KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After wrapping up his first season as Tennessee coach, Lane Kiffin promised Volunteers fans that he was “just getting started” in rebuilding the program.
Two weeks later, Kiffin is headed back to succeed mentor Pete Carroll at Southern California, leaving the Vols in a panic to find a new coach.
“I really believe the only place I would have left here to go was … Southern California,” Kiffin said in a brief statement late Tuesday night.
Kippy Brown, whom Kiffin hired on Dec. 17 as an assistant, will be charged with holding the team and what was shaping up to be a top 20 recruiting class together as school officials scramble to find Kiffin’s replacement.
Brown previously spent nine years as a Tennessee assistant in between stints in the NFL.
“We have already begun a search for the new head football coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, and we’ll complete this process as quickly as possible to put the right person in place to lead our great football program forward in the months and years ahead,” said athletic director Mike Hamilton in a statement. Hamilton was in Colorado meeting with a donor when news of Kiffin’s departure broke.
Hamilton introduced Kiffin as Tennessee’s coach on Dec. 1, 2009, after firing longtime coach Phillip Fulmer and conducting the school’s first nationwide search for a coach.
Kiffin, who made $2 million in 2009, owed an $800,000 buyout to Tennessee for leaving early. He told his players about his abrupt departure moments before reading his statement. His father, respected defensive coach Monte Kiffin, and longtime USC assistant Ed Orgeron also will leave Tennessee to join him.
Tennessee students, who were to begin spring semester classes on Wednesday, wasted no time in expressing their anger about Kiffin’s hasty departure.
Knoxville fire officials and university police were on campus after Kiffin’s announcement as hundreds of students burned mattresses and piles of trash and gathered around the athletic department building in hopes of blocking Kiffin from leaving campus. It was not clear if Kiffin was still on campus at the time.
“I think the students have had kind of a violent reaction to that, and a lot of them are disheartened, upset and feel betrayed that less than a year in that he would be leaving and taking off,” Knoxville Fire Department spokesman D.J. Corcoran said.
“The Rock,” a giant boulder on campus where students often paint “Happy Birthday” messages, had obscenities directed toward Kiffin. Students tried to enter the room where Kiffin read his statement, holding a sign that read “Go home traitor. It’s time,” mimicking a campaign the university used to promote Kiffin when he was hired. But the students were turned back before Kiffin talked.
“This was not an easy decision. This is something that happens very quick. We’ve been here 14 months, and the support has been unbelievable here,” Kiffin said. “There’s so many people to thank so I’m just going to be real generic and say I’m very thankful to all the Tennessee people and the way that they welcomed myself and my family.”
Kiffin went 7-6 in 2009, losing his final game to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Many credited him with revitalizing the program, but he also brought an unwelcome spotlight on the Vols with six minor NCAA violations and disciplinary problems.
During Kiffin’s tenure the Volunteers reported violations ranging from mock news conferences for prospects to mentioning recruits by name on the radio and on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Three freshmen players were charged in an attempted robbery near campus, and the university recently confirmed that the NCAA is looking into the activities of members of the university’s Orange Pride student ambassador program as possible recruiting violations.
“I know that I can walk out of here and say this, that we’ve been here for 14 months and there’s not one day I didn’t give everything I had to the Tennessee football program,” Kiffin said. “We’re leaving here 14 months later a lot better team than we were 14 months ago.”
Beth Rucker/The Associated Press