In February of 2009, just a few months after Lane Kiffin's tenure began at the University of Tennessee, Vols senior center Josh McNeil walked into the Neyland-Thompson sports complex on the university campus. He paused alongside the Vols 1998 national championship trophy and shook his head in disbelief.
"They'd replaced our highlight video from the past season with Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, and Dwayne Jarrett from USC. I was like, 'Man, I know we were 5-7 last year, but this is Tennessee. Right beside our national title trophy? Come on, man.'"
Walking up the stairs, McNeil, a 6-foot-4 280 pound offensive lineman, says that all the televisions in the complex, at least 20, were tuned to still photos of stellar plays featuring USC athletes. In particular, McNeil paused in front of one photo of Reggie Bush diving into the end zone on a sunlit California field.
"I was thinking, 'Damn, Jamal Lewis went here. Travis Henry went here. It ain't like we never had any running backs of our own.'"
Within a day the pictures and video were down, but the message had been sent. A new era had dawned in Knoxville.
A few months later after witnessing what McNeil said he believed were affronts to the Tennessee tradition that upset him, the player confronted Kiffin. "Coach," he said, "I feel like you're intentionally not embracing UT's traditions."
Kiffin smirked. "Well, whatever Tennessee's been doing isn't working anymore, so we're coming up with something new. Get used to it."
When Kiffin said, "something new," he meant exactly what USC had already done before, McNeil told FanHouse. Multiple team sources confirmed McNeil's claims.
By Junior Day, March 2, 2009, Kiffin had his first crop of potential players, hundreds of then-high school juniors on Tennessee's campus.
The players were divided between offense and defense and placed in front of highlight videos that were designed to show them the Tennessee way of playing football.
As the offensive players sat down on the field, a video flashed on the screen with a word in bold:
McNeil watched. "I was thinking, maybe we're going to see Dan Williams block against Kentucky that got us into the SEC championship game (in 2007). That was a pretty huge play."
Instead a USC play featuring Reggie Bush opened the montage.
Another word flashed on the screen.
More USC highlights followed.
"All the way back to Carson Palmer," says McNeil. "I mean, really, Carson Palmer is explosive?"
At the end of the video, Lane Kiffin addressed the recruits.
"We're going to make this the USC of the South, and the USC of the East Coast," said Kiffin.
McNeil did not hide his disgust. "I was sitting right there and it broke my heart. I came to Tennessee because we were Tennessee, not because we were pretending to be somebody else."
"And you know what else? Out of all those clips there wasn't one Oakland Raider highlight. Not one. Now [the Oakland offense] is the same offense, you know? You ever think maybe it has something to do with the players?"
A drum begins slowly beating in the back of a Tennessee meeting room.
Coach Ed Orgeron, UT's recruiting coordinator, steps to the front of the room.
"One heartbeat," he growls.
The drum beat gets louder and faster.
"I'm about to teach y'all our special team cheer," Coach Orgeron said to a gathering of Tennessee players.
Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.
"We're going to be crazy about special teams here."
"Now when these two Bushwackers run through the door, you rip your shirts off and scream as loud as you can. One side of the room yell, 'ST,' and the other side yell, 'wild boys.'"
The doors burst open, and two graduate assistants on the football team, walking like the Bushwhackers from the old WWE wrestling days, arms gesticulating awkwardly in front of them, begin madly stomping about the room.
Coach Orgeron screams, "What's the first thing you do before you get in a fight?"
"You take your shirt off!" he screams.
Then Coach Orgeron rips off his shirt in front of the team.
The drumbeat is incessant, loud. Players stare at one another.
Coach Orgeron begins to lead the cheer.
"ST!" he screams.
"ST," the team responds.
"Wild boys!" Orgeron screams.
"Wild boys," the team responds.
"Damn, I felt like an idiot with my shirt off," McNeil says. "So did lots of the older guys."
But some of the younger players believed the chant was very cool, McNeil said. It fired them up.
At least it did until they realized that the "new chant" the UT coaching staff introduced to the players was a retread.
"It was a USC thing," McNeil says, "I took an official visit there. They used to say, 'SC', and the other side would say, 'wild boys.' They came to Tennessee and they changed SC to ST for special teams. How lame is that?"
Eventually the shirtless drills fade out.
"We didn't get as hyped up as they wanted us too, everybody would just laugh," says McNeil, "We just all kind of thought it was weird."
That year for spring practice, Lane Kiffin instituted a new rule, profanity was permissible in the songs they would play as the players stretched.
As UT players got loose and children visiting practice ran along the sidelines, hardcore rap lyrics blared alongside Kid Rock anthems.
The current players had no issue with the cursing, some liked it.
But several former UT players were offended when they brought their young children to the practice and heard the music, according to team sources interviewed by FanHouse.
Kiffin didn't care.
"He told me that's how they did it at USC," McNeil says.
As the start of a new season neared, Kiffin and crew focused on their continuing makeover of the Vols.
It was time to practice their team chants.
Kiffin said, "When we're on national TV about to come out of the tunnel, we've got to make it look good."
The entire team lined up in the end zone as part of fall camp.
One side would yell, "It's war time," while another side chanted, "Let's take it outside."
Tennessee players embraced the new tradition. They believed it was theirs and theirs alone.
Until one of the players found it on YouTube. (A similar video can be found here)
Another USC chant.
This time verbatim.
As the season neared, a new controversy arose: Kiffin did not want to say General Neyland's Game Maxims. The tradition, in which the Volunteer players chant the seven maxims beginning with:
"One: The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win."
And ending with:
"Seven: Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for sixty minutes."
The maxims trace back to the legendary General Neyland, the all-time winningest coach in Tennessee history and the man the stadium was named after.
Kiffin didn't like the maxims, didn't want to do them. For decades they'd been the final words uttered by every Tennessee player as he left the locker room and rushed onto the field.
Always the head coach led the chant.
Kiffin brought in past players and had them lead the team in the chant instead.
Often he was in the coaches' locker room during the chanting. Later, in a departure that altered 70 years of Tennessee tradition, Kiffin didn't take the maxims with the team on the road.
Not a single coach ever said the maxims either, according to team sources.
For McNeil, this confirmed his worst suspicions. "Coach Kiffin cared about Tennessee traditions less than the worst Vol hater in the state of Alabama," he said. "That man's a snake."
But everything wasn't bad at Tennessee.
For instance, there was Lane's dad, Monte, the team's defensive coordinator.
McNeil pauses for a moment, thinks.
"He and Lane had absolutely nothing in common."
Clay Travis is the author of three books. His latest, "On Rocky Top: A Front Row Seat to The End of an Era" chronicles the 2008 Tennessee football season and is on sale now and makes a great stocking stuffer. You have a stocking for Martin Luther King Day, right?