Every year rivals gird themselves for a new battle, but at no time does either side claim that a rivalry doesn't exist. Now a new fissure has boiled up in college football. Only neither team will acknowledge the hate and each team claims to be publicly unaware of the actions of the other. Yep, college football has its own version of the cold war. The USC Trojans and Tennessee Volunteers, two nicknames rooted in war, commendations from conflagrations, can't stand one another and won't acknowledge that fact.
College football's answer to Helen of Troy?
The Trojans spirited away Kiffin, his father Monte and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron, in the depths of last season's recruiting season. Immediately Lane of Troy went to work on Tennessee's proposed roster, snagging away several erstwhile Tennessee football commitments like five-star wide receiver Markeith Ambles and four-star linebacker Glen Stanley. All the while, Kiffin flashed his open palms in the direction of the Volunteer state, disclaiming all responsibility for dirty recruiting.
Across the length of the Volunteer state, tempers flared. Leaving was one thing, but leaving and attempting to take the recruiting lifeblood of the program with him?
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Vengeance was demanded.
And now, just more than five months after Lane of Troy's departure, new Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has struck in the wake of USC's probation, snagging a rising junior defensive end, Malik Johnson (pictured), and the nation's top punter and a former USC commit, Matt Darr.
Malik Jackson, who tallied 3 1/2 sacks for the Trojans, poured some gasoline on the fire by telling Rivals' USC site, "Yeah, I just decided to transfer to a better situation." A better situation that left the USC staff infuriated. Monte Kiffin, playing the role of King Priam in this ancient fable, steamed over the decision. Of course, Monte/Priam should know all about bad decisions. After all, it was Monte's rash decision to leave behind the NFL and join up with his unproven younger son that has led him on a peripatetic football journey from Tampa to Knoxville to Los Angeles all in the space of a year.
Word is that Malik Jackson might not be the only USC Trojan considering spurning the left coast for the SEC. We'll see whether more defections arise, but rest assured that Dooley and staff continue to gleefully work the back channels as the new season looms.
For now, Malik Jackson is the most popular addition to the Tennessee football program since Derek Dooley arrived in Knoxville.
Meanwhile, the cold war extends to the athletic departments where USC has yet to return a signed contract for a 2021 and 2022 home-and-home football series that was announced in the halcyon early days of Kiffin's tenure at Tennessee. Perhaps the contract got lost in the shuffle of paperwork associated with the probation, or maybe both teams are having second thoughts about bringing each team to campus. After all, Layla Kiffin believes that Tennessee fans want to eat her children. Do you really think she wants to return to Knoxville?
Think of it as a repeat of the boycotted 1984 Olympics Games.
Only with more hate.
Just like the Cold War, neither team actually enters into combat. Knoxville is Moscow, if you're from Los Angeles, a strange and threatening place where the Sunsphere doubles as all-seeing camera. Malik Jackson? The spies live among us, who is next to defect? The same holds true in Knoxville, where Grauman's Chinese Theater is a sun-drenched Red Square. There's a glaring iciness, an absence of perestroika, no Gorbachev and Reagan to make everyone friends again. SALT Treaty? Meet college football salt in the wounds. USC got nuked by the NCAA and Derek Dooley actually got to pick over the refuse left behind in the wake.
Oh, look, there's a nice defensive end.
I'll take him back to Knoxville.
I'm sure champagne being delivered on ice to the UT football complex for a dramatic reading of the USC probation report is just a rumor.
Presently, both sides are masters of the oblique reference, a non-naming namedrop direct from the Cold War playbook, "A good headline in February or March isn't going to win you any football games," Dooley said in June.
But a good defensive end in July?
That might help you win some football games.
And you know what else?
It might also help USC lose a football game.
A Cold War daily double.
What's more, Derek Dooley and Lane Kiffin don't like each other. Their public silence bridges a deep discord, the still waters at the top hiding a frigid cold war beneath. The two share too much in common, both young and the scions of proud football fathers who have accomplished much more than either of them. Dooley's father won a national championship, Monte Kiffin won a Super Bowl as the greatest defensive coordinator in NFL history. Lane and Derek have combined to go 12-21 and 17-20, respectively, as head coaches.
Vince Dooley won 201 games by himself.
Each head coach looks at the other and sees what he's secretly afraid he is, someone who got to where he is based on his last name as opposed to what he's actually accomplished.
So the sides continue to wage war, never acknowledging the chasm between them.
How pronounced and deep is this cold war?
It has Lane Kiffin, a man who has never been quiet for anyone, keeping quiet.
For now, Malik Jackson is the latest prize, a totem for Derek Dooley to point to as a sign of his victory in the war without a name. He's Dooley's own star, the man who traveled through space to snag a cold war victory, Malik Jackson and Matt Darr meet Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik.