I come not to bury Lane Kiffin, but to praise him.
And not in the Julius Caesar sense, either: I’m really excited by what Kiffin’s doing in Knoxville.
An overview of the facts: since 1990, when Steve Spurrier took over at Florida, the Gators are 12-6 against the Vols. The Vols haven’t beaten the Gators since 2004, when Dallas Baker’s late and controversial personal foul doomed them to a 30-28 defeat, and haven’t topped the Gators in Gainesville since 2003, when Ron Zook was playing musical quarterbacks with Ingle Martin and Chris Leak and the Vols got a first half Hail Mary en route to a 14-point win.
The hardcourt Volunteers have actually had more success against the Gators of late than their once-proud football team has, going 11-8 against UF this decade, including 3-1 against the national championship squads led by Joakim Noah.
But most of the Gator and Vol partisans couldn’t care less about the roundball rivalry, or Bruce Pearl’s spell over Billy Donovan: they want to see the gridiron games.
Though Steve Spurrier went 8-4 against the Orange and White, Ron Zook’s 1-2 record against the Vols seemed to shift the momentum in the rivalry. Then that guy from Utah arrived in Gainesville.
With Urban Meyer at the helm, the Gators are 4-0 against the Vols. They’ve won close (a dramatic 21-20 win in Gainesville punctuated by several Tim Tebow runs in 2005) and huge (a 59-20 shellacking in the Swamp in 2007), with offense and defense (the Gators have outscored the Vols 126-53 under Meyer), and with special teams (Brandon James has two of his three career punt return touchdowns against Tennessee).
Since Meyer touched down in Gator Town, Tennessee has led in a game against Florida for exactly 0:00 4:19 of game clock, all in the fourth quarter of 2006′s loss (thanks to Mark and Sean Jean in the comments for keeping me in check), has been held scoreless in seven of a possible 16 quarters, and has notched double digits in a quarter just once. The Vols have committed nine turnovers and scored six touchdowns in this span.
Flip the mirror to the other side, and you find Florida teams that have been held scoreless for a quarter just twice, rolled up a combined 45-6 advantage in first quarter points, and yielded just two turnovers.
Check the boxscores from 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008: it’s very difficult to find any stat that favors Tennessee. Florida hasn’t merely been leading this rivalry since Meyer took over: they’ve crushed the Vols.
And so it’s refreshing to see Hello Kiffin talk tough.
When he was introduced as Tennessee’s head coach in November of last year, Kiffin wasted about seven seconds (which I can only assume were spent beating orphans over the head with kitchen utensils) before tweaking the Gators, saying that the Vols would be “singing ‘Rocky Top’ all night long” after a victory in Gainesville in 2009.
Sure, it sounded a little bold, and perhaps a little disillusioned, given the state of the rivalry, but Urban Meyer’s been refusing to refer to Tennessee and Florida State by name off and on for his tenure, so it was all good-natured fun.
Then Kiffin went on a three-month recruiting blitzkreig, hiring an expensive posse of the SEC’s best recruiters/assistant coaches (like former Mississippi coach Ed Orgeron) and cobbling together a top-15 class while the Vols sat at home for bowl season. The only comparable achievement this year would be Michigan’s class, but Rich Rodriguez had a year to develop a rapport with his recruits; Kiffin crammed all of that into an overcaffeinated ten weeks, which is nothing short of astonishing.
All of this made some people mad.
“This is a recruiting violation, I’ma turn Florida in right in front of you, but as Nu’Keese (Richardson, a recruit UT and UF battled for until Signing Day) was here on our campus, his phone keeps ringing. And so one of our coaches is sitting in a meeting with him and he says, ‘Who’s that?’ and he looks at the phone and it says ‘Urban Meyer.’ Okay, just so you know, when a recruit’s on another campus, you can’t call a recruit on another campus, but I love the fact that Urban had to cheat, and still didn’t get him.”
There is wrong, and then there is the sort of wrong that gets SEC Commissioner Mike Slive to say this:
“Coach Kiffin has violated the Southeastern Conference code of ethics. (The bylaw) clearly states that coaches and administrators shall refrain from directed public criticism of other member institutions, their staffs or players. The phone call to which Coach Kiffin referred to in his public comments is not a violation of SEC or NCAA rules. We expect our coaches to have an understanding and knowledge of conference and NCAA rules.”
Translation: maybe our rep in the SEC is for lawlessness, but you still managed to look like an outlaw, Lane. Oh, and you’re wrong. And an idiot.
Certainly, Kiffin’s basically been throwing insults at everyone of late, including LSU, Alabama, Florida high schools, and, most amusingly, his own recruits, as Dr. Saturday notes.
But as a Florida fan, I’m ecstatic to have Kiffin in Knoxville.
What Kiffin has done in the last 72 hours, besides make lists like this easy, is write the syllabus for a master class on How to Restore Pride in a Program and Reignite a Rivalry. It’s easy for the Gator Nation to point and laugh at the Vols when they’re down, and it was a lot of fun to watch Phillip Fulmer turn into Violet Beauregarde on the sidelines every fall, but an element of danger was missing from the last few years of the matchups.
Ask a Gator fan (and, preferably, one who can name a least a dozen Gators besides Tim Tebow) what the most painful losses of the past 15 years are, and I guarantee the names “Casey Clausen” and “Travis Stephens” surface instantly.
Tennessee delivered the kill shot to Florida’s national championship hopes in 2001 by riding Stephens’ 226-yard performance to a 34-32 win in Gainesville in the rivalry’s only December game.
Casey Clausen directed the Pride of the Southland Band in a rendition of “Rocky Top” after the Vols’ last win in Gainesville. I considered embedding this picture in this article, and then decided it would scar mine and others’ retinas.
Similar to Stephens, Clausen did jack squat at the NFL level. I can’t even find an NFL stats page for him. The second auto-suggestion in Google when you type in “Casey Clausen” is “Casey Clausen where is he now.” (Try it. I’ll wait.)
And yet, these two guys took deep gouges out of UF in years past. Florida faithful hate them for that. It was hard to hate Erik Ainge or Monterio Hardesty or Arian Foster because they didn’t hurt us.
But Lane Kiffin has.
In snaking recruits (Richardson and defensive back Marsalis Teague) from Florida on National Signing Day, Kiffin’s actually won a battle against Florida. That’s a new one on the generation of fat and happy Gators fans who starting following football shortly after the Tebow Child descended from the heavens draped in orange and blue.
Will Leitch’s excellent Super Bowl aftermath post made the point that if your team has to lose, it should hurt:
We now have some tragedy. We now have some pain. Real pain. It feels all right. It feels raw, and throbbing, and palpable. It feels what it feels like to be a sports fan. It feels like I cheer for a team that matters. It feels like we’ve got some hair on our chest now. We couldn’t really compare ourselves to the Bills before, or the Browns, those franchises who have come close enough to taste the nectar. Now we can. Now we’ve had some actual suffering. It’s not just a dull slow ache. We’ve actually bled.
Florida has maybe one of those bleeding losses in the last four years, to Georgia, in 2007, when Knowshon Moreno trampled the Gators, and that was quickly and brutally avenged in 2008; with Moreno and Matthew Stafford turning pro, it seems likely that the loss was a blip on the radar of Florida’s other one-sided SEC East rivalry.
(And in truth, Georgia doesn’t scare or infuriate me as much as Tennessee, because my memory as a Gators fan is filled with carpet-bombings of Vince Dooley’s Dawgs; I was born in the same year the blue swathes start getting interrupted by aberrant red in this chart, and I can only hear and moan at “Run, Lindsay, Run” through YouTube. Nice hair, Fowler)
Florida fans who actually remember the ’90s (and, despite the legions of newly-jorted Tebow-related converts, there are a few) recall the demolition at the hands of Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, the “echo of the whistle” game and other beatdowns administered by FSU, the horrors of Shaun Alexander, and Plaxico Burress running free.
My classmates and my contemporaries, however, don’t have the same sort of hang-your-head-and-curse-the-sky losses, save maybe Auburn in 2006 and 2007, because Florida’s been so good of late.
Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely that Florida, which is putting in new shelves for its cupboard stocked with speed, is going to plummet from the ranks of the elite in the coming years. The 2009 Gators will contend for a national title and could flirt with an undefeated season, and though the 2010 Gators will not have Tim Tebow, there’s a constellation’s worth of Rivals stars behind him and elsewhere on the depth chart. This program will be doing nothing more than reloading the cannons for a long time.
That said, it’s highly plausible, maybe even likely that Tennessee will rise again. The Vols have a huge athletic budget, a young coach drenched in enthusiasm, a roster that’s been slipping, but still boasts blue-chippers like Eric Berry, and a fanbase to rival any in the country. There won’t be a long lull before Tennessee’s a top-10 football team again.
For Florida fans, that should be exciting, and for me, personally, it’s invigorating. One of the few things better in Florida football than beating Tennessee is beating a really good Tennessee team, and Kiffin, come hell or high water, is going to have at least a couple of those squads before his time in Knoxville is through.
I said I came to praise Lane Kiffin, and I will: thank you, Lane, for making this a real rivalry again. You’ve done an exceptional job in gunning the engines of an overturned car and getting it back on the road.
And as for the burial, I believe Meyer, Tebow and the Gators defense have scheduled it for September 19th, 2009, in Gainesville. I’ll be one of the pall-bearers wearing blue.