How will fans respond to Lane?

InsideTennessee gives you the most creative coverage of Vol football to be found. Check out this examination of how Big Orange fans may respond when a former UT head man who abruptly left the program makes his return on Saturday night:

The typical Tennessee head football coach is one step below Deity … till he bolts for another school. Then he’s one step below a common criminal.

Doug Dickey discovered as much in 1970, and Lane Kiffin may experience the same level of hostility when Alabama invades Neyland Stadium this Saturday night.

Dickey went 46-15-4 with two SEC titles in six years at Tennessee but plummeted from folk hero to Public Enemy No. 1 when he left following the 1969 season to take the reins at Florida. It didn’t matter that he played quarterback for the Gators decades earlier. It didn’t matter that his wife was lobbying heavily on behalf of Gainesville. All that mattered to Vol fans was that Douglas Adair Dickey was the most notorious traitor since Benedict Arnold.

As fate would have it, the SEC schedule called for Dickey to bring his first Florida team to Knoxville on Oct. 24, 1970, just nine months after he bolted. Vol fans were still seething, to put it mildly.

“A great many Tennessee loyalists were mad as hell at him for leaving Tennessee to go back to Florida,” recalls Ben Byrd, legendary sports editor of The Knoxville Journal at the time. “The best I remember they booed him when Florida first took the field. He just went straight through it, didn’t pay any attention.”

No wonder. Dickey was too busy trying to slow down Bill Battle’s 11th-ranked Vols, who put a frightful 38-7 beat-down on the Gators. Having satisfied their lust for vengeance, many Tennessee fans decided to forgive and forget at game’s end.

“Doug was cheered by fans in the south end zone as he left the field,” Byrd recalled. “It went as well as it could have.”

Dickey stayed at Florida through the 1978 season but faced the Big Orange just three more times. His 1971 Gator squad lost to No. 12 Tennessee 20-13 in Gainesville. His 11th-ranked 1976 team beat Tennessee 20-18 in Knoxville. His 19th-ranked 1977 squad beat Tennessee 27-17 at Gainesville, irking Vol head man Johnny Majors by throwing into the end zone on the game’s final play. Reportedly, Dickey was not aware of the play call.

Most of Tennessee’s fans eventually forgave Dickey for leaving the Vols. So did Tennessee’s administration, which employed him as athletics director from 1986-2003.

The obvious question: How will the fans respond to the return of Kiffin, who left them high and dry following the 2009 season, much as Dickey did 40 years earlier following the 1969 season?

Best guess: Even worse than they responded to Dickey’s return. Here’s why:

Whereas Dickey stayed in Knoxville six seasons before leaving, Kiffin bolted after just one season.

Whereas Dickey elevated the program to national prominence before departing, Kiffin posted one 7-6 record before locating the nearest exit.

Whereas Tennessee students were upset by Dickey’s departure, they didn’t burn mattresses and gather on The Strip to besmirch his character … as happened once news of Kiffin’s late-night departure leaked.

Whereas Dickey answered a call from his alma mater, Kiffin left to take his “dream job” at the school he previously served as co-offensive coordinator, Southern Cal.

Kiffin has one factor in his favor, however. Dickey had the misfortune to bring the team that lured him from Tennessee to Knoxville just one year later. Conversely, Kiffin never had to face the Vols while guiding the Trojans. Fired by USC after a mediocre three-year run, he caught on as offensive coordinator at Alabama and will make his return to Neyland Stadium as an assistant coach.

Bottom line: If Dickey’s return to Shields-Watkins Field is any indication, Lane Kiffin might want to keep his headset on the entire game this Saturday. Otherwise, some of the things Vol fans will be yelling at him just might melt the wax in his ears.

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