Kiffin reacts to fan reaction

Tennessee fans felt hurt and betrayed. Tennessee players felt abandoned. Tennessee students felt so angry that some gathered outside the football complex and shouted obscenities.

None of this surprised the object of their anger, Lane Kiffin. He issued a one-minute public statement Tuesday night confirming that he is stepping down as UT's head coach to accept the reins at Southern Cal. Big Orange Country has been in turmoil ever since.

Prior to meeting the press last night, Kiffin met with his players - many of whom already had heard rumors of the head man's impending departure. He wasn't surprised by their reaction.

"It was mixed ... very understandable," he said during an impromptu meeting with three reporters in the UT football complex earlier today. "You guys (media) have been around me a short time but understand that I don't react to things very quickly. I let them set in."

One player reportedly shouted, "You're not my coach" during Tuesday night's meeting. Others also reacted angrily to Kiffin's decision to leave after just 13 months in charge of the program.

"I wasn't upset by that," the coach said. "It was mixed. There were some guys hugging and some guys really upset. I understand that."

Some of the players whose tempers flared during the coach's goodbye speech apparently cooled down as time passed.

"I could even see (healing) through the night," Kiffin said, "as I would get texts from some guys kind of apologizing, saying 'Coach, we understand now.'"

Some players who "bought into" Kiffin's rhetoric last August obviously feel they were sold out by his hasty exit. They made the total commitment to the team the coach requested but now feel his commitment was lacking. Kiffin says he understands their frustration.

"As time goes by they understand more and more," he said. "They're young kids and they don't have families and they don't understand all the different aspects of making decisions. It's not as easy as 'this school vs. that one.' There's a lot of things that go into that: The support of the places, the dynamics of contracts. You can't get an 18-year-old to understand that."

Based on calls to Knoxville's radio sports-talk shows, many fans don't understand, either. Some seem hurt by the coach's abrupt departure. Others seem downright enraged.

"I understand," Kiffin said. "If they weren't upset I might be upset. If they weren't upset, it means we didn't do a very good job. I take it as a positive that people are upset because it means we were doing a good job. It means they wish we were here. I completely understand."

Kiffin assisted at USC from 2001-2006 but was not considered a leading candidate for the head coaching vacancy when Pete Carroll recently resigned to take the reins of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. When Southern Cal was turned down by some of its prime targets - including Oregon State's Mike Riley - Kiffin advanced to the top of the list.

"My understanding was that there was only one other person they approached, and that was Mike," Kiffin said. "I don't even know how far that went. I know this happened really quick."

Because of his background with the Trojans, Kiffin thinks he'll fit in quickly.

"It was an easy transition for them because all of the people involved already knew me," he said. "It wasn't an interview process. I never went out there, I never met with any of them. It couldn't happen that fast if you didn't already have relationships out there."

Kiffin reeled in a strong signing class last February, guided Tennessee to a 7-6 record last fall and had another quality signing class in the works prior to his resignation. How much of that class can be salvaged now remains to be seen but he believes the Big Orange will do just fine without him.

"I think Tennessee will be great, as it always has been," he said. "I know that we improved the program by the roster and what's coming in, especially a number (eight) of these mid-years. That's phenomenal.

"With as many guys as left in that senior class, that (getting some mid-term enrollees) was very important. That will make spring ball here a lot more competitive. Whoever the coach is I know is going to have a dynamic class."


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