Kiffin Shatters SEC Coaching Mold
You know Kiffin, the man who brought a Molotov cocktail to the SEC tea party, the guy who coaches like tickets have to be sold for the latest WWE event. You halfway expect for him to enter press conferences wearing orange tights, grab the mike, scream invectives at his rivals, then spike the microphone, kiss his biceps, and leave without taking questions. Kiffin coaches college football like Vince McMahon helms the WWE, it's all about creating a buzz.
In six months, Kiffin has soaked up all the news in the college football atmosphere. We can argue about whether that's deserved, given that he hasn't even coached a game, or whether Kiffin's every comment is being treated as bigger news than it is because ESPN just ponied up a princely sum to carry SEC athletic events, and nothing sells better than a crazed renegade running around with a chainsaw in America's most storied conference. The Southeastern Conference is a place where they name streets after coaches, not where coaches moon opposing teams as they drive by. But what all of this attention has missed is something more profound, Kiffin represents a new generation of SEC coach, and people haven't gotten a handle on that yet
If you wanted to define SEC coaches as if you were an archeologist poring over data, the layers would look something like this (and the dirt would overlap quite a bit, but I think you'd see a clear demarcation):
Regional coaches who graduated from the school --From Bear Bryant at Alabama all the way up to Phil Fulmer at Tennessee. These were Southern men who helmed their schools after graduating from the institutions, homegrown boys who became men on the fields of the colleges they'd grown to love. Men without flash or substance who didn't particularly care for the media. Their quotes are emblematic of the time. Think of Bear Bryant saying, "I left Texas A&M because my school called me. Momma called and when momma calls, you come running."
This era ended in the SEC when Tennessee fired Fulmer. Never again will we see the likes of Fulmer's press conference where he broke down crying on national television. That era is over. The SEC has gone national.
Mercenary national coaches -- Florida's Urban Meyer is the quintessential mercenary, a man who arrived at Florida with no connection to the program and cooly selected the Gators over Notre Dame because he believed it would be easier to win a national championship there. Meyer isn't alone, his hiring set off the trend to look towards men like Bobby Petrino or Nick Saban. Proven coaches who ride into town and immediately announce that their word is law. They set up residence in a baronial mansion and set about constructing a team that can compete for a national championship. They aren't Southern, they're just very good at what they do.
Currently, everyone is chasing Meyer. But Meyer and the other mercenaries, men who bear no connection to their schools or states, share the same staid demeanor of the regionalists. They disdain controversy, consider nothing to be more important than football. While they're mercenaries, they play by the public rules of the regionalists, genuflect at the high altar of Southern college football. While the coaches have changed, the game hasn't. No one has walked into the room, thrown their boots up on the table and struck a match off the end of that boot.
Except once before.
And that man was named Steve Spurrier.
Spurrier demands his own crazy circle. He upset the SEC apple cart when he rolled into Gainesville. A regionalist by era, Spurrier played for and graduated from Florida before taking the helm of the Gator program. But he didn't play by the rules of the regionalists. Spurrier was the P.T. Barnum of college football, a one-man band, a wrecking crew of epic proportions who never met a quote he didn't like, or an insult grenade he couldn't flippantly toss over his shoulder as he walked away from a meeting.
After the explosion, he'd grin and say, "What, me?"
Even if your team got crushed by Spurrier, you liked him. Hell, my team could never beat Spurrier and I couldn't help laughing when he said you couldn't spell Citrus without UT or pronounced the 1996 Vols, who lost to the Memphis Tigers, Knox County Champions. That was genius, and it made football fun, helped strip away the overdone grandiosity that can, at times, threaten the fevered excitement of SEC football. We ain't playing golf down here.
On the field, Spurrier's fun-and-gun offense revolutionized the SEC, took a brand of boring rushing football from the 1970's and brought it into a new era. Every SEC team that has won a national championship since 1990, when Spurrier arrived at Florida (Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, yes, Florida under Meyer), owes a portion of their national title to Spurrier's forcing the SEC to step up their offensive and defensive games and redefine the way football was played. He raised the bar across the region. And he represents his own category of coach.
WWE entertainers -- Spurrier and Kiffin
Only now Spurrier is at South Carolina. Being at the conference's 8th best program and going 26-22 over the past four years there has mellowed Spurrier. Now he's offended by braggadocio. As quick to gig a rival as the last man, now Spurrier quietly stares at golf flags and wonders how his great offenses have been reduced to relying on Stephen Garcia --Stephen Garcia !--at quarterback. Football, at long last, has humbled him. The Spurrier everyone in my generation grew up loving, or loving to hate, is gone.
Enter Lane Kiffin.
There's no doubt that Kiffin is a mercenary. I'm convinced he couldn't have placed Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville correctly in west, middle, and east Tennessee one year ago. But he's also something new, something exciting, a coach who doesn't genuflect at the altar of SEC history and never went to school here. He's just 34. When Bear Bryant died, Kiffin was 7. And living outside the South. There's never been any point in time during which Kiffin wasn't watching sports on television. He came of age in a time when sports was a spectacle sold as high entertainment. He probably bought Wrestlemania on pay-per-view, went to bed at night after putting away his plastic Macho Man wrestler. For him, SEC football isn't life, it's entertainment. And guess what, that's exactly how an awful lot of the top recruits in America feel. Why? Because they've all grown up in the same era as Kiffin.
And that's a seismic departure from everyone who has come before him.
And we all know the wave of change that Spurrier unleashed on the SEC. Spurrier paved the way for almost two decades of Southern football dominance. Everyone raised their games to compete with his teams.
You can argue that Lane Kiffin is too brash, too outspoken not to have won a single game, you can argue that he's a fool. You can point to Spurrier and say that even Spurrier kept his mouth shut until he'd won a few games. I can accept all those arguments. You can even say that putting Kiffin alongside Spurrier is a gross exaggeration of Kiffin's abilities as a coach. I just happen to think you're wrong.
The SEC times they are a changin', and sometimes it takes a mercenary outsider who would make P.T. Barnum blush to make us all realize that the reason we all pay so much attention to SEC football is because it's so damn entertaining. Lane Kiffin is the SEC's newest grenade tosser and while he may not know the stories himself, I know exactly who he is: the SEC's own Br'er Rabbit, the wily rabbit of Southern folklore who could talk himself out of trouble as well as he could work himself into it.
The rest of the SEC keeps on throwing up their arms, gnashing their teeth, and tossing him right back into that thorny briar patch. We all know how that turned out. At least those of us who are Southern do. Rabbits do pretty well for themselves amid the thorns.