May 27, 2009

Candid Kiffin is good for SEC

DESTIN, Fla. -- Rarely is there a standing ovation for a quarterback's cadence or a linebacker's defensive calls. A good football play generally features one of two things and occasionally both: a touchdown and/or a violent, bone-jarring collision.

Which leads me to this: Why all the fuss about a war of words between a couple of football coaches from the first week of February? When the guilty, albeit delightfully entertaining, party (Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin) has apologized and endured a seemingly relentless torrent of criticisms and insults?

At Wednesday's Southeastern Conference spring meetings here at the Sandestin Hilton, SEC commissioner Mike Slive during a meeting with the league's football coaches preached from the bully pulpit about the need for decorum and respect of tradition and playing nice. By all accounts, including Slive's, there was nearly as much intensity as a football huddle.

"We've made enormous progress on keeping the news about the players and not about matters that take place off the field. In my own way, I reiterated that to the coaches and to the athletic directors," said the SEC‘s seventh-year commissioner. ""I had all 5-foot-9, 175 pounds of me into every word I said. I can tell you that."

Slive's passion mostly is well-placed and certainly is well-intentioned. But the undeniable fact -- count headlines, SportsCenter appearances, anything that alleviates you merely taking my word for it -- is that Lane Kiffin has been good for the SEC, really good for reporters and great for the University of Tennessee.

Further, isn't there some irony if not downright contradiction in admonishing the coaches of arguably the most violent sport in America to guard their words more closely? Isn't this where the whole sticks-and-stones axiom bears out?

"That's not my job to figure that out. That's the commissioner's job," said Kiffin of the effect words instead of actions should have on the league. "He was very strong today, and we'll obviously follow what he said and always have the best interest of the league in everything that we do."

Yet ultimately Kiffin must place the best interest of Tennessee first; pretty wise since that Big Orange constituency provides the watermarked checks for his $2 million annual salary. The 34-year-old collegiate rookie has shaken the cobwebs of the league's most successful skippers -- Urban Meyer has two of the last three national titles; Steve Spurrier won a national title, revolutionized the SEC and has coached more years in the league than other current coach -- and made Tennessee's football program more relevant for having done so.

And so Kiffin is wildly popular, even if timeout in the SEC penalty box seems inferred -- perhaps for any coach -- should there be another slip.

"I can do both of those things under our legislation. Our commissioner has the ability to do the reprimand and the fine, but I think the message is pretty clear," Slive said. "I have the full support of our athletic directors and we'll have the same conversation with our presidents (Thursday)."

Kiffin has taken his lumps this week; he endured the longest media session of any head coach; absorbed a trite line of questioning that seemed designed to help Kiffin and Meyer exchange friendship bracelets, if not become Facebook pals, and maintained a California cool that prompted more than 51,000 fans to turn out last month for the Vols' spring exhibition.

Still, Kiffin insists he'll heed the commissioner's warnings.

"We're very respectful of what's been done in the league before and (Slive) made a number of good points," Kiffin said. "We respect all of the coaches and all the athletic directors and the programs around the SEC and we'll continue to do that."

UT athletics director Mike Hamilton has made it abundantly clear that Kiffin has his utmost support. And why shouldn't the SEC's resident splinter? He's under everyone's skin. He's given the Vols a national presence in every medium coming off a 5-7 season, the program's second losing campaign in four years, helped ticket sales for the 2010 Tennessee Terrace suddenly exceed projected goals and helped minimize a declining season-ticket renewal base in an economy that's beaten the left tackle and blindside-sacked the public.

Today marks 112 days -- 16 weeks -- since Kiffin prompted all those crocodile tears from the supposedly leather-skinned Gator Nation with ill-advised remarks that Meyer cheated by phoning Nu'Keese Richardson while the four-star Pahokee, Fla., prospect was on UT's campus. I don't remember it being disputed that the call actually took place. Anyway.

It's merely 13 weeks -- 91 days -- until South Carolina kicks off the 2009 SEC slate in a primetime game on ESPN against North Carolina State.

Shouldn't the countdown be looking toward the season, when the nation's best conference tries to defend its third national title in the past four years, rather than on the verbal jousting of its other season -- recruiting?

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