Risky Business: Distinguishing the Lane Kiffin Gambit From Other Noteworthy S.E.C. Coaching Hires

Where was this when I needed it?

Year2, offering a disturbingly apt analogy between Lane Kiffin’s portrayal of an S.E.C. football coach and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, draws this well-reasoned conclusion:

What I am saying is this: please everyone, stop calling Lane Kiffin a bad hire. Unless you have a flying DeLorean in your driveway, you can not possible know whether he is or not. Just call him a risky hire, because that is what he is.

Same goes for you Tennessee fans. Don't call him a good hire, because you don't know that either. Don't try to explain away the risks involved with him either.

I would quibble with that a little---no, we don’t know, any more than any of us knows with utter certainty what the future holds in any case, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make educated guesses---but Year2 makes a fair point in characterizing the hiring of Coach Kiffin as a high-risk strategy that could, but may not, pay huge dividends for Tennessee down the road.

There is, however, one paragraph in the foregoing posting (which I urge you to read in its entirety) in which Year2 takes his defensible thesis a burned bridge too far. He writes:

Despite what revisionist historians might have you believe, Urban Meyer was a risky hire for Florida (modern spread option hadn't yet been tried in the SEC). Nick Saban had risk when hired by LSU (no experience south of West Virginia so few southeastern recruiting ties). Les Miles was a risky hire for LSU as well (most wins in a season prior to LSU: nine, once). Phillip Fulmer had risk when he took over at Tennessee (Majors' departure was messy and Phil was part of it). Steve Spurrier was a risky hire for Florida (bringing first modern pass-first offense to SEC). All of them were risky, yet all of them ended up national champions.

That is hyperbole, and it undermines, rather than underscores, Year2’s otherwise fine point. The hires he mentions were "risky" only in the sense that all hiring and firing decisions (indeed, all changes) are risky because they involve exchanging the familiar for the unknown. To equate any of them with the Lane Kiffin hire, though, is unreasonable.

In 2001, Urban Meyer took over a Bowling Green program that hadn’t had a winning season in six years. The Falcons were coming off of a 2-9 campaign, yet Coach Meyer had B.G.S.U. at 8-3 in his first year and 9-3 in his second. In 2003, he took over a Utah program that hadn’t posted a double-digit victory total since 1994. Coach Meyer’s Utes went 10-2 in his first year and 12-0 in his second.

In 1995, Nick Saban took over a Michigan State program that hadn’t finished above .500 in four years. The Spartans never had a losing record under Coach Saban, attended four bowl games in five years, and enjoyed a nine-win regular season in 1999.

In 2001, Les Miles took over an Oklahoma State program that had posted exactly one winning record in the previous twelve years. By the end of Coach Miles’s second season, the Cowboys had beaten Oklahoma twice and made it to a bowl game. His third year produced a nine-win regular season and a Cotton Bowl berth.

Steve Spurrier brought with him to Gainesville a 16-7-1 record in his last 24 games and an A.C.C. championship from Duke, of all places, and Phillip Fulmer’s brief stint as an interim coach during Johnny Majors’s convalescence included victories over No. 14 Georgia and No. 4 Florida. In short, each of the coaches Year2 named had been college head coaches before (even if, in the Great Pumpkin’s case, only on an interim basis) and all put their programs on clear upward trajectories. Coach Kiffin has no prior college head coaching experience and the directions in which the Southern California offense he co-coordinated and the Oakland Raider team he coached were headed were not plainly positive.

None of those factors guaranteed that any of those men would be successful head coaches in the S.E.C., of course, and the absence of any of those achievements from Coach Kiffin’s resume does not ensure his failure. If anyone thinks the preceding records of accomplishment represent risks equivalent to those posed by the Lane Kiffin hire, though, I’d be very interested in offering such a person the opportunity to engage in a real estate transaction. I might even be convinced to toss in the keys to a flying DeLorean.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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