Behind the scenes of Lane Kiffin’s wild return to Tennessee

by | Oct 18, 2021 | Driving Ranges

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee – Lane Kiffin stood outside the visitors’ locker room at Neyland Stadium in the early hours of Sunday morning, proudly twirling a battered yellow range ball looking for a new visor.

He’d just thrown his old visor at the cheering Tennessee fans when he’d left a field littered with water bottles, vape pipes, screws, a half-eaten apple, and even an empty mustard bottle. He kept the golf ball as a keepsake but felt like he owed the fans of the Vols their own keepsakes.

“The Tennessee fans there in the tunnel all said ‘F — you. F — you ‘so I throw my visor on them … and they all start arguing about it, ”Kiffin told ESPN. “Maybe everyone doesn’t hate me.”

Lane Kiffin caught a water bottle on the way out of Neyland Stadium – and threw back his visor 😅

– ESPN (@espn) October 17, 2021

Maybe not, but what is not controversial – after one of the wildest and ugliest scenes in recent college football history on Saturday’s 31-26 win over Tennessee by Ole Miss – is that Kiffin Knoxville is leaving as head coach, all hell is breaking the end.

“Just when you thought everyone had moved on and made up,” Kiffin said jokingly. “Nothing ever gets normal. Welcome to my world. And we all thought it was crazy when I left here 12 years ago.”

In January 2010, when Kiffin left Tennessee after just one season for the USC head coaching job, drunk students ran amok and burned mattresses on campus when the news broke. Even an impromptu press conference that Kiffin called to explain to fans why he was leaving broke into chaos. Members of the media yelled at each other and argued over what part of Kiffin’s comments appeared on camera while he waited in an adjacent hallway.

Then on Saturday, when Kiffin was back at Rocky Top for the first time as head coach, fans littered the Ole Miss sideline with debris of all kinds after a controversial point in a fourth down game by the Vols just before the first down marker .

The game was delayed by 20 minutes as security staff evacuated the Ole Miss sideline and sent coaches and players into the middle of the field. Ole Miss cheerleaders also had to be removed from the sidelines, and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey issued a statement condemning the “actions of the fans”.

When the nearly five-hour marathon was finally over, a composed kiffin gathered his players in the locker room and told them it was the much maligned Ole Miss defense who “really won the game for us,” which caused a huge cheer.

Brianna Paciorka / News Sentinel / USA Today Sports

But the loudest cheers came when Kiffin thanked his players for the way they had mastered the entire circus, from setting it up to his return to the bottle-throwing circus at the end of the game.

“I haven’t said anything all week,” Kiffin told the players. “That was a big deal personally, of course, so I want to thank you guys.”

A chorus of players yelled back, “We have you, coach.”

Kiffin, who went out of his way to praise the passion of Tennessee fans even after dodging bottles and golf balls, couldn’t hold back. He grinned crookedly and said, “It wasn’t about me, but I just want to say, ‘Take this, you 100,000 fans.'”

The locker room broke out again, and Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, his face smeared in black, nodded his head in agreement and pointed in the direction of his head coach.

“I’ve been feeling what this game meant to him all week. He was trying to hide it, even from me,” said Corral, who passed 231 yards, stormed 195 yards and threw two touchdown passes. “He did a great job because if he had tried to do it to us it could have been a different result.

“It was never about Coach Kiffin’s revenge tour or whatever. It was about us getting in here and getting a win together and he set the tone for that.”

Corral took a close look at Kiffin’s souvenir golf ball.

“I saw him put it in his pocket,” Corral said. “He’ll save it, and he should. I think it was his parting gift from the fans.”

2 relatives

The night before the game, Kiffin had one of those “Twilight Zone” feelings. His suite at the Hilton was exactly the same as he was staying in when he was introduced as the coach of Vols on December 1, 2008.

“They brought me in and I remember sitting in the same suite watching Coach [Phillip] Fulmer’s last game and seeing how the players carried him off the field, “said Kiffin, who was officially unveiled two days later.

Kiffin joked with agent Jimmy Sexton that he could hit town the Friday night before the game and even trolled Tennessee fans on Twitter that night with a picture of Rooster’s Sports Bar, one of Kiffin’s favorite spots when he was training in Tennessee.

Kiffin’s father Monte and sister Heidi made the trip to Knoxville and met some friends for dinner on Friday night. It’s the only road trip Monte, now 82, is planning for the season.

“I didn’t want to miss that,” he said, repeating something he’d told several people over the years.

“I still say we should never have left here. So many good people and a great place to live, but Lane just couldn’t say no to USC.”

While Kiffin didn’t make it Friday night, he did a few laps on Saturday morning. He attended a yoga class that has become a staple of his life after losing more than 30 pounds and having a regulated health kick. He also stopped by to visit a few friends and even took a picture of his old lakefront home in West Knoxville.

“Of all my coaching stations, this was my favorite house,” said Kiffin.

Kiffin was part of some electrical environments at Neyland Stadium but said the one Saturday was as good as he saw it, both before and during the game.

Calvin Mattheis / News Sentinel / USA Today Sport

“You could tell when we got here they were ready,” he said.

It was Tennessee’s first sell-out since 2017. The Vols fans checked out the stadium in a checkerboard pattern, and the atmosphere on the campus tailgates was like the old days when the Vols competed and won championships.

Patrick Palmer and his son Ryan came to the game from Tewksbury Township, New Jersey, and met up with longtime college friends.

“The return of Lane Kiffin is a big part of the reason we chose this game,” said Palmer, who played baseball in Tennessee. “What is really eating you up, however, is that when our program went it was set back 10 years. We’re still trying to recover.”

Rusty Rathburn, who lived with Palmer in the old East Stadium Hall dorm, traveled with his son Luke from Portage, Michigan, who has become a rabid Tennessee fan.

“It’s almost like we’ve been cursed since Kiffin left and we couldn’t break that curse,” said 17-year-old Luke.

Some of the really young Tennessee fans frowned at just mentioning Kiffin’s name.

“He’s a traitor,” said 11-year-old Parker Cates, who was at the game with his father Tripp and younger sister Addie.

But in many ways, reflecting the feelings of some Tennessee fans to this day, Parker eloquently explained why there is such a love-hate relationship between Tennessee fans and Kiffin.

“My dad told me that if he hadn’t left we would have gone to the SEC championship game at least a couple of times, so I want to hit his butt,” said Parker, adding that he’d be okay with Kiffin coming back.

“But I like Josh Heupel better.”

AJ Crigger, who wasn’t even born at the age of 10 when Kiffin was the head coach in Tennessee, also heard all of the stories from his father, Blake, who played baseball in Tennessee.

“I hope he breaks four headsets and we won’t let him toss his hand in this game,” said AJ, while meeting his father before the game.

When Kiffin first returned to Tennessee as an Alabama offensive coordinator in 2014, he said Alabama security officials tried to convince him to wear a bulletproof vest under his coaching gear.

“You kept talking to me about it, but I didn’t want to,” he said.

And no, he didn’t think about wearing one this time, although he could have used some protection in the final 54 seconds as the Ole Miss sideline became a “driving range target” for golf balls and everything else.

“I think it was mostly college students and then you get 100,000 people together and with all that energy things don’t go like that, they get upset,” said Kiffin, adding that the fans’ outrage at the end of the game was likely addressed to the officials as well as to him.

Either way, as the stands filled up and the pre-game energy built up, Kiffin admitted that he thought back to the 2009 South Carolina game when the Vols wore black jerseys and No. 22 South Carolina and Steve Spurrier 31-13 angry.

“I had a similar blackout feeling like I had in South Carolina when we beat them here,” said Kiffin. “I just remember running out of ‘T’ and thinking, ‘Whoa!’ But this time I was on the other end. “

Despite serving twice as the offensive coordinator in Alabama at Neyland Stadium, Kiffin admitted that returning as head coach was different.

“It really didn’t work out until the game got going and then the fans went a little bit crazy,” he said. “There were a lot of people who said, ‘You’re No. 1’ [holding up middle finger]. I said, ‘Hey, thanks.’ “

Kiffin made an impressive one-handed hook on a bottle that was thrown at him as he left the field. He was also showered with a bucket full of popcorn.

The popcorn signs were everywhere before the game.

“I’m getting my popcorn ready to watch the lane train jump across the track,” said longtime Tennessee fan Scott Gilmore.

In this case, the lane train rolled on to Ole Miss’ best start (5-1) since his 2015 Sugar Bowl season.

And despite some Tennessee fans’ rude goodbyes, Kiffin said there were no hard feelings. At least not by his side.

“It’s a bit like an ex when they say, ‘Oh, I’m really over him or her’ and then when they see a person with their new wife or new husband, which in this case means the football team, lose your mind and go crazy, “said Kiffin. “Maybe that has something to do with it.

“But I’ve always admired the passion of these fans.”