Can a guy like Kiffin with a 5-15 coaching record – 0-0 at the college level – swim in SEC waters and not wind up being shark bait? Perhaps. There is reason for some optimism. Here's why:
Kiffin will not be going head-to-head with Saban, Meyer, Richt, etc. Instead, Kiffin's STAFF will be going head-to-head with Saban's staff, Meyer's staff and Richt's staff. Being a college head man in today's climate is more about delegating than about actually coaching. If you have good people around you, that's half the battle. And Kiffin, from early indications, is going to have very good people around him ... like his dad, Monte, soon to become UT's defensive coordinator.
When a coach has quality coordinators to do the bulk of the on-field coaching, he's way ahead of the game. That's why Phillip Fulmer's best seasons came when he had David Cutcliffe running the offense and John Chavis running the defense. Fulmer's records during those years was 64-13 (an 83.1 winning percentage), compared to 88-39 (a 69.3 winning percentage) the rest of the time.
The head coach of 2008 bears little resemblance to the head coach of 1948. Bob Neyland didn't have to concern himself with fund-raising, booster clubs, promotion, availability to media, public appearances, radio and TV shows, endorsement deals, summer camps, coaching clinics, etc.
Clearly, Fulmer had to do a lot more public relations and a lot less hands-on coaching than Neyland ... or Bowden Wyatt ... or Jim McDonald ... or Doug Dickey ... or even Bill Battle and John Majors, for that matter. The head coaching position has evolved into more of an overseer-type job in recent years.
That's not to diminish the role of the head man, of course. He still has to make the tough calls that ultimately determine the direction of his program: Do you dismiss the kid arrested for DUI or give him one more chance? Do you run off the assistant who isn't productive or give him more help? Do you recruit kids with "issues" over kids with less ability but more character? Do you go for it on fourth-and-inches from your 40-yard line? Do you start the flashy freshman ahead of the fifth-year senior who has paid his dues?
Ultimately, Kiffin's youth should serve him well in that Tennessee is a rebuilding job that will require a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm. His youth will help him on the recruiting trail and it will earn him more patience from the fan base (although not A LOT more).
What concerns me about Kiffin's youth is that he has so few head-coaching experiences to draw from. Everything Fulmer encountered this fall was at least similar to something he'd encountered previously in 16 years as a head man.
Conversely, Kiffin will encounter things next fall that are new to him. He won't have the benefit of hindsight – "Oh, yeah, I remember how I handled that before," or "Man, I don't want to go down THAT road again." At times like these the new head man must rely on his instincts or an experienced advisor (maybe his dad). If his instincts and/or advisor prove reliable, Kiffin should do fine.
If not ... well, there could be some rocky times ahead on Rocky Top.