Kiffin May Be A Keeper

If rumors of Lane Kiffin's imminent rise to the football helm on The Hill are rooted in reality — and there are strong indications they are — no one can accuse Mike Hamilton of playing it safe.

Naming Kiffin to fill the job held by such luminaries as Robert R. Neyland, John Barnhill, Bowden Wyatt, Doug Dickey, Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer, is like calling a play-action pass on fourth and one from your own 10 in a tie game.

After all it would take a riverboat gambler to replace a head coach with a 151-52 record in more than 16 years of SEC warfare with one who has a 5-15 record in a brief and bizarre NFL stint, and no experience as a college head coach.

There's also the fact he's only 33 and his most noteworthy achievement — going 23-2 and to a pair of Rose Bowl appearances as USC offensive coordinator — is compromised by the fact he didn't have autonomy to call plays. He's spent most of his career on the west coast and played backup quarterback at Fresno State. He was an 18-month toddler when Johnny came marching in early 1977 and a college senior when the Vols captured the 1998 national title. He's 10 months older than Peyton Manning.

There are many counterpoints in Kiffin's favor, but unless he goes great guns from the beginning at UT, Hamilton's choice would be open to broad criticism especially from the Nintendo nation of Vol fans that would rather watch Mad Mike draw up pass plays in a one dimensional offensive scheme than see a balanced offense that features a strong running game. Never mind that Leach's Texas Tech offense didn't produce more wins under Howitzer Hal Mumme at Kentucky. Or that the SEC is loaded with defenses as good and better than Oklahoma put on the field last week against the Red Raiders in Norman.

Hyperbole aside there are some very practical reasons Kiffin makes sense and could turn Hamilton from a man under the microscope to a man on a mantle — an A.D. who hit a homer with another great hire.

• Unlike anyone else being discussed Kiffin can start immediately and he has an excellent track record as a recruiter. He also has recruiting contacts throughout the country thanks to his service as recruiting coordinator for the Trojans. His NFL experience and youthful energy should be attractive to top athletes with an eye on a professional football future.

• Kiffin's steeped in football through his father Monte Kiffin, Tampa Bay Buc defensive coordinator and one of most highly regarded tacticians in the game. Lane's brother is an assistant at Nebraska. That background gives him a unique perspective on the game from a cellular level. It has been reflected in the wide variety of coaching positions and responsibilities he has held. It also gives him an extensive network of industry associations from which to quickly assemble a quality staff, including perhaps a former head coach who can provide sage counsel.

• KIffin is a hardworking coach with an upbeat nature and a good sense of humor. (A requirement when working for Al Davis.) The youngest head coach in NFL history he has a winning personality that should translate as well to the public as it will to the team and prospects.

He projects a successful image and deftly handles the press. He is the type that may take to the spotlight that falls on such a high profile position like the proverbial duck to water. It's also worth noting that most of the Raiders who played for Kiffin spoke well of him and blamed Davis for the discord that has been linked to eccentric owner's tendency to tamper and micro manage the team. Davis also fired Mike Shanahan after a 1-3 start only to see his former head coach take Denver to back-to-back Super Bowl wins.

Tennessee has a history of promoting and hiring assistants as was the case with Doug Dickey, Bill Battle and Phillip Fulmer. Battle was the tender age of 28 when he was promoted to head coach to replace Dickey . So Kiffin couldn't be as controversial a choice as Battle who was five years younger and an Alabama alum without coordinator's experience never mind head coaching experience.

Battle coached for seven seasons and finished with a career record of 59-22-2. The youngest head coach in NCAA football he went 31-5 his first three seasons and everyone worried about him leaving for Alabama, but when he went 28-17-2 over a steady four-year decline no one cared where he went only how soon he left. That's when the moving vans were sent to his house and a For Sale sign appeared in his yard.

Ultimately Tennessee fans don't care how old you are, what you have done or where you came from as much as they care about where you can take the program and how soon you can get it there.

When you think about it maybe Lane Kiffin isn't such a risk.

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