There are a number of reasons Tennessee football has fallen off the map since firing Phillip Fulmer in 2008, but one that has always stood out was what his successor, Lane Kiffin, did barely over a year later. Kiffin bolted the Vols for the USC Trojans after just one year.
UT was set back significantly because of that not just due to the failed hires that followed but due to what happened to the roster. Attrition from Fulmer to Kiffin to Derek Dooley combined with a bust of a 2009 recruiting class wrecked the program for years.
All of that has always led fans to believe that Tennessee football would have returned to prominence had Kiffin stayed in Knoxville. One person who also seems to believe that now is Kiffin himself based on what he recently said.
In a USA TODAY Network interview with Blake Toppmeyer, Kiffin says he thinks he’d still be on Rocky Top if the USC job hadn’t opened up. Obviously, if he were still there 12 years later, that would have meant he saw a ton of success with the Vols.
On a deeper level, though, there is reason to believe him. Despite all of his brashness and issues that rubbed so many fans the wrong way back then, it seems pretty clear that he always wanted to go back to USC. Even when he was in Knoxville, he could never stop talking about the run he had as Pete Carroll’s assistant there from 2001 through 2006.
Simply put, that area was home to him. Although he grew up all over the country with his dad Monte Kiffin traveling so much as a defensive coordinator, almost his whole adult life was in California before heading to UT. He attended college at Fresno State, was an assistant at USC and then spent two years as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
Taking all that into account, it’s incredibly believable that USC was a uniquely special place for him and that he truly would have stayed with the Vols had that job not opened up. After all, what other job would have been competitive with UT out in California during that time unless it was an NFL job, which he wasn’t going to get?
Now, another question truly is whether or not Kiffin would have been able to keep his job with Tennessee football. As we mentioned earlier, that 2009 recruiting class was a bust. Would future recruiting classes have fared better? We don’t know.
It’s also worth pointing out that while at USC, Monte Kiffin’s defensive schemes began to get figured out. Don’t forget he then had a horrendous stint with the Dallas Cowboys after that and hasn’t been a coordinator since. Could Kiffin have overcome the combinations of that bust of a recruiting class and Monte Kiffin’s eventual failures?
Then, of course, there is the NCAA investigation that was happening at the time, which dealt with a number of secondary recruiting violations Kiffin committed in his one year on Rocky Top. That could have come back to haunt him.
Taking all that into account, it’s hard to state he’d still be Tennessee football’s head coach 12 years later. Kiffin was just a bit too brash and probably would have made too many mistakes. However, 2009 was a fun year with him at the helm, and a few more fun years probably would have followed without that USC opening.