Sunday, November 30, 2008

10 Suggestions for Lane Kiffin

1. Convince Rico McCoy and Dan Williams to return

Outside linebacker Rico McCoy and defensive tackle Dan Williams are the only starters Kiffin and his father will have returning from the Vols’ front seven. That is, if the Kiffins can convince them to stay at UT for their senior year.

The sell should not be too difficult as neither is ready to contribute in the NFL nor are they likely to get high round NFL draft grades. However, losing one or both to the NFL could have a catastrophic effect on next year’s run defense.

2. Hold the '09 recruiting class intact

The Vols current freshman class shows very little promise either offensively or defensively, so it is important that Kiffin go to work on the recruiting trail immediately so that the ’09 class does not end up looking like the ’08 one.

Fulmer and his staff had put together a nice recruiting class before he was fired and it seems as most of the recruits that decommitted or showed wavering interest is still in play.

3. Give Trooper Taylor a call

Trooper Taylor was a fan and player favorite over his four years as an assistant coach in Knoxville before leaving to become the co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. Truth be told, had Fulmer taken a gamble last spring and hired Taylor instead of Dave Clawson as his offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin probably would not be taking over this week.

Kiffin is likely to call the plays and manage the offense for the foreseeable future, so you could argue that there is relatively low risk involved with bringing Taylor back to Knoxville as offensive coordinator. Plus, Taylor is a heralded national recruiter who would bring yet another star to Lane Kiffin’s recruiting dream team.

4. Keep a couple of Fulmer’s assistants

Kiffin does not want to risk alienating Vols’ fans or more importantly Vols’ players by dumping every single assistant coach employed by the program. The fact is that Phil Fulmer leaves behind a very talented coaching staff, with the exception of failed first year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson.

Running backs coach Stan Drayton is at the top of the list of assistants Kiffin should consider retaining. Defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell and Defensive backs coach Larry Slade are veterans of the staff that Kiffin would be wise to keep on board. Tight ends coach Jason Michael has a lot of time invested in the Vols’ four tight ends and would also be an asset to Kiffin.

5. Learn everything you can from Bruce Pearl

Pearl mastered the transition from Tennessee outsider to revered family member like it has never been done before. He captured the hearts of Vols’ fans and transformed Tennessee into a football AND basketball state in just three years. Kiffin could learn a lot about salesmanship and leadership from Bruce Pearl.

6. Don't overwhelm the offense next year

It’s expected that Kiffin will bring a pro-style offense to Tennessee. That’s fine, but he should not try to re-teach every single thing these young football players know about the game between now and next August. Dave Clawson tried that and his offense was a miserable failure as a result.

7. Reunite Vol Nation

Kiffin steps in to one of the best jobs in college football, except that at the moment there are still major divisions in the Tennessee football family due to Fulmer’s dismissal just one season after playing for the SEC Championship. It will be important that Kiffin play the role of “uniter “ over the next several months.

8. Promote the Tampa Bay Cover 2 featuring the “Berry and Morley Show”

Defensively, the front seven will be young and no one will have a clue what to expect from the Vols’ offense next year. However, the Vols’ will return the most talented secondary in the SEC featuring two of the finest safeties in the country. Eric Berry will appear on Heisman Trophy lists at the beginning of next season and Demetrice Morley will be yet another in a long line of Tennessee safeties in the NFL.

Kiffin should capitalize early and often on the star power of Berry and Morley in his father’s famous “Tampa Bay Cover 2” coverage scheme. The “Berry and Morley Show” could be the gridiron version of the famed “Ernie and Bernie Show” that shined on the hardwood in the late 70s.

9. Talk to B.J. Coleman about being your team leader

For years now the Vols have lacked outspoken player leadership similar to the type shown by Peyton Manning and Al Wilson in the late 90s. Quarterback B.J. Coleman has the confidence of his teammates and the leadership ability to make Lane Kiffin’s job much easier.

Kiffin should focus his attention immediately on grooming Coleman to be his starting quarterback for the next three years. It’s a move that could pay dividends for Kiffin down the road.

10. Reconcile with Fulmer’s loyalists

Kiffin can’t afford to lose the former players and boosters who were on Fulmer’s side through this whole process.

In due time, Kiffin needs to approach and ask for the support of those who were outspoken in their defense of Fulmer such as Chattanooga booster John “Thunder” Thornton and the numerous former players who expressed disappointment in their alma mater over the decision.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lane Kiffin Era Begins Monday

Monday will mark four weeks since the Phil Fulmer era effectively ended at the University of Tennessee.

More importantly it will mark the beginning of the Lane Kiffin era.

After nearly a month of intense speculation it appears that Lane Kiffin, the 33 year-old football coaching prodigy, came out on top in UT’s “once-in-a-generation” coaching search. In no time the Kiffins will assume the responsibilities of being the Vol Nation’s first family which begs the question, “Does he have any idea what he’s gotten himself into?”

Kiffin and his wife, Layla, have two young daughters, both of whom are headed for a far different life than the one they would have had in Oakland, California where their dad was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Raiders’ fans are something else, no doubt, but it’s still not quite the same thing as the “eat, sleep and drink college football” mentality that exists in East Tennessee.

If any two girls should be okay under such circumstances, it would be two with the kind of football-embedded DNA that Landry and Presley Kiffin have.

Their maternal grandfather, John Reaves, was an All-America quarterback at the University of Florida and played nine seasons in the NFL.

Their paternal grandfather, Monte Kiffin, played football at the University of Nebraska and after coaching the game for over 40 years he is currently one of the highest paid assistant coaches in the NFL.

Heck, their parents met when their mom was working for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their dad was a graduate assistant at Colorado State.

You get the point, the Kiffins know football. The problem is, they may not know much else.

That’s where Lane Kiffin has to prove himself, because being the football coach at the University of Tennessee is about more than just football. It’s also about a proud university, a unique region and a great state.

Phil Fulmer is both a Tennessean and a Volunteer, so serving as an ambassador for the state and the university came naturally to him. For Lane Kiffin the initial challenge of coaching at UT may be greater off the field than on it.

Winning press conferences and the trust of the fan base would be a nice preface to winning football games for Kiffin, who, at first, may have a hard time understanding that football is not a business in East Tennessee. It’s a way of life.

However, taking the reins of a storied program coming off one of its worst years in history will mean that Kiffin’s actions on the field will be under the finest of microscopes.

The first football question the ex-Raiders coach will have to answer is about who he will include in the entourage he brings with him to Knoxville.

Some speculate that Kiffin will lure his dad, who is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator, to Rocky Top to run the Vols’ defense, but given Monte Kiffin’s hefty assistant’s salary in Tampa Bay it’s more likely that former Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron would come on board. Orgeron coached at USC with Kiffin and it has long been rumored that he would reunite with Kiffin wherever he lands in the college ranks.

Beyond filling his staff there is laundry list of tasks awaiting Kiffin over the next eight months.

He’s got a couple dozen recruits that he’ll have to convince to hold their commitment to play football at UT, not to mention there are few key juniors like Rico McCoy and Dan Williams that he’ll need to convince to hang around for their senior year and help him launch UT into the Kiffin era.

Speaking of launching into the Kiffin era, there are a number of major UT donors who are still Fulmer loyalists that Kiffin would do well to win over in the next few months.

And there is one last thing. There is a little bit of a mess at the quarterback position for the Vols, he might need to work on that before next season.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Monday Report: UT Coaching Stockwatch

Vols finally win, Offense Sputters

While it’s safe to assume that Mike Hamilton’s decision on who to hire as Phil Fulmer’s replacement will not be based primarily on the current win-loss record of the coaches on his short list, there is no doubt that several candidates for the UT job saw their stock affected over the weekend.

(+) Steadily Rising- Brian Kelly, University of Cincinnati

Kelly has managed an unstable quarterback situation so brilliantly this season at UC that the Bearcats are now in position to capture the Big East title next week with a win over Syracuse. Despite being forced to use four quarterbacks over the course of the season, Kelly has led Cincinnati to a 5-1 mark in the Big East and a 9-2 record overall.

Saturday’s 28-21 victory over #20 Pittsburgh extended Cincinnati’s win streak to four games and further proved Kelly’s readiness to take on a bigger stage. Since the UT coaching search began Kelly has done everything right to have his name at the top of the list.

(+) Outperforming the Market- Chris Petersen, Boise State

The Broncos survived a scare from Nevada to move a step closer to another undefeated season. Petersen's name was one of the first to be thrown around for the UT job, but he seemed to get lost in the fanfare over newer commodities such as Kelly, Lane Kiffin and Tim Brewster.

A coach with two undefeated seasons in his last three would be very hard to argue with.

(-) Slightly Bearish- Butch Davis, University of North Carolina

There was a time when Davis was considered the most sought after candidate for the Vols’ job despite his constant statements of disinterest. Following two consecutive UNC losses including an embarrassing 41-10 defeat to instate rival NC State on Saturday it is very possible that Davis’ interest in coming to Knoxville has increased as Mike Hamilton’s interest in him has declined.

(-) Oversold Stock- Mike Leach, Texas Tech University

All those Tennessee fans out there who think Leach’s exciting spread offense is the answer to all of the Vols’ problems were served a large dose of reality Saturday night. Oklahoma dismantled the seemingly unstoppable Red Raiders 65-21 in a game that highlighted Leach’s questionable game management skills.

This game served as a reminder that Leach’s success at Texas Tech has been mediocre before this season.

(-) The Bottom Has Fallen Out- Tim Brewster, University of Minnesota

Cross Brewster off your list of prospective candidates to be the next coach at Tennessee. Brewster’s first season at Minnesota was a complete disaster, but after a strong showing on the recruiting trail in the offseason and a 7-1 start to the 2008 season  his stock began to soar.

The hype didn’t last long because Brewster’s Golden Gophers have gone on to lose four consecutive games including a 29-6 blowout loss to Michigan and Saturday’s 55-0 meltdown at home vs. Iowa.

Brewster is probably best served focusing on keeping his job at Minnesota at this point.


Vols Finally Win, Offense Sputters

It was good to see Coach Fulmer win in his last trip to Middle Tennessee as UT’s football coach, but don’t be fooled into giving offensive coordinator Dave Clawson an ounce of the credit.

Week after week Clawson’s offense shows little or no improvement, yet thankfully on a few occasions the Vols’ defense has performed so admirably that Clawson’s ineptitude has been overcome. Such was the case on Saturday as Eric Berry returned an interception 45 yards for yet another trademark "pick six" and Brent Vinson set up a field goal with an interception return of his own deep into Vanderbilt territory.

Those 10 points combined with the 10 first half points scored by the Vols’ offense were enough to fend off the lifeless Commodores.

Saturday marked the seventh time in 11 games this season that Tennessee has scored exactly one offensive touchdown. That pretty much sums up the legacy that Clawson will leave behind.

After Jonathan Crompton proved yet again that he is not ready to play in the SEC, Clawson was forced to do what most coaches would have done eight games ago: put B.J. Coleman in the game. However, Coleman seemed so micromanaged by Clawson’s confused play calling style that he was never given a chance to shine. Coleman was constantly in flux as the G-Gun and Wild Berry packages were shuffled in and out of the game with little success.

Though he had hardly been allowed to throw the ball, upon making his first passing mistake, Coleman was quickly thrown under the bus by Clawson and replaced with the gaffe-prone Crompton. Not surprisingly, the Vols fumbled the ball away within seconds of Crompton’s return to the game.

If nothing else the Vols seemed more motivated with Coleman at the helm than they have been for months. Want proof? The Vols quickly built a 17-0 lead once Coleman went in the game without him completing a single pass. And we all know how hard 17 points is to come by for this Volunteer squad.

In the second quarter the offensive line put together their most impressive drive of the season with Coleman under center and he seems to be just the type of leader capable of undoing the damage that Clawson has done to the offense’s production and morale.

Here’s to next year and B.J.’s bright future.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Titans' 10-0 Start is One for the Ages

Regardless of what happens when Brett Farve’s Jets visit Nashville on Sunday, the Titans 10-0 start to the 2008 NFL season has been a masterpiece. Albeit an incomplete one.

Nevertheless, this Jeff Fisher engineered Titans team deserves credit for what it has already accomplished as its undefeated start may be the most impressive feat a football team in the state of Tennessee has ever pulled off.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, 1998 National Championship included.

Impressive may be a controversial word in this context, especially if you let yourself get caught up in the glamour and pageantry of National Championships, but if you’re interested in degree of difficulty and historical rarity then the 2008 Titans already have the 1998 Volunteers beat.

There are no University of Houston Cougars or UAB Blazers on the Titans' schedule this year as there were on the Vols' schedule in 1998. For that matter there are no Kentucky Wildcats or Vanderbilt Commodores on the Titans' schedule either.

In other words, with a schedule that threatens a loss every single Sunday the small-market Tennessee Titans have won and won and won.

Since 1970, only 10 NFL teams have won the first ten games of the season. That’s roughly one 10-0 start every four years. And in a league that prides itself on parity that far exceeds other professional sports due to a tight salary cap, the Titans win streak is probably more impressive now than it would have been in 1970.

Last year’s juggernaut New England Patriots were the first 10-0 NFL team of the millennium. Now the Titans are the second.

In college football, the number of undefeated National Champions since 1970 is much, much higher. The exact number is hard to pin down because undefeated teams have “shared” National Championships on several occasions, but it's somewhere in the 25-30 range. And that doesn't include undefeated teams that didn't claim National Championships.

This isn’t to take anything away from the Vols 1998 National Championship team, because it’s a rough comparison between college and pro football anyway. Rather it’s an effort to draw a parallel between what’s looking more and more like the state’s two best football teamsever, the 1998 Vols and 2008 Titans.

Unsuspecting quarterback. Great running backs. Stingy defense. Star talent, with a team first mentality. The ’08 Titans and the ’98 Vols have more in common than you’d think. You could even argue that great coaching is a similarity between the two teams, or at least that two great coaches finally had teams that perfectly complimented their coaching style.

In fact, the Titans could learn an important lesson from the '98 Vols. Stick to what you do best, do it one game at a time and let the rest take care of itself. The blueprint for success was laid on a collegiate level ten years ago in this state by Phil Fulmer and his Tennessee Vols. Running hard and playing tough defense, the Tennessee Titans have done a heck of a job replicating that blueprint in the NFL this season.

If the Titans play like they are capable of playing on Sunday against the Jets they will be just the 7th team in NFL history to start the season 11-0. Then history would really be calling if the Titans travel to Detroit to take on the lowly Lions with the opportunity to move to 12-0. Only four NFL teams have started 12-0 since 1970.

The scary thing is that if the Titans get to that point only the Browns and Texans will stand between them and 14-0.

I’m just saying.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Christmas to Remember on Rocky Top?

With each passing day it’s looking more and more likely that the University of Tennessee’s search for a new coach will still be a hot topic of conversation as families gather around the Christmas tree.

Almost every coach mentioned as a candidate for the Vols’ job has their hands full through the regular season and some may not be available until bowl season is underway. So, in the spirit of the upcoming holiday season the “Legit Sports” blog debuts with a list of possible mid-December Christmas presents for the Vol Nation.

In a coaching search that UT athletic director Mike Hamilton guaranteed would spread far and wide, names have been thrown out ranging from Bill Cowher to Todd Graham which leaves room for the possibility that we will all be shocked at who Hamilton introduces at that highly anticipated mid-December press conference.

If the Vol Nation wants a refund on Hamilton’s “gift” this Christmas, it is likely that he won’t last as long as the next coach. However, Hamilton deserves the benefit of the doubt because he has proven to be a shrewd businessman in his time as AD and deserves a lot of credit for bringing Bruce Pearl to Knoxville and keeping him here.

If he pulls off another coaching hire that works out anything like the Bruce Pearl experiment then the Vols could be headed for two-sport dominance rivaled by only Florida and Texas.
Vol Nation, here is your list of potential early Christmas presents…

“A New Car”

Jon Gruden, Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lovie Smith, Head Coach of the Chicago Bears

A car is really the mother of all Christmas presents and a surprising hire of either Gruden or Smith would be the same for the Vols faithful. Both coaches have ties to Knoxville from early in their careers (Gruden was a Graduate Assistant and Smith was the Vols’ Defensive Backs coach in ’93 and ’94) and have at least been rumored to have interest in a major college job.

Both would be grand slams for the University and the football program as they would bring with them the highest level of professionalism and excellent coaching ability, not to mention a Super Bowl ring for Gruden and an NFC Championship for Smith. The next coach is going to have to go head to head with the finest coaches in the country on the recruiting trail and it goes without saying that these two would instantly be tough recruiting competition in the SEC.

“A Nintendo Wii game console”

Lane Kiffin, former Head Coach of the Oakland Raiders

Much like the Wii, the 33-year old Kiffin would be like an exciting new toy for Vol fans this Christmas, but may end up not being worth the relatively high price tag.

Hiring Kiffin would certainly be a bold gamble for Hamilton, but it could generate both fan excitement and success on the field very quickly. There is a lot to like about Kiffin including the record-setting offenses that he coached at USC in 2005-06 and his three consecutive #1 nationally ranked recruiting classes as the Trojans’ recruiting coordinator.

Forget about his short tenure as the Raiders head coach because it was in no way a fair reflection on Kiffin’s ability to coach. He is going to end up being a great coach somewhere and Vols fans may wish they had him five years from now.

“Red Ryder BB Gun”

Butch Davis, Head Coach at the University of North Carolina

The Red Ryder BB gun has been a Christmas favorite for decades for its dependability all around quality. Butch Davis would bring the same things to the Volunteer program and he also seems to be the favorite of many inside the UT athletic department despite his repeated disinterest in the Tennessee coaching job.

While it’s hard to see the program going south on Davis’ watch, he arguably has far less upside than some of the other candidates being mentioned. His reputation is built on his success as the head coach at Miami, but the Hurricanes were still in the Big East in those days which means he still hasn’t had significant success in major conference college football. And even this year at North Carolina, where he has revived his coaching career, all three of the Tar Heels losses came in the fourth quarter on questionable coaching decisions.

At 57, Davis is either past his prime or near the end of it and I don’t see much more than a few 9-4 or 10-3 seasons for him if he came to the SEC.

“$50 Best Buy Gift Card”

Will Muschamp, Defensive Coordinator at the University of Texas

At only 37 years old Muschamp is already a journeyman defensive coordinator after having served in that position at LSU, Auburn and Texas where he is currently Mack Brown’s DC.

In the same way you need to add a little extra money to a $50 Best Buy Gift Card to buy something nice , the defensive specialist Muschamp would need some great offensive minds around him to balance his lack of head coaching experience. He would bring the same kind of intensity and passion to the football program that Pearl has brought to the basketball program, but it’s unlikely that Hamilton risks his own career on a hot-headed college assistant with no head coaching experience.

“The Bruce Pearl Bobble Head Doll”

Brian Kelly, Head Coach at the University of Cincinnati

This would seem like an endorsement of Kelly simply by virtue of mentioning his name in the same breath as Bruce Pearl, but it’s more of a simple comparison of their similarities leading up to their first big break.

Kelly, also a Boston area native, was a big time winner in Division II at Grand Valley State before rebuilding a lost program at Central Michigan and then doing the same thing at Cincinnati. He’s got the Bearcats eyeing the Big East title for the second straight year and he would almost certainly be thrilled to have the opportunity to run a major program like Tennessee’s.

The media in Cincinnati raves about Kelly’s accessibility and his strength as a salesman causes many to compare him to Pearl. More importantly, he would treat the opportunity to coach at UT as the honor of a lifetime rather than a stepping stone to better things in much the same way Pearl has spoken of his opportunity at UT.

“Sweater from Grandma”

Mike Leach, Head Coach at Texas Tech University

He is one weird dude, and he is frankly one weird dude with a less than impressive resume. According to rankings, Leach has failed to bring in a Top 100 recruit since he’s been the Red Raiders’ head coach.

Worse yet is the fact that despite his thrilling offense, Leach has dabbled in Big 12 mediocrity ever season until this year.

An opening like the one at the University of Washington, is more fitting for the pirate-loving Leach.

“Sack of Coal”

Tim Brewster, Head Coach at the University of Minnesota
Todd Graham, Head Coach at the University of Tulsa
Chris Petersen, Head Coach at Boise St. University

Any of these coaches would present a worst possible scenario for the Vol Nation this Christmas. Brewster has mysteriously found his way into the discussion for UT’s new head coach because of some connection he has to the athletic department. Brewster didn’t get his first head coaching job until he was 46 and in two seasons at Minnesota he has managed to go 8-14, yet he is somehow being seen as an up and coming coach.

Graham and Petersen are mid-major gambles that could lead to a revolving door at the head coaching position for the Vols, much like Alabama’s situation over the past decade. Not to mention Petersen’s affinity for Scientology would go over like a lead balloon in East Tennessee. Enough said about those two.