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New USC Coach Lane Kiffin is gone but hardly forgotten in Tennessee

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Kiffin's abrupt departure after one season as the Volunteers' coach continues to stir anger in Knoxville, some of it expressed in creative ways.

January 24, 2010|By Ben Bolch

Reporting from Knoxville, Tenn. — Lane Kiffin is dead here. He's never coming back.

His coffin was made of particle board and painted orange. It rested outside a sports bar and contained T-shirts, ticket stubs, posters and coffee mugs bearing phrases such as "Football in the Fast Lane" and "Get on board the Lane Train."

His wake elicited no tears, only balled fists and raised voices. No one seemed to mind speaking ill of the deceased. The locals called him a hypocrite and said he should be ashamed of himself.

The brash young coach had sparked a different reaction when he arrived a little more than a year ago. He tweaked rival coaches and talked about making Tennessee the USC of the South. He was going places.

And now he's gone after one 7-6 season, pausing only to read a minute-long statement on his way out of town under police escort.

"I know that if he ever comes here again," said Lauren Skelton, a junior child studies major, "it won't end up well for him."

There is no sense of loss but plenty of regret about the man who abruptly left the Volunteers to succeed Pete Carroll at USC. At Moe's Southwest Grill on Cumberland Avenue, the main campus drag, the marquee says it all: "Forget Kiffin. Go Vols."

The coach who rocked Rocky Top might be hard to disregard if the city council approves the proposed renaming of a waste water treatment plant the Lane Kiffin Sewage Center.

In the meantime, four varieties of Kiffin T-shirts can be found on the clearance rack at Rocky Top Books near campus. Originally priced from $15 to $18 each, they are now going for under $5 apiece.

"Some people think they're going to be collector's items," said Ashley Hurd, a store employee.

A hotter item might be a pair of bumper stickers one local resident recently tried to hawk at the bookstore: "Shame on Lane" and "Benedict Kiffen [sic]."

Traditional Kiffin memorabilia certainly could be scarce in this city if a few promotions continue to take hold.

At HoundDogs, a local souvenir and apparel store, fans have exchanged several hundred Kiffin T-shirts for 20% off a future purchase. The shirts are being donated to earthquake survivors in Haiti, plus $1 from the sale of each new shirt with the slogan, "It's time to be a true Volunteer."

The owners of Ray's Entertainment Sports Grille plan to make their own special delivery. They commissioned an orange coffin adorned with a framed photograph of Kiffin and encouraged Tennessee fans to fill it with Kiffin memorabilia such as posters and ticket stubs from the Vols' loss to Mississippi.

Once the coffin is filled, Ray's partner Jimmy Buckner said, it will be shipped to Kiffin's new office in Los Angeles.

Kiffin was pretty much a goner here the moment he announced he was no longer Tennessee's coach. Students gathered by the hundreds outside the athletic complex -- where the coach had said his brief goodbye -- and burned Kiffin T-shirts and other debris while chanting obscenities at the coach.

"It was almost scary," said Kristen Rowe, a junior communications major. "People were kind of out of control."

Students also painted the campus' famed rock with obscene comments directed at the coach and scribbled his wife's cellphone number on it. Tennessee basketball player Renaldo Woolridge, a former standout at North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake High, composed a song titled "Never Leave You Like Kiffin" that was quickly uploaded on YouTube.

To Kiffin, the outrage signified the progress the program had made during his short tenure.

"They saw where it was going," he said upon his return to Los Angeles. "They saw the direction. It was so much excitement there, it was hard on them."

Kiffin also said the USC job was probably the only one that could have uprooted him from Tennessee. His children were born in California, an area his family grew to love in the decade it spent there with the Trojans and Oakland Raiders.

Of course, those words provided little comfort in Knoxville. When the new semester started the day after Kiffin left, a student in Skelton's child studies class acknowledged during roll call that she preferred to go by Lane.

"Everyone goes 'Ooooohh,' " Skelton said, "and the teacher goes, 'That's not a good name to go by right now.' "

That is especially true when your legacy includes secondary NCAA violations and lost recruits because of a departure only a few weeks before national signing day. Some people here even sensed an aversion to the Vol Walk. Kiffin shortened the beloved tradition in which fans line the streets to cheer players as they walk from campus to Neyland Stadium.

"I never felt like he truly bought into the Tennessee traditions," Athletic Director Mike Hamilton said. "There's some things, particularly at a place like ours that has a deep tradition, that are sacred and really important to our fans and our culture. Whether or not he fully understood those, I can't say. My hunch is probably he didn't."

Contrast that with Derek Dooley, Kiffin's successor. who used words such as "britches" and "mama" and "supper" during his introductory news conference. Hamilton said he already feels as though Dooley is a better cultural fit.

But even though some locals say Kiffin left Knoxville in the lurch, they know he will always have a piece of the city with him.

"I think the best part about all of it," student Blake Coker said from behind the counter at Moe's, "is that his kid's name is Knox."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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