An expletive engraved in limestone, four words long: “F*** you, Lane Kiffin.”
It embodied frustration, of course.
On Dec. 1, 2008, University of Tennessee football fans watched a boyish-looking Kiffin shake hands with athletic director Mike Hamilton at a press conference introducing the 33-year-old as the Volunteers’ 21st head coach, replacing the successful yet often-maligned Phillip Fulmer.
Kiffin, renowned for his offensive playcalling abilities and aptitude for recruiting as an assistant under Pete Carroll at USC from 2001-2006, stood at a podium within the bowels of the then 102,000-seat Neyland Stadium and spoke with unwavering conviction.
“I’m really looking forward to embracing some of the great traditions at the University of Tennessee,” Kiffin told onlookers. “The Vol Walk, running through the T, singing Rocky Top all night long next year after we beat Florida. It’s going to be a blast, so get ready.”
A native Midwesterner, originally hailing from Minnesota, who attended college at Fresno State, Kiffin sounded like a Tennessee man, despite his not-so-Southern roots. He talked about a strong worth ethic, leadership and even loyalty. He discussed recruiting local talent, winning national championships and besting the program’s Southeastern Conference nemeses Florida and Georgia.
Most of all, he made one thing rather clear: was proud to be the school’s headman after spending a good part of a decade on the West Coast.
“As I looked at the opportunities available, there was nothing close to this,” Kiffin said of the Volunteers program at the time.
Not long after, though, he hummed a slightly different tune, bolting for USC seemingly in the middle of the night one year ago today — Jan. 12, 2010.
“I’m at the best place in America,” Kiffin said when asked about his decision to return to Southern California. “This is a dream job for me. This is somewhere that I was at for six years. This is a place that was very special to me for a long time.”
“The Rock,” as it is known by most, sits at the corner of Volunteer Boulevard and Pat Head Summitt Street, near the south end of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville campus.
Composed of 500-million-year-old Knox dolomite, in most cases the giant boulder would remain obsolete, a minor detail for passersby. Instead, over time, its foundation has assumed the role of a campus message board, the pulse for a lively student population 30,000 strong.
Self expression, as a result, is rooted in The Rock. During the course of past decades, students have painted birthday greetings, marriage proposals and a myriad of other sayings across the iconic stone.
“For generations, the Rock has been an unofficial message board for our campus,” university chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek said in a July 2009 statement. “It’s a UT Knoxville icon.”
Football, which remains woven into the fabric of the Southern lifestyle, has intersected with The Rock on a multitude of occasions.
Following a football victory over the University of Florida in the late 1990s, a handful of students discovered Gators coach Steve Spurrier’s home phone number and quickly painted the digits on The Rock in the aftermath of the contest before security eventually took action.
Kiffin, much like Spurrier before him, has also been the subject of a few choice words engraved on The Rock, largely on Jan. 12.
At that moment, The Rock, which had been doused with paint, featured multiple obscenities directed at Kiffin, while simultaneously serving as the focal point of a campus riot in the wake of the coach’s decision to depart for USC.
In the minutes following Kiffin’s sudden announcement, students gathered at The Rock, which had already been tagged with the address of the coach’s Knoxville area home and his wife’s cell phone number.
Hundreds of UT students then took to the streets, gathering on Johnny Majors Boulevard and blocking the road as a result, with the hope of preventing Kiffin from leaving the parking lot. It was evident, though, that Kiffin was not present on campus at the time.
“We just really wanted to see Lane Kiffin and let him know how we feel,” UT student Zach Griesler told WBIR-TV in Knoxville at the time of the announcement. “We wanted to let him know this decision affects people and how betrayed we feel.”
Continuing the onslaught, there were signs of order breaking down, with a student lighting a mattress on fire and several others burning University of Tennessee-related apparel, particularly T-shirts paying homage to Kiffin.
Police and firefighters, as a result, were called to the scene in an effort to bring calm to the situation, where the mattress and other burnings were extinguished.
“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 Captain D.J. Corcoran told reporters in the aftermath.
“Lane Kiffin is about as faithful as Tiger Woods,” said Erin Exum, a then-senior majoring in sports broadcasting, in an article published on ESPN.com. “The worst part of all this is Kiffin’s broken promises. We felt like Kiffin would fight for us and as loyal students we took his side. We believed in him.”
A year later, both Tennessee and USC have looked to “move forward” in separate ways. After losing Kiffin, Hamilton hired Louisiana Tech coach Derek Dooley to revitalize a program that had seen three coaches in three seasons. Despite a 6-7 overall mark, Dooley led the Volunteers to four wins in the team’s final five games.
In spite of NCAA-levied sanctions, USC athletic director Pat Haden has appeared relatively pleased with the effort put forth by Kiffin and his coaching staff in their first year with the Trojans despite a mere 8-5 record, the most losses in a single season since 2001.
“I think Lane has been sensational,” Haden said. “He’s done a great job. I think Lane’s going to be here for a very long time.”
From his vantage point, Kiffin hopes Haden’s assertion is accurate.
“For me, it’s the best job,” he said at Pac-10 Media Day last July, one of his first gatherings with the national press. “I say that because I was here before and it was so special being here and having our kids all born out here. It is very special to us. So the ability to come back here, even with the stuff that’s happened, it is still, to me, the best job in America.”