Considering the curious case of recently canned Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin — just named Phil Fulmer’s replacement at Tennessee — the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ray Ratto muses, “he got a job in the NFL his experience didn’t merit, and now he has one in the SEC that his NFL experience didn’t merit, either.” Kiffin, writes Ratto, “will either build an SEC powerhouse in the teeth of more experienced men like Saban and Meyer and Richt and yes, even Nutt, or he will be run out of Knoxville with a vengeance that makes Al Davis’ overhead projector seem like a French tickler.”
Iritating Al could be a noble pursuit in and of itself, but its amusements last only so long. Kiffin’s war with Davis lasted only 20 games, but by the end even the truest believers on either side had seen the catastrophic flaws in both men, and by the end we were treated to notions like a 76-yard field goal attempt that wasn’t about three points but a finger in the eye. The players did not weep when Kiffin left, except with envy. He had the leverage of pushing Davis’ hypersensitive buttons, and an ability to sell himself without a resume.
But in taking the Tennessee job rather than, say, Washington or Syracuse or even Clemson, he decided, as young’uns often will, to fly too close to the sun. The SEC is not for the faint of heart, or the superficially clever, or even the young and energetic. The SEC is where you go after you’ve cut your teeth on something tougher than Davis’ disapproval, and unless Kiffin has a lot more game than he ever showed in Oakland, he’s picked an awfully big elephant to ride.
He is following an unpopular coach in Fulmer, but also one who lasted 17 years and won a national championship; in Oakland, he followed Norv Turner. His stadium will have 107,000 fans in it each week, while the Raiders fight hard to get to 60,000. There are no shades of gray in Tennessee football, where every win is the minimum standard and every loss an affront to an entire state. In Oakland, the fans have been beaten down well enough to feel good about beating Kansas City.