards, or specific situational expectations?
Is the tweaking or unsettling of an enemy always desirable?
These are just a few of life's many urgent questions. Some people quickly arrive at finite answers to such queries, while others find concrete responses to be eternally elusive. Say this much, at any rate: Right or wrong, cautious or confident, great questions--and the issues that flow from them--always demand re-examination every now and then.
When college football offers a window into the human condition, it's worth jettisoning the regular column format (the Subjective Heft Show, plus an assortment of opinions on a full week of action) to present a single-issue essay that cuts to the heart of who we are, and what we aspire to become. The Lane Kiffin-Urban Meyer feud--initiated in the off-season and brought to full flame this past week--offers just such an occasion.
NOTE: Here's a single-issue Weekly Affirmation essay from 2007: http://tinyurl.com/lteljn
Before going forward, it must be said that the Kiffin-Meyer kerfuffle is, in the grand scheme of things, a quite trivial matter. In other corners of the globe, battles for life and death occur and unfold every single day. In comparison to the dark realities of sexual slavery, child labor, severe malnutrition, and genital mutilation, this "Tiff With Kiff" amounts to a comical diversion from life's weighty considerations and cares.
One would be perfectly justified to ask, then, "Why write about this insignificant subject if one wants to say something profound and meaningful?" That's a mighty fine question, one which needs to be addressed in a credible manner.
The most immediate answer is found in the fact that college football is a multi-billion-dollar industry which enjoys considerable cultural centrality in much of America, particularly the places where football feuds burn brightest. Tennessee (or Florida, or LSU, or Ole Miss, or Georgia) football represents a point of pride and passion which generates considerable depth and breadth of interest from local and regional populations. Because college football commands such a loyal and vigilant following, it represents a realm of human endeavor in which a large audience can be found. And as any writer knows--no matter the genre or forum--publishing opinions, analysis, or news stories doesn't mean all that much if people aren't around to read them.
A broader answer to the question, "Why write about Kiffin-Meyer instead of African poverty or Thailand-based sex trafficking?", is found in a nugget of wisdom that's become impossible to ignore in modern American life: Ostensibly silly and unimportant events frequently do the most to reveal our true condition and character as a nation.
Unconvinced? Consider how the O.J. Simpson trial--a farcical, carnival-like spectacle of ridiculous proportions--held up a mirror to American society on questions of race, celebrity, money, power, and jurisprudence.
Consider how one human being's infidelity--Bill Clinton's Oval Office fling with Monica Lewinsky--revealed the machinations and motivations of Washington, D.C., writ large, while also stimulating (pun intended) a far-reaching national conversation on American attitudes toward sex, relationships, forgiveness, and human longing.
Consider, too, how our presidential elections and other political intrigues usually seem to pivot in response to images and personalities more than policy-wonk intellectualism: In 1988, there was the Willie Horton ad; in 1992, there was the sight of George H.W. Bush checking his wristwatch during a debate; in 2000, there was the mention of Al Gore's earth tones; in 2008, there was the combination of Hillary Clinton's snowflake/tear and Jeremiah Wright's sermonizing in the primaries, followed by Sarah Palin's Alaska accent and megawatt presence in the general election.
None of the above events, images or personalities had anything to do with the reform of Wall Street, the handling of Afghanistan, or the delivery of health care. Yet, they became the source and center of intense media coverage which--in turn--roiled the emotions of the American populace and, in due course, afforded Americans new glimpses of their constantly-shifting country.
Let's be clear here: A fight between two Southern football coaches should not matter more than the profound problems of a groaning world. The act of writing about all things Lane Kiffin--while undeniably conferring a certain amount of importance on the man--does not represent an elevation of Mr. Kiffin beyond the greater concerns of humankind... not automatically, anyway. When the press trains its eyes on a public figure or a national story, the style of coverage and the substance of a given critique represent the ultimate measures by which journalists and their publications should be judged. We're now ready to delve into the specifics of Lane Kiffin's memorable fight with Florida.
Part II. Just The Facts, A Mid-Essay Intermission: Essential Kiffin Quotes and Maneuvers Connected to the Florida Feud
More analysis and commentary await, but first, let's just roll out the compendium of Lane Kiffin's statements, gestures and play calls:
The first remark: "I'm really looking forward to embracing some of the great traditions at the University of Tennessee, for instance the Vol Walk, running through the T, singing 'Rocky Top' all night long after we beat Florida next year. It's going to be a blast." - Lane Kiffin, at the press conference announcing him as Tennessee's new head coach, December 1, 2008
Play-by-play transcript of Tennessee's final offensive possession, which began when the Vols trailed 23-13 with 6:01 left in regulation:
"Tennessee at 6:01
1st and 10 at TENN 22 Montario Hardesty rush for 7 yards to the Tenn 29.
2nd and 3 at TENN 29 Montario Hardesty rush for 3 yards to the Tenn 32 for a 1ST down.
1st and 10 at TENN 32 Jonathan Crompton pass complete to Kevin Cooper for 1 yard to the Tenn 33.
2nd and 9 at TENN 33 Jonathan Crompton pass complete to Jeff Cottam for 4 yards to the Tenn 37.
3rd and 5 at TENN 37 Jonathan Crompton pass complete to Gerald Jones for 8 yards to the Tenn 45 for a 1ST down.
1st and 10 at TENN 45 Bryce Brown rush for a loss of 1 yard to the Tenn 44.
2nd and 11 at TENN 44 Jonathan Crompton pass complete to Quintin Hancock for 7 yards, fumbled, recovered by Tenn at the Tenn 49.
3rd and 6 at TENN 49 Jonathan Crompton pass incomplete.
4th and 6 at TENN 49 Timeout TENNESSEE, clock 02:00.
4th and 6 at TENN 49 Jonathan Crompton pass intercepted by Ahmad Black at the Fla 26, returned for no gain to the Fla 26.
DRIVE TOTALS: Tenn drive: 9 plays 27 yards, 04:10 Tenn INT
Florida (ball) at 1:51"
Next, here's a recap of quotes and actions from gameday in Gainesville, Fla., 9/19/09:
"Kiffin couldn't resist one last dig. In a tan suit, paisley colored tie and sunglasses, Kiffin gave a patronizing wave to Gator fans. 11:31 AM Sep 19th from TweetDeck" - Pete Thamel of the New York Times on Tennessee's arrival at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium following the bus ride from the team hotel; this quote came from Mr. Thamel's Twitter feed, @PeteThamelNYT
"'Fabulous moment at halftime. Kiffin sprinting off field, points at Florida fans giving him the Gator chomp. Think he's feeling pretty good.' 1:56 PM Sep 19th from web" - Pat Forde of ESPN.com via his Twitter feed, @espn4d
Halftime score: Florida 13, Tennessee 6
"Kiffin's time out here is a huge gloating FU to urban and the fans - still an L 3:32 PM Sep 19th from Tweetie" - Dan Shanoff, columnist for The Sporting News and blog founder of DanShanoff.com and TimTeblog.com, from his Pacific Time-based Twitter feed, @danshanoff
"After the game, though, the news conference felt as if the Vols had won. It was jammed with reporters, all waiting to see what Kiffin would say next.
'I didn’t come down here to cover the spread and have a moral victory,' he said.
Still, he did not hesitate to pat himself on the back..." - Thamel, Sept. 19 game story for NYTimes.com
Kiffin after the Florida game, on his psychological approach to the contest: "I think it worked perfect... It took all the attention off our players. Allowed them to play free. You don't want pressure on your players. Put it on me." - Forde, Sept. 19 column on ESPN.com
"Kiffin fires back at Meyer: 'I guess we'll wait, and after we're not excited about a performance, we'll tell you everybody was sick.' Wow. - 9:17 AM Sep 22nd from TweetDeck"... and later: "Also said Meyer ignored SEC's warning on public insults. 'Obviously Urban feels he doesn't need to follow that. We won't say anything else.' 9:20 AM Sep 22nd from TweetDeck" - Thamel, via Twitter
Part III. The Media's Role
After Florida's 23-13 win over Tennessee became official, the collection of on-site tweets and firsthand accounts from Mr. Forde, Mr. Thamel, and Mr. Shanoff convinced me that this was no ordinary moral victory, and no appropriately modest level of satisfaction being shown by the coach of a team that did exceed expectations. It appeared that Lane Kiffin was relishing his close loss, instead of merely gaining quiet encouragement from a small yet inadequate demonstration of improvement on the part of his team. Therefore, I felt that Kiffin needed to be knocked down a peg or three.
If someone in the public eye acts inappropriately, he (or she) merits criticism. Sometimes, said criticism will be expressed with full-bore anger, other times gently, and still other times in a unique tone befitting the emotional calculus of the moment. The feeling here was that since Kiffin's pleasure was palpably felt by the reporters who flew down to Gainesville to cover the game, the coach who is roughly the same age as the Weekly Affirmation's author needed to know that his theatrical yet genuine performance was not in any way impressive, laudable, or a positive reflection on Lane Kiffin the man.
Readers of CFN's Instant Analysis (which, as you've noticed, has been re-formatted this year) expressed displeasure not just with the substance of my postgame remarks, but with the tone in which they were delivered. I normally use a more cerebral and highly-structured style of analysis, which only served to give my commentary a rather amateurish appearance. I'll have more to say on that subject in a bit, but before doing so, the Weekly Affirmation needs to address the primary purpose of referencing reader reaction to Saturday's postgame "Riff On Kiff."
The most illuminating aspect of reader response to my knee-jerk Saturday commentary was that I, as a member of the press (not the traveling press, but an editorial commentator and news analyst who watches the proverbial "bank of monitors" for 13 hours every football Saturday), was criticizing Kiffin after helping to fan the flames of controversy in the days and weeks before kickoff.
I can't speak for my colleagues in the profession, but I can vouch for myself. If you read the previous edition of the Weekly Affirmation, you would have found zero mention of anything relating to the Kiffin-Meyer feud or even the Tennessee-Florida game as a whole:
Week two edition of this year's Weekly Affirmation: http://tinyurl.com/l2tq98
Let's establish some parameters, then, because that's how intense debates and raging controversies can at least be understood for future reference. Emotional public conflicts might not get settled to the satisfaction of all parties, but thorough explanations--complete with an extensive elaboration of proper boundaries (which therefore spells out the improper boundaries as well)--can at least shed light on these issues, instead of adding more heat to an already-roaring firestorm.
A first parameter to entrench in the public mind is this: Making light of a silly or low-grade controversy (compared to one of the life-and-death issues mentioned above in Part I of this essay) is not commensurate with a belief that the controversy is profoundly important on its raw merits. This is why Part I was so painstaking in its attempt to show that some of America's more trivial events in recent years have wound up broadcasting important revelations to the national populace.
The above parameter, phrased differently, can read like this: A given event can be unimportant even while the event itself has the effect of revealing significant truths or realities to a larger community. One could then turn that statement around and say, with equal weight, that a hugely significant event can fail to penetrate the larger consciousness of a population. Making light of such a reality doesn't detract from the inherent meaning or value of events; commentary, when viewed strictly on its merits, is an attempt to convey something of significance to a larger audience. If an editorialist feels s/he can perform that noble task by citing a trivial event rather than a significant event, so be it.
The Lane Kiffin story is a perfect case in point. The event isn't important on an objective scale, but because it has acquired considerable emotional centrality and multimedia visibility for a large cross-section of Americans--namely, those who love their college football--it's worth making light of the incident, much as it was worth it to comment at length on the Georgia-Florida game from 2007 (linked to above, in Part I).
A second parameter, flowing from the one just outlined, is this: It is on the "front end" of media coverage--i.e., in pregame buildup or in the volume of 'round-the-clock stories devoted to a topic--where the true priorities of news outlets and (on occasion) individual journalists ought to be measured. If a reporter is flown to a game site to cover specific aspects of an event, the parent company's organizational methods and motives fall under scrutiny, not (so much) the individual reporter who is following his editor's or publisher's instructions.
Notice, for instance, the above quote from Pete Thamel's NYTimes.com story on the Tennessee-Florida game. Thamel noted how the Vols' losing press conference felt like a presser given by a winning team and coach from a victorious locker room. The fact that the Vols' press conference was jammed with reporters (while Florida's wasn't as jammed) does reflect poorly on the national media. Very poorly, in fact. But to be clear, the negative reflection falls not on the individual reporters whose paychecks are signed by higher-ups; the blame falls on the higher-ups themselves, who sent reporters to Gainesville to cover the Kiffin angle and ensure it received considerable play.
The burden or weight of responsibility falls on individual commentators to the extent that they act as freelancers, or as journalistic actors who are given free editorial rein. When there's little or no corporate/editorial pressure on a reporter or columnist, s/he is then susceptible to full responsibility for decisions made in terms of coverage, plus individual remarks made in columns or other forums. Why? Because the reporter/columnist is making the decisions and calling the shots. Stuff like that matters when assessing each and every piece of published or broadcast content.
(Take note, readers: Before making overly broad judgments of news outlets and the people who work for them, be sure to go to the top of the food chain at news organizations and ask about the processes and procedures by which various editorial and structural decisions are made. As an example of this dynamic outside of college football, I spent portions of this past summer telling tennis fans to stop airing grievances at individual broadcasters, and to instead convey displeasure about TV broadcasts to the programming directors and CEOs of the networks that televise the sport in the United States. The recent Dick Enberg-Juan Martin del Potro flap at the U.S. Open trophy presentation ceremony offered a perfect case in point.)
The relationship of these parameters to my Saturday remarks should be clear, but let's connect the dots just to be sure: The Weekly Affirmation did not devote time or space to the pregame aspects of Tennessee-Florida or Kiffin-Meyer, so I did not participate in hyping up the game, only to then pounce on Mr. Kiffin in a hypocritical (or hypercritical, for that matter) way.
The larger national media, collectively, does indeed bear a fair share of responsibility... not the reporters on the ground (Thamel, Forde, Shanoff) who put in the hard yards and did the necessary legwork, but the editorial divisions of parent companies who assigned an inflated level of importance to Tennessee-Florida when, in fact, Nebraska-Virginia Tech and Cincinnati-Oregon State (and, one could argue, Utah-Oregon) merited more coverage from a pure matchup-based standpoint.
As for me, I bear full responsibility for the content and tone of my Saturday remarks.
My comments from Saturday's Instant Analysis piece can be found here: http://cfn.scout.com/2/900811.html
On the subject of tone, there's nothing to apologize for. The Instant Analysis pieces--as currently structured--promote the articulation of a briefly-stated, colorful and provocative opinion. Yes, a somewhat sophomoric tone with the literary voice of a message board resident would be inappropriate as a regular form of game analysis, but unless or until readers are (unfairly) subjected to that tonal quality on a consistent basis, they need not think that the quality or content of game analysis have been hijacked or severely compromised. If this becomes a regular pattern, I would deserve a public flogging. Safe to say, future postgame comments won't begin with "Yo (insert head coach's name here)!" That's not going to be a typical M.O.; moreover, it never has been.
But before you think, "Oh, another columnist failing to be accountable... PFFFFFT!! What else is new?!?!", I do have an apology to make. It is made not in reference to tone--which is severely overrated in all aspects of life--but to content, which is grossly underrated. (In our public discourse today, it seems that if one tells the truth with an off-putting tone, one receives far more criticism than if one tells outrageous lies in a pleasant, avuncular manner... that's another discussion for another day, but there you have it in a nutshell.)
The two lines in which I talked about Lane Kiffin's plummeting coaching credentials, and then referenced his acrimonious parting from the Oakland Raiders, give me a profound sense of embarrassment as I read them now. As long as I was chiding Mr. Kiffin for the way he handled himself in relationship to the Florida game--before and during it--I stood on solid ground. By then veering off the straight and narrow path and referencing unrelated events, I took cheap shots that were unwarranted. Mr. Kiffin and Tennessee fans deserve a full frontal apology for those portions of my remarks.
In reviewing the media's role in magnifying this controversy, the takeaway for everyone--the Weekly Affirmation very much included--is that criticisms on both ends of the writer-reader relationship need to be finely calibrated and evaluated. The simple act of criticizing Mr. Kiffin does not put a person in league with Urban Meyer or the Gator Nation. Having a problem with Kiffin's behavior does not mean that a person is drinking copious amounts of Gatorade-flavored Haterade and then spewing it at the Children of the Checkerboard. On the other hand, the need for me to criticize Kiffin did not automatically mean that I could lay into him for reasons and events unconnected to this specific set of Tennessee-Florida facts, figures and forces. I did my own share of line-crossing, and again, that warrants an apology from the Weekly Affirmation.
We're now ready for the final portion of this extended examination of Lane Kiffin and his fun time in Florida.
Part IV. The Right to Speak, The Right to Tweak: Kiffin, Spurrier, Moral Victories, and More
The academic portions of this essay have been largely put to bed. What follows--as we wind our way toward a meaningful and clear conclusion--is a method of debate resolution that would be recognizable in my companion column, the Monday Morning Quarterback. This past Monday, the MMQ looked at the ins and outs of late-game strategy on third and fourth down. The column looked at three different endgame scenarios and said that while some universal principles should be followed, each situation should ultimately be viewed on a case-by-case basis. No two endgame situations are exactly the same, even if the outward numbers say otherwise.
So it also is with the behavior of coaches, moral victories, and many other aspects of human psychological warfare that were on display over the past several days in this Kiffin-Meyer dust-up.
One thing that needs to be established is that I'm actually a believer in moral victories. They occupy a considerable place in big-time competitive sports. This doesn't mean that winning is overrated; it's more a view in which "losing at a high level" is underrated.
"Losing at a high level" typically acquires one of two forms: A) A team loses big in a championship game, attaining second place, but bearing the sting of being exposed to an embarrassing extent on a grand stage; B) A team with some degree of stature loses a vigorously-contested competition by a very narrow margin. If a team (or individual) loses under one of these two circumstances, I feel that the team (or individual) merits a great deal of praise... not more than the winning side, but certainly an amount of praise that's greater than any level of criticism. (Criticism is fine, but a larger amount of praise should accompany a "loser at a high level" in most cases.)
NOTE: If you want to read a column on those who lose at a high level, Google "Matt Zemek Dear Buckeye Fans" and click the "I'm Feeling Lucky" tab on Google's homepage. This piece represents my endorsement of moral victories in sports.
In assessing Lane Kiffin's words and actions before, during and after this 60-minute slugfest against Florida, one ought to match the man's actions with his team's results, and compare Kiffin's deeds with his credentials:
Why was I so upset with Kiffin immediately following this game in Gainesville (and still am)? Let's start from the beginning, shall we?
When he was announced as Tennessee's new head coach, loose-lipped Lane said he'd look forward to singing Rocky Top after beating Florida this year (see Part II, above). Well, Vol fans, this is nothing personal, but Tennessee simply didn't beat Florida.
I'm not inventing facts out of thin air or viewing your program in a negative light; if the national media ran with the bloodbath/rout/slaughterhouse angle, that's not my fault. The bottom line is that Mr. Kiffin spoke of VICTORY in his first (and widely-replayed) press conference back in December of '08. He didn't attain that victory, and he didn't even come within one score of doing so. That's a first measurement of the extent to which Kiffin's words far exceeded the sum of his and his team's deeds, even if they did surpass the expectations of many.
Tennessee's performance didn't surpass Kiffin's own words from his first press conference, which--it should be noted--was followed in February of 2009 by false accusations directed Urban Meyer and his own ethical track record (which isn't spotless, but isn't in renegade territory worthy of a Dennis Erickson or a Barry Switzer). With all this in the background, the 34-year-old head coach should have kept his mouth shut after the game and in the following days. Plainly, he didn't. Not good, Lane. Not good at all.
A second measurement which shows Lane Kiffin to be a far smaller man than his braggadocio would suggest comes from his assessment of his psychological tactics, specifically the view that his tactics were "perfect," as quoted in Pat Forde's column.
If a coach's tactics are "perfect," one would like to think that the coach's team actually managed to.... you know... WIN the game in which his team was competing. Kiffin did, mind you, have every right in the world to say that his tactics worked "really well," or "better than I had a right to expect," or something of that nature, but to have the unmitigated gall to say that they were "perfect" tactics is beyond the pale. Again, one ought not be viewed as a Tennessee-hatin', Florida-lovin', Gator apologist with a severe case of Phil Fulmer withdrawal to hold such an outlook. If a person acts rather foolishly and speaks with a foot in his (or her) mouth, that should be called out in the naked light of day.
People skeptical of any anti-Kiffin criticisms might think that they're fueled by the underlying fear that Tennessee might whip up on Florida in the coming years, once Mr. Tebow leaves. (I'm not ignorant of such a sentiment or the real psychological jujitsu attached to it.) First off, there is the possibility that that could happen--no sense in denying it or wishing it away. Then again, a lot of readers hammered me when I took Mike Gundy to task for his memorable YouTube-ing of reporter Jenni Carlson two years ago; Oklahoma State was going to mop up on the recruiting trail and zoom up the charts, so the refrain went. Well, two years later, no dice.
This doesn't mean Tennessee won't climb the heights; it only means that hopes of a Lane Kiffin conquest of the SEC are partly if not predominantly fueled by wishful and unfulfilled thoughts at this point. We've yet to see truly solid evidence of a Tennessee revival. We'll all know when (if) the Vols are ready to re-join the big-boy table.
A final word on this subtopic--namely, that fears of a Tennessee resurgence are motivating current anti-Kiffin sentiment--needs to be added to the mix: From this perspective, it seems patently foolish for Kiffin to make an enemy out of Urban Meyer. The Florida coach has already established a track record of smacking down opponents who dare get frisky or combative with him. This leads to the next--and perhaps, the most fascinating--element of this essay: Stephen Orr Spurrier, the elephant in the room.
Other columnists have compared Lane Kiffin to Steve Spurrier, and on a superficial level, there are many obvious similarities: They both coached professionally at an early age (Spurrier in the USFL, for those who didn't know); they're both evidently gifted; they both ran their mouths a lot in their younger years; and they both became quick studies at tweaking Southeastern Conference rivals once they became head coaches in the SEC. More specifically, they loved tweaking the other side in the Tennessee-Florida rivalry. Naturally, there are some connections between the two men and their styles.
However--and this is where we really get down to brass tacks--surface similarities cannot replace, or be equated with, the larger and more precise realities of the circumstances in which Spurrier and Kiffin acted and spoke in colorful and controversial ways. Being rigorously honest and unerringly factual demands a lot of discipline and attention to detail, and it just so happens that the facts--largely, but not entirely--show that Steve Spurrier knew how to wage psychological jujitsu a lot better (and in an honorable manner befitting a ruthlessly competitive but fair sportsman) than Lane Kiffin currently does.
Spurrier, you see, developed his penchant for pot-stirring, rival-rousing, opponent-infuriating methods from a master: Sun-Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher whose precise lifespan is a subject of debate, but who left behind The Art of War, a seminal study of how to defeat an opponent in mortal combat. Spurrier read The Art of War, and for most of his career at the University of Florida, the "Head Ball Coach" exhibited the self-assured serenity that unnerved the fans of other SEC teams. Yes, this serenity was not in evidence whenever Spurrier would slam down a visor or a play sheet, but it poured forth in press conferences and other occasions when Spurrier would deliver a barb and not flinch from its consequences or effects.
Why is Spurrier substantially different from Lane Kiffin? Simply stated, the results speak for themselves.
Spurrier began winning at Florida as soon as he took over. The Gators were officially stripped of their 1990 SEC title, but history can't change the fact that when the league staged its 1990 season, the Gators had a better record in the SEC than any other team. This track record of success continued through most of the 1990s, which gave Spurrier the leverage and the credentials that won for him the ability to talk a big game. Spurrier has never been one to enjoy moral victories, it's worth pointing out; but if Spurrier ever tweaked a foe--and he did with appreciable frequency--he almost always pounced when he was the heavyweight in the fight, not the lightweight or the underdog with something to prove. Spurrier tweaked from a position of strength reinforced by results. This shows that he knew how to fight fairly, even if he fought quite aggressively.
To be rigorously honest and unflinchingly fair about all this, there were occasions when Spurrier clearly violated his own code and failed to meet his (and Sun Tzu's) standards: In 1993, Florida lost to Auburn, but won the SEC partly because Terry Bowden's Tigers were ruled ineligible for the SEC Championship Game. Spurrier was on the short end of the stick relative to Auburn, but that didn't stop him from making a widely-circulated quip--something about Auburn and coloring books--before the 1994 rematch between the two teams. When Auburn went into the Swamp and dealt Spurrier his first home loss as Florida's coach in an SEC game, the iconic Gator looked really bad. He talked big from a position of weakness, and then couldn't back up his claim.
That Auburn debacle was one of a few notable events from Spurrier's Florida career in which the Head Ball Coach carried himself with all the dignity of a horse's hind end. In the longer run of history, though, those kinds of moments represented the exception, and not the rule. It's worth noting that since he's come to South Carolina, Spurrier has become much more muted and has not spent recent seasons tooting his own horn. Why? Simple--because he knows that he hasn't earned the right to talk smack or twist the knife in a rival's side. Spurrier, you see, knows the score. Lane Kiffin, on the other hand, doesn't.
Sure, Tennessee fans must emotionally love the fact that they now have a man who's willing to throw back some attitude at the Gators after all the years of being poor-mouthed, but the unfortunate reality is that unless or until Lane Kiffin wins at the Swamp (as opposed to losing by 10 points) or does something to establish equality with the Gators, he can't yet crank up the volume with any degree of credibility. If the roles were reversed in this rivalry with Florida, and Mr. Meyer was the newly-hired Gator coach who talked about winning in Neyland Stadium, Meyer would be every bit the fool that Lane Kiffin actually is at this moment.
Plainly put, if Mr. Kiffin had won this game in Gainesville, he'd have had every right to crow. If Monte's son had an SEC title or a win over Florida already under his belt before this past Saturday's tussle, his collected statements and actions wouldn't have caused nearly as much of a stir as they ultimately did. If Lane Kiffin had produced a track record of substantial achievement as a head coach, his actions would be seen in a more positive light. If this 34-year-old sideline boss had opened his first Tennessee press conference by hoping for a close game this year at Florida, or for a win over Florida in 2011 or at a future point in time, the controversy wouldn't have spiraled out of control. Alas, Mr. Kiffin didn't do any of those things.
As was the case with Steve Spurrier in relationship to Auburn in 1993 and '94, Kiffin talked big from a position of weakness and then lost. It's only when a team "loses at a high level," and has already forged a body of work which merits respect, that its coach can tout a moral victory. This should be obvious, but it's entirely understandable that the fiery passions of youthful gameday exuberance would hamper a college football community's ability to see and apprehend an unvarnished and often inconvenient truth.
Tennessee fans, let's put it this way as I wrap up and leave you to slowly digest this column in its totality: Isn't it supposed to be a sin--not a true sin against God or morality, but a sin against the unwritten code of Southern football coaches--to talk a big game before you've done enough to earn stature, cachet and credibility as a man and as a member of a very select fraternity? I give you the example of former Georgia football coach Jim Donnan.
Donnan was constantly hyping up his teams before each individual season. He told his fan base in Athens that the Dawgs were going to climb the mountaintop and break through in the SEC East. He spoke of a brighter tomorrow, and how things were going to change for the better. He never delivered... never, at any rate, to the point where his UGA teams reached the SEC Championship Game. Donnan didn't coach poorly, it must be noted; UGA eventually did beat your Vols after many years of falling short, and in 1997, Donnan defeated Florida in what was the greatest single-game triumph of his UGA career. However, because he talked big before he won championships--championships he never ultimately attained--Donnan didn't receive a long leash from his fans. Mark Richt, Donnan's successor, knows how to take the humble route, and humility--in the hot-headed and violent world of college football--is most definitely a virtue, and an underappreciated one at that.
An essential read on a calmer, more measured perspective in college football appears here: http://tinyurl.com/n9f7jm
In closing, there are legitimate moral victories, and--on the other hand--false moral victories. There are times when a losing coach has a right to trumpet his methods and speak well of a day's performance, and there are times when one has to be muted, hushed, and entirely conciliatory. Results--real results, winning results --are not the be-all and end-all of college athletics, because there's a definite place in all of sports for moral victories. With that said, one does need to win and achieve at a fairly high level before one can then view moral victories as positive entities. Steve Spurrier and Lane Kiffin might seem like one and the same coach, but on a purely substantive level, they're very far apart.
It's pure coincidence, Vol fans, and not a pro-Florida or anti-Tennessee conspiracy hatched in the mind of one supposedly devious college football columnist armed with a computer keyboard: The facts of recent history plainly indicate that two of Florida's last three head coaches (Ron Zook being the exception) have earned more of a right to talk, and to shape proper public perception, than Lane Kiffin has. If the facts on the ground change, and Tennessee climbs back to the Rocky Top of college football, the calculus then changes as well... and most assuredly, football-based criticisms of Lane Kiffin's tactics will quite abruptly cease to exist.
It's really rather simple, good people of Tennessee: Just post some impressive results first, and THEN engage in a Spurrier-esque tweaking of the Gators, ribbing them and Sun-Tzu-ing their minds into a state of frenzied panic. If you win ballgames and establish credentials worthy of your program, you then earn the right to hound your rivals from Gainesville on morally, ethically, and situationally solid footing. In other words, there's a right way and a wrong way to fight... in football, in marriage, and in many other aspects of human activity.
Learn to fight the right way at the right time, after you've paid your dues. Steve Spurrier did that, Jim Donnan didn't, and Lane Kiffin evidently can't begin to sniff such pigskin wisdom, waiting to be found amidst the tumult and shouting.
Educate your coach, Vol fans, and make healthy distinctions about moral victories and the times in which they can be validly pointed to as measurements of on-field success and public-relations superiority.
Is that too much to ask?