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September 2, 2009Dear Coach Kiffin,
Welcome to Tennessee football and, yes, indeed "It's time." But unlike what Sheryl Crow sang about in "All I want to do is have some fun," not only is this not a disco or a country club, but it's also not L.A.
In nine months on the job, you are to be commended for re-energizing a fan base and creating a swagger among everyone who's associated with Tennessee. You have embraced the traditions. You have welcomed in the past by meeting with former greats like Peyton Manning, Al Wilson and Johnny Majors, and you have complimented the efforts and legacy of the guy you replaced, Phillip Fulmer. You have embraced the color orange and made Tennessee relevant in a lot of conversations around the state and around the country.
But like I said, this ain't L.A. It's different and this weekend is unlike anything you will have ever experienced.
The excitement around Tennessee football is always high and, obviously, with your arrival, it is even higher. So if you thought the Vol Walk for the Orange and White game was impressive, just wait.
Just wait till the electricity radiates through Neyland Stadium as the Pride of the Southland forms the human "T" for you and your team to run through. Simply stated, it's an experience unmatched.
And with it all, as you know, comes a huge responsibility. As you have figured out, Tennessee football is front page news 365 days a year. And if it's a big deal in the middle of May, then just imagine how big it is 12 Saturdays a year in the fall. Fans come by land, sea and air to watch their team. In these economic times, for many it's an even bigger sacrifice to come watch the Vols.
But they come because it's their team. It's their program and they have given you the keys to direct it. The responsibility is a big one and if you thought your every move was scrutinized this off-season, wait till Saturday. It won't just be your play-calls that are analyzed. Your emotions during the Vol Walk will be examined. Your attire on the sideline will be a topic of discussion. How you come onto and off of Shields-Watkins Field will be critiqued. People are waiting to see if you really are going to be a "visor guy" on Saturdays.
Some might say it's crazy, but those of us who have been around Tennessee football all of our life see it as nothing but normal.
To understand it better, soak it all in. Witness the Vol Navy roll in on Friday. Understand that fans will be in the hotel lobby on Friday night or Saturday morning to get a glimpse of you, Eric Berry and others. To try and put it in simple perspective for you, there are probably 50 USC car flags waving on a Friday on the 405 in Orange County. In Knoxville, there will be 5,000 cars with flags on them. There will be another 5,000 in West Tennessee alone.
Trust me when I say it's different.
Pay attention to the excitement on the faces of the kid on the sidewalk taking in his first Vol Walk, as well as the elder Vol fan who has the same look as the kid like it's Christmas in September.
You see Coach, there's a reason why Tennessee football is the lead story 365 days a year. It's the passion of not just a handful, not just of 100,000-plus who can make it to Neyland Stadium, but of literally hundreds of thousands of people.
That's what General Neyland set out to create when he arrived at Tennessee, making the Vols not Knoxville's team, but a statewide team with national recognition as he recruited coast to coast. It's the platform Doug Dickey built his program on when he arrived from Arkansas in 1964 with the creation of things like the Vol Network, the Power "T" on the sides of the helmet and the Checkerboard end zones . And it's what Phillip Fulmer continued to promote during his championship tenure.
Coach, Tennessee football is a book that has been in the works for over 100 years and Saturday you get to start writing your chapter.
The Vol Nation (and Mike Hamilton and the powers that be) has handed you the keys to their car, so to speak, and they don't want you to wreck it. It's very important to them. I know you have a sense of that from the various caravan stops and speaking engagements, but trust me when I say, Saturday will be different.
Everyone understands your single focus is on making first downs and scoring touchdowns, as it should be, and that you are not caught up in things outside of what happens between the hash marks. But don't get so single-minded this weekend that you miss what Tennessee football is all about it. Soak it in.
In the eyes of many, you didn't just take a job to coach a football team, you took on a new way of life. There is a responsibility and a level of awareness that the head football coach at Tennessee has to have. It's what all the successful coaches in years past understood. It's something you have figured out more and more over the last nine months. And any lingering questions about the significance of being the University of Tennessee's football coach should hit you on Saturday.
Because "it" is indeed different than anything you have ever experienced before in the game of football.
Yes, it indeed is time.