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The Kiffin mess and looking ahead hopefully


Like most people, my first reaction to Kiffingate was WTF? I mean that generally, not as some final moral response. Though Petrino faced a very different situation prior to leaving Atlanta, Hog fans would be engaging in some low-grade hypocrisy if we piled on with the rest of the scolds. Sanctimony is a vulgar pastime, but for a fanbase that experiences that faint tickle of doubt every time a big job comes open, fulminating on the immorality of careerism should be anathema anyway.
(BTW: I give little credence to rumors that Petrino turned down the job; can you imagine a worse fit for the shiny celebrity atmosphere at USC?)

I feel sorry for the incoming Vols, as sorry as any fan of an opposing program could feel, but it's probably best that Kiffin, an unproven coach so emblematic of the recruit-centered mania of modern amateur athletics, gave truth to his own lie. The frenzy of recruiting season — the shameless courtship in thrall to an arbitrary star-system — falsely situates players at the center of what is finally an impersonal, corporatized hoax. Recruiters value rankings, not the players themselves. At least Kiffin left those few recruits unlucky enough to have already enrolled in class at Tennessee more aware of their place in the scheme of things.

At the same time, he was only following his muse. Kiffin knows as well as anybody that the Trojans dominate the Pac-10 through recruiting alone. That's what's so attractive about USC. Kiffin certainly didn't leave Tennessee because USC is a better program. He left the SEC because he's afraid of real competition. Good coaching certainly has its place in the Pac-10, but it's a conference that can turn on the strength of one player. So yeah, the best recruiters might want that job. But the best coaches want to be in the SEC exactly because it's an unforgiving conference, one that cannibalizes itself most years, presenting teams with a gauntlet of competition unlike any other.

So I didn't lose a lot of sleep over Kiffin. No need for SEC fans to suffer any identity crisis over his retreat to the west coast. But I was a little worried about one aspect of the Knoxville business: What did it mean for Steve Caldwell?
Caldwell, our new D-line coach, has never made any bones about his allegiances. Of course, he's a Razorback now, but he was a Volunteer for years. If the Vol faithful scrambled back to Fulmer, or someone with Fulmer connections, what would keep him from pulling an Ellis Johnson on us?

Thankfully, SEC-scion Derek Dooley landed the job, largely on the condition that he keep most of Kiffin's abandoned staff in place, and Caldwell remains on a Razorback staff that should leave nothing in doubt about our potential. I'd call all of Petrino's off-season hires home runs. Caldwell was the most pressing addition to the staff, but key replacements on what is generally viewed as the stronger side of the ball make me think we'll be even more dangerous than expected next year.
Despite a backfield that could make Batman's utility belt seem understocked, our running game never took shape this season. Petrino's stubborn commitment to getting it started made itself apparent in his playcalling, but we never had much luck blocking for the run. Chris Klenakis should change all that. His O-line at Nevada paved the way for three of the Wolf Pack's ball carriers to break 1,000 yards this past season, a feat never matched in NCAA history. We have at least four backs capable of hitting that mark, though one of them's gonna have to learn how to break a few tackles along the way.

Petrino's old buddy from Carroll College, Kris Cinkovich, has a similarly impressive resume. After nine highly successful years as a high school coach in Las Vegas, experience that will be a recruiting asset even outside of the Nevada region, he coached the most prolific receivers in UNLV history as an assistant. Add to that documented success his familiarity with the Petrino philosophy, and you have the makings of a seamless transition at wide receivers coach. If he can also cure our periodic bouts with dropsy, he'll more than make up for the absence of Paul Petrino.

Speaking of dropped passes, let the Heisman campaign commence. The only things standing between Mallett and a trip to New York are a top-10 finish and a better completion percentage. Both those things are as much up to him as the rest of the team. If he can reign in his impulse to go for broke on every down and take a little heat off his short-yardage game, then I bet we won't even have to toot his horn for him.

Well, that's all for this season. As much as I would love to spend the next three months navigating the troubles of our basketball program, the editors think maybe their readership could do with one less depressing subject in their pages this year, or at least one less inconsequentially depressing subject. Hell, we could all do without the doom and gloom for a while. A Boy Named Sooie will return in early-August for the football season.

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