Kiffin All But Official

If reports from ESPN are correct Lane Kiffin will be named Tennessee's new head football coach as early as Monday, ushering a new era that promises change on a monumental scale whether he proves to be a boy wonder or falls flat on his baby face.

To say the least he's not the safe choice, that is to say a proven winner as a college or NFL head coach, but as a recruiting analyst might say he's got great upside, dazzling skills and star quality. Mike Hamilton may not hit a home run with this selection but he is clearly swinging for the fences based on Kiffin's potential.

However also comes with questions, not the least of which is his 5-15 record as Oakland Raiders head coach. Then there's his age. At 33 Kiffin would become the youngest Division I head coach replacing Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald for that distinction by about six months. However he's five years older than Bill Battle when he became Tennessee head coach in 1970 so such a reach is not unprecedented.

There's the fact he's a west coast guy having played quarterback at Fresno State where he also served as graduate assistant followed by seven years as an assistant at USC before his stint as Raiders head coach. He grew up in Minnesota but doesn't have an association with the south before the Tennessee job.

The counter to that is his proven prowess as a recruiter an ability that should only be enhanced as head coach. Kiffin has recruited the south and is credited with developing USC's philosophy of recruiting nationally despite an ample in-state supply within easy reach. He recruited Goodpasture All-American Patrick Turner to USC, depriving the Vols of a much needed five-star receiver.

Kiffin's accomplishments as a recruiter are a big part of the reason he was hired. Tennessee's recent failures to recruit against Alabama, Georgia, Florida and LSU has relegated the Vols to second tier status in the SEC.

Some attribute UT's drop off to SEC opponents recruiting better but it's just as easy to say opponents are recruiting better because they are having more success on the field. There were always good recruiters at the other SEC programs, but the Vols had success because they were winning big and contending for national titles — which is leverage in the living rooms of prospects.

There's also the fact other programs in the SEC have closed the facilities gap. Tennessee is staying on top with a massive construction and remodeling project, but it takes turnstiles turning, cash registers ringing up licensed merchandise and donors donating to keep the coffers flowing. The slipping stature of the program was threatening to become an economic crisis.

Some of the diminished excitement around the program has followed in the wake of the 1998 title run. An offense that entertained as well as it produced in Fulmer's early years became predictable and inefficient especially after 2001 which was the last UT team to be in national title contention.

That's when Tennessee's attendance at bowl games began to drop and wins over ranked opponents in Knoxville became virtually nonexistent. Attrition among the blue chip stockpile also began to increase which meant the recruiting rankings rarely matched Tennessee's end of the season rankings. There was a decline in talent at the skilled positions and playmakers became extinct outside of Robert Meachem in 2006. What's the last jersey number of a UT player to become popular among fans?

Add to all of that heightened expectations due to Nick Saban's success at Alabama, Urban Myers at Florida and both of Tennessee's basketball teams. The top team in the NFL resides just 200 miles west. The Vols are also victims of their own success which hasn't been matched by an SEC title in a decade.

Getting Tennessee turned around is about more than hiring assistants, recruiting players, installing a system, and developing talent, it's also about energizing a fan base that, with all due respect, is suffering from Fulmer fatigue. It happens at most schools where a coach achieves longevity but doesn't maintain an earlier level of success. It happened to Houston Nutt at Arkansas and he had been there six years less than Fulmer. It happened to Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. In some respects it happened to Spurrier at Florida as the Gators talent level became to fall and it was five years past their last national title.

That it didn't happen to Fulmer sooner is testimony to his popularity and identification as one of Tennessee's own, a status Johnny Majors enjoyed to an even greater degree given his family's legacy at UT. You'd hear criticism of both coaches but you didn't hear fans question either man's love or allegiance for the Big Orange.

Kiffin will have no such built in loyalty and any equity he accumulates will begin from the moment he steps in front of the microphone and accepts the job. He'll be selling himself to the fans, to the team, to commitments, to prospects and to the media. He becomes front man for Tennessee football and the face of Volunteers. He will present a contrast to Fulmer's father figure persona, but he has an engaging manner and his background in the NFL and at USC combined with his father's fame as one of the game's top defensive coordinators gives him a certain gravitasthat belies his youth. He will be tested immediately and thoroughly over the next several months. Then he'll begin the acid test next fall.

It remains to be seen if Lane Kiffin can live up to his promise and to the success of his predecessors Majors and Fulmer. If he does there may be a street in UT's future named Kiffin Lane.

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