How Tennessee retroactively distanced itself from Lane Kiffin, and why the NCAA cares

Matt Hinton

So you're facing potential NCAA sanctions, and it's looking bleak. Lately, there's really only one thing to do: Double down on the paperwork and blame the coach.

As we learned last week, Ohio State appears to have successfully shifted the blame for multiple, major violations to ousted head coach Jim Tressel, arguing that he keep OSU compliance entirely in the dark throughout a 10-month coverup last year. North Carolina will inevitably follow the same playbook by blaming former assistant John Blake for the voluminous allegations dropped on UNC's doorstep last month.

But neither the Buckeyes nor the Tar Heels have quite as convincing an argument against its old coach as Tennessee, which was not only dropped like a bad habit by Lane Kiffin in January 2010, but has gone to great lengths to prove that the charges it received from the NCAA in February deserve to follow Kiffin to USC:

From the day Kiffin was hired to the day he abruptly left for the same position at Southern Cal, UT compliance provided the football staff with "no fewer than 135 rules-education items." Those items included everything from in-person meetings to emails to monthly compliance newsletters.

As detailed in the university's 190-page response to its NCAA Notice of Allegations, which was filed May 20 and provided Friday to the [Knoxville] News Sentinel, it was that kind of documentation that UT used to help largely shift the burden to Kiffin and his former staff for the two major violations levied against the Vols' football program.
Though it let Kiffin off the hook for two infractions involving former assistant coach David Reaves, UT stood behind its compliance staff's efforts to control the one-year coach's behavior when it pertained to impermissible phone calls and bringing a recruiting intern with him on a trip to a Florida high school.

"To the extent that he could have prevented the violations from occurring but failed to do so, the University agrees that Kiffin failed to adequately monitor his own activities and the activities of members of his staff in those two instances," the response reads.

In summation: We tried to tell that dude, and we're glad he's gone.{YSP:MORE}

Specifically, the "major" infractions Tennessee faced involved a) Impermissible telephone contact by Kiffin and at least one assistant (whose name rhymes with "Borgeron") with recruits during the week of Jan. 3-9, 2010, a recruiting "dead period" that ended just before the Kiffin clan made tracks for USC on Jan. 12, and b) Both "failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program" and the dreaded "failure to monitor" charge in the wake of multiple, repeated violations — small ones, ranging from mentioning recruits by name on the radio and Twitter to staging mock press conferences to improper deployment of a smoke machine to letting ESPN cameras in on a recruiting visit — that piled up during Kiffin's first few months on the job. (How UT managed to get hit with a failure to monitor in Kiffin's case and Ohio State didn't as a result of Tressel's more serious cover-up, I cannot explain.)

As penance, Tennessee has voluntarily self-imposed two years of probation and cut current coach Derek Dooley's recruiting staff from ten coaches to five on the first day on the November 2011 contact period with recruits, which barely qualifies as a slap on the wrist. It's a stern glare at the wrist, almost daring the NCAA to come down harder on a program that still feels like it was victimized by a traveling snake-oil salesman breezing through town.

Whether the NCAA is willing to accept that interpretation when it issues a ruling on Tennessee's case later this year depends on whether it's willing to view the head coach independently from the athletic department and the institution, as opposed to the traditional view of the head coach as the institution. Under the circumstances, that's a much easier argument to make about Kiffin at Tennessee than it is about Tressel at Ohio State, and if it sticks it may saddle Kiffin with even further consequences — personal recruiting restrictions, most likely — on top of the NCAA-mandated burden he's already facing at USC. But the question in both cases is the same: If the actions of a millionaire coach represent the institution when winning games, raising money and recruiting students, at what point do they stop?

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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