Sunday, December 20, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Kiffin's curious plans got results

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- "Come to Tennessee."

According to the recent reports, that's what one of the signs read. The alleged message carried nearly 200 miles by University of Tennessee hostesses to a high school in South Carolina has become the target of an NCAA investigation, because it's against the rules for members of a student ambassador group to help recruit off campus.

UT coach Lane Kiffin has denied any staff involvement in the matter. Still, nobody should be stunned if the reports are validated, given the current recruiting climate. What's really surprising is that there weren't UT hostesses also hanging out in front of the ESPN offices in Connecticut. There weren't any stationed outside the L.A. Times building, or the Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe.

There might as well have been, though. Because every move Kiffin has made in his first year as the Volunteers coach has sent that message to the national media: Come to Tennessee. Film us. Tape us. Write about us.

For better or worse, report on us. Make us nationally relevant again.

And it's working.

How do you lure a top-10 recruiting class to a program coming off a 5-7 season? Easy. You get your name out there any way you can. And if that means committing a few secondary NCAA violations -- UT has been tagged with at least six so far under Kiffin, according to ESPN -- then so be it.

How do you make yourselves the story when you're a 30-point underdog traveling to top-ranked Florida? Simple. You take some jabs at the iconic Gators coach, stir up a little controversy. If that means you set yourself up for a possible flogging, so be it. It's worth it, so long as the mismatch is interesting again.

"I think each job you have a specific plan for," Kiffin said Friday. "This job coming in, I felt that we had to get recognition right away. We had to get Tennessee out there. It's a different time. You can't have a long-term plan and take your time and say, oh, well, we didn't sign very many players our first year because we didn't have enough time. We don't believe in excuses like that. So part of the plan was to get us out there, get exposure out there."

UT senior defensive tackle Wes Brown remembers his reaction last December, when he heard the freshly hired coach boast about "singing 'Rocky Top' all night long after we beat Florida next year." The Gators were rolling toward a BCS national championship. The Vols were coming off a frustrating 5-7 campaign that included a homecoming loss to Wyoming.

Was this new guy nuts?

"We were waiting for an explanation," Brown said with a smile. "We wanted to talk to him."

According to Brown, Kiffin gathered his players and explained that his words were the result of his belief in their abilities. He wanted to inject some confidence into a locker room where faith had flagged.

"Once he told us that, that was the seal on it," Brown said. "OK, this guy believes in us, I believe in him, let's go do this thing together.

"He knows what he's doing. He's not up there just talking out of his mind. The guy's smart. He knows football -- we all know that -- but he knows what he's doing with the media and knows what he's doing off the field."

Kiffin, 34, says he's cut back on the controversial comments as the season has progressed, largely because his 7-5 team has performed well enough to provide him more positive talking points. But when he got here, he was determined not to dwell on his success as a Southern Cal assistant or his experience as head coach of the Raiders.

Instead, he wanted to focus on refilling the talent coffers at Tennessee. And that meant riling up some people in the process -- although he won't say how much of it was premeditated.

"That's kind of the question everybody wants to know," Kiffin said. "I can't give that to you. I'll put that in a book someday. I've said it before: I don't love everything that we've had to do or that I've said. But I think that it needed to be done, in my opinion, for what we needed to do and do it fast and put us on the map right away and be able to sign the players or be in the running for the players we are right now."

The Vols bagged a top-10 recruiting class last winter highlighted by running back Bryce Brown, the current backup to 1,300-yard rusher Montario Hardesty. They appear headed toward another blue-chip haul this year.

Meanwhile, Kiffin has called the accusations about his recruiting practices a compliment. If other coaches are turning him in, he argues, then he must be getting some real talent.

His players agree.

"I've got to go with Coach Kiffin: There's no such thing as bad publicity," senior guard Jacques McClendon said. "When your name is out there and you're always in the media, you can always be out there and market your school. Now obviously, you've got to go about it the right way; you can't be doing bad things.

"But I don't think there's [anything] going wrong here. You see there's an investigation and there's nothing happening here. We're just happy-go-lucky, recruiting people. We're out here trying to get players."

As they say, come to Tennessee.

Thanks to Kiffin, many are.

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