Sunday, March 1, 2009

KING RAT

I know I spend a lot of time ragging on big-time college sports, but I can’t help it. Every time I want to take a break I come across something else that’s appalling.

That’s what happened last week while I was waiting in my orthopedist’s office to get the last in the annual series of shots that keeps my right knee more or less functional. There I picked up a Sports Illustrated magazine and was introduced to Lane Kiffin, the new head football coach at the University of Tennessee.

I’d subscribed to SI for most of my life, and it’s, but let it lapse several years ago after it began editing itself primarily for ADD sufferers. But this piece, by John Ed Bradley, was meaty enough. The most remarkable thing about it was what its subject, uh, volunteered, apparently without undue prompting. When trailed by a magazine writer taking notes, most people try to put their best foot forward. Not old Lane. This guy is a piece of work, and not a pretty one.

I’d heard of Kiffin before, but sketchily. He’d made his coaching bones as an assistant to Pete Carroll at the University of Southern California, so impressing Al Davis that in 2007 he made him head coach of his NFL Oakland Raiders, when Kiffin was but 31 years old. That gig lasted one full season and first four games of last one, after which Kiffin was bounced with a cumulative 5-15 won-lost record.

Not only did Davis fire him, he also made a point of saying it was “for cause,” meaning that he wouldn’t willingly be paying what was left on Kiffin’s contract. That’s unusual. Among the things Davis called Kiffin in an all-around-unusual press conference was a liar. Davis is 79 years old, and some believe he’s a bit dotty. Even so, a stopped clock is right twice a day.

In some professions such an ouster would raise red flags, but not in coaching. Kiffin immediately jumped to the head of the college game’s “A” list and was interviewed for the top jobs at Clemson, Syracuse and Washington, among other schools. In late November he got the nod at Tennessee. That fiiine institution had just bum-rushed Phillip Fulmer, who’d sinned by posting his second losing season in 17 in Knoxville, a span in which he’d won almost 75% of his games (152 of 204), taken teams to 15 post-season bowls and won the 1998 national championship.

Kiffin’s Tennessee salary arrangement, as outlined in SI, is worth noting. Despite his youth (he’s 33 now) and meager credentials the magazine said he might have vaulted immediately to near the top of the head-coaching pay scale in the Southeastern Conference—the $4 million that Alabama’s Nick Saban makes annually—but instead accepted a mere $2 million per with a higher-than-usual allowance for assistant coaches’ salaries. Among the assistants he lured with this lucre were ones from LSU, South Carolina and Mississippi State, Tennessee’s rivals in the SEC crab bucket. Then he crowed publicly about “stealing” the opposition’s “best guys,” calling it “addition by subtraction.” So much for collegiality among gridiron foes.

Once he’d hired the aides, though, Kiffin canned the compliments and moved several into the temporary living quarters he’d taken so he could personally enforce the 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. workdays he demands. “I don’t have to be their buddy,” he told Bradley. “I don’t have time to watch some TV show with them.”

There’s no doubt Tennessee is getting a hard workin’ man for its money. When he took his new job in November Kiffin left his wife and two young children in California. He’s visited them but once since-- for the birth of child number three in January. While he was present in body, however, his mind was elsewhere. “I was in labor and Lane was in the room with me, but he was on the phone the whole time,” his wife, Layla, told SI. “I’m having the baby and he’s recruiting.”

If it’s any consolation to Layla, Kiffin treats others worse. When he returned to Knoxville from California the person who was supposed to pick him up at the airport was 25 minutes late. Kiffin said the first thing he did when he got to his office was fire the man who’d sent the tardy driver. “Here’s the point: We need to win,” he explained. “That was 25 minutes that Nick Saban and Urban Meyer [the Florida head coach] had that I lost because somebody was late picking me up at the airport.”

He showed similar regard for members of the university’s athletics-department support staff he inherited. “You can’t count the number of people we’ve run off because they couldn’t keep up, and I’m including secretaries,” he bragged. “They had to go because they weren’t going to make it, and they knew it.”

There was more along the same lines in the article, but you get the idea. My guess is that Kiffin differs from most of his big-time-coaching colleagues more in style than in substance, but that’s difference enough. I don’t much care about the SEC, but from now on I’m rooting for one S.O.B. there to lose

BUSINESS NOTE: Two new books in my “For the Love of …” series for Triumph Books—on the baseball Mets and Tigers—are on the shelves, or will be soon. They’ll join the eight others already there, on the Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox. St. Louis Cardinals, Ohio State U. football, Green Bay Packers, golf and baseball Hall of Famers. All are illustrated by Marvelous Mark Anderson. Check them out on amazon.com. They make swell gifts for less than 15 bucks and you can say you know the guy that wrote them.

2 comments:

Mike Levy said...

Fred,

Yet another gem! Will forward this to my daughter in law in Florida, as she is a big Tennessee fan.

The guy may indeed be a sleaze ball, but if you look at the success of the SEC of late, i'm sure that it takes a certain degree of devotion, dedication and yes, ruthlessness in order to achieve the number of national titles they have won. Not that I'm condoning his actions or giving him a free pass.

Congratulations on your latest publications. You're a quality guy and a great writer. All the very best...

Mike Levy

Mike Klein said...

Kiffin is obviously in need of a sense of perspective--here's hoping the likes of Alabama, Auburn and Florida provide it for him quickly...

MK