If you're a Tennessee fan, you have every right to feel a bit squeamish right now. Your school just handed over its proud SEC football program to a 33-year-old coach whose sole head-coaching experience to date was a year-plus stint as Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis' latest scapegoat. You know he coached under Pete Carroll at USC, but you primarily know him as the Trojans' offensive coordinator after Norm Chow.
Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Ron Higgins -- current president of the Football Writers Association of America -- has already gone on record questioning AD Mike Hamilton's choice.
"Kiffin has never accomplished anything as a head coach," Higgins wrote. "All his rep comes from his time as Southern Cal's supposed offensive coordinator in 2005 and 2006, but USC didn't win the national titles in those years as it did the previous two seasons."
But here's the thing: Kiffin's biggest attribute is not his play-calling. Above all else, Kiffin was known at USC as a masterful recruiter. While then-recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron got the lion's share of credit for the recruiting juggernaut that Carroll's program became, Kiffin played an invaluable role both as an evaluator and the kind of "player's coach" to whom 17-year-olds could relate. He helped land former star receiver Mike Williams, among others.
Presumably, Hamilton was aware of all this when he decided on Kiffin -- because improved recruiting is exactly what Tennessee most needs if it hopes to return to national prominence.
By all accounts, the Vols' recruiting success tailed off considerably during Phillip Fulmer's latter years. They still managed to lure the occasional blue-chipper like star safety Eric Berry, but in general, their talent level is nowhere near what it was in the days when you could count on Tennessee to churn out NFL prodigies like Travis Henry, Albert Haynesworth and Donte Stallworth.
When Mark Richt came to Georgia in 2001 and hired away Fulmer's then-ace recruiter, Rodney Garner, the Vols' pipeline into the Peach State -- which had netted them such stars as Jamal Lewis and Deon Grant --dried up. Tennessee, whose own state is not exactly a bastion for prep talent, was forced to recruit on a more national scale, and it hasn't gone well.
Enter Kiffin, who was on the front lines when USC turned itself into the national recruiting power earlier this decade. Kiffin will presumably take much the same approach in Knoxville, assembling a staff full of high-energy assistants who relish recruiting. (He's believed to already be in discussions with Orgeron, now an assistant foe the New Orleans Saints.) That's the only way the 33-year-old stands a chance in the SEC, where coaches like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Les Miles are themselves among the best in the business at recruiting.
There's been talk of Kiffin luring his father, renowned NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, to Knoxville, which is nice, but at the end of the day, the Vols' fate won't be determined by X's and O's. It will be determined by the players Kiffin brings in.
Make no bones about it: Hamilton took a big gamble in hiring the inexperienced Kiffin over Mike Leach, Brian Kelly or any number of other proven head coaches who may have shown interest had he extended his search for a few weeks.
Vols fans best temper their expectations, because it's extremely unlikely Kiffin will pull a Saban-like turnaround overnight. He could not have picked a much tougher place to learn on the job.