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Friday, June 12, 2009

Sometimes You Wanna Go...

I spent a majority of my Thursday watching reruns of "Cheers" and doing laundry. I recently decided that I had seen every episode of "Seinfeld" too many times, so I had to switch up my syndicated sitcom of choice, and determined that "Cheers" would be a welcome addition to my DVR schedule.

Anyway, I watched six episodes, my favorite being one from the final season in which Harry the Hat (played by "Night Court's" Harry Anderson) helped the gang at Cheers finally exact some revenge on Gary from Gary's Olde Towne Tavern. The ongoing war between Cheers and Gary's was always one of the best recurring storylines of the show, and Gary, of course, always got the better of Sam's crew.

Beyond the mini-marathon of "Cheers," I also spent a relatively sizable chunk of my day reading through the extensive copy dedicated to the potential success of Lane Kiffin, as posted by T Kyle King HERE, Senator Blutarsky HERE, and some fine Tennessee fans HERE. To say the least, it was enjoyable.

I'm not about to jump into the fray of wondering how much success Kiffin will find this season at Tennessee -- although I believe I didn't exactly pick the Vols to do well in my way-too-early projections -- but some of the points King discusses touched on something I've been thinking about for a while.

I spent some time listening to Kiffin explain his offseason antics in Destin, Fla. two weeks ago. Dubious or not, Kiffin seems to think he needed to be a little wacky this offseason in order to bring attention to Tennessee. He felt he needed to throw a few stones at the opposition in order to turn the spotlight back to his school. He needed to get his name -- and by association, I presume, the Volunteers' -- into the national conversation in order to ensure he'd have a shot at luring prized recruits. The results, he suggests, speak for themselves, insofar as Tennessee landed a top-10 recruiting class and the nation's No. 1 overall recruit.

Now, regardless of whether or not you believe all of this was premeditated, I think there's another question to be asked: Since when did Tennessee need publicity stunts to be regarded as a national program? Say what you want about Phil Fulmer, but beyond a few legal headaches in Alabama and the obvious marketing tie-ins with Krispy Kreme, when did he need to make an ass out of himself in order for people to pay attention to the Vols?

I've rarely cared one way or another about Tennessee, but come on... they're better than that, right?

In King's post, his essential point (and I'm glossing over some good stuff) was that, Kiffin may be a fine recruiter, but he hasn't proven he can coach. Valid point.

But my question is -- is he really a fine recruiter? Yes, he got a good class this time in terms of the valuations by recruiting sites (which are at least on occasion a bit dubious) but if this is Kiffin's method for recruiting, is he really getting the type of players a program wants?

That's the thing about publicity stunts. They're stunts, and they're designed to get a quick boost in interest, but they never last. There's a reason the Yankees and Lakers don't offer publicity stunts, and there's a reason why two-bit teams in small towns offer free haircuts, speed dating at the ballpark and Rod Blagojevich bobbleheads. My guess is that most Tennessee fans would prefer to be associated with the former than the latter.

For the past few weeks, I've been talking with a number of Georgia's incoming freshmen for a Getting to Know You series. In each interview, I've asked them the same question: What brought you to Georgia?

These aren't just local kids who spent their lives wanting to play for the Bulldogs. These are players from California and Virginia and Massachusetts. Even the local standouts like Branden Smith were recruited heavily by other top schools. Orson Charles picked Georgia over Florida and Southern Cal, arguably the two best programs in the country in terms of wins and losses.

Despite the distinct differences in the backgrounds of each player, they all gave essentially the exact same response: Georgia felt like a family.

OK, so at this point, unless you're a rose-colored-glasses-wearing Georgia fan, you're rolling your eyes and saying, "Of course they said that." I get it, and I'm not trying to be the head of the Mark Richt fan club.

But think about it: They didn't say they came for playing time or because it was their best chance to win a national title or because Georgia puts so many players into the NFL. I have no doubt that all of those things factored into their decision, and all would have been valid answers to my query. Instead, however, every one of them -- and I've talked to nearly a dozen (many of which I haven't posted yet) -- said the same thing. Family.

At that same press conference Kiffin held in Destin, he was asked how recruiting in the SEC was different from other areas of the country. Here's what he said about kids in the South:

"It's the people around them more, the relationships around him. A lot of times the kid's not making the decision on his own. Someone else is making it for him. I think different parts of the country, it's more about the kids himself than about the parents or the coaches. It's more about family values here."

This should sound at least a little familiar to Georgia fans, since Kiffin essentially said Marlon Brown only chose the Bulldogs because his grandmother was so taken with Richt. (And in case you were wondering, here's what Brown told me when I asked him why he came here: "Probably the thing that made up my mind was the people. Coach Richt and his staff did a good job of recruiting me from Day 1, and that's really what made the difference.")

In any case, clearly Kiffin acknowledges that creating a family environment is important to landing top recruits in the area, and yet he thinks that publicity stunts and boorish behavior were a necessity to get good players to come to Tennessee.

Now, I'm not saying Richt is the perfect family man, both at home and in the locker room. Clearly Georgia has missed out on some top recruits that were also good kids (UT's Eric Berry springs to mind). But there's a good reason why so many of this year's incoming freshmen said they felt at home in Athens.

During the season, I spent countless days over at the Butts-Mehre building, watching practice and doing interviews. The one guy who I didn't talk to all season was Stacy Searels. He wasn't doing interviews, as you may know. But you know who I talked to at least once a week? Searels' daughter. She was always running around the halls and playing on the elevators along with the other coaches' kids. Marcus Washington's wife and kids were often in the building, hanging out with players. Former players dropped by often with their families to visit. Richt's wife is the water girl on game day. It really is a family environment.

Now, I'm not saying none of those things happen at Tennessee or anywhere else. I'm sure they do. But rather than rent limos or rip off shirts or call out other coaches, it's that family environment that Georgia's coaching staff sells, and I have no doubt that it attracts a specific type of person to want to play for the Bulldogs.

In fact, here's another great example that Rodney Garner gave about the recruitment of Montez Robinson from Indiana:

"He was a young man that was from the state of Alabama. He's sort of a unique story a lot like DeAngelo Tyson. He's been a ward of the state since he was six years old. Just getting to know him, you really felt a bond toward him, a love for him, and you really felt like he was an outstanding young man. Here's a kid that came from a very difficult set of circumstances, but yet he was able to rise up and is going to be able to do something special with his life. He has eight brothers and sisters, he's the oldest, and I think they are all looking to him to do something special. It's not just from an athletic standpoint, but I think we all fell in love with him as a person, too. I think arguably he is the best player in the state of Indiana, and we're excited about him getting here in June and getting in with this family. We know he's going to have a family once he gets here."

Seriously, if you heard that, wouldn't you want to go play for Garner, too? Maybe a lot of it is B.S., but it's pretty convincing B.S.

That, of course, is not to say every player who has worn the red and black has been a good guy. Some haven't been. Some have been good people but still made some bad mistakes. Nobody's perfect.

But when you look big picture and compare the approach of Lane Kiffin with the approach of Mark Richt, there's a good chance you end up with two markedly different recruiting classes. Both might have top-10 talent, but they're likely to have distinctly divergent agendas they hope that talent helps them achieve. There were, after all, a lot of folks at USC who were thrilled to have O.J. Mayo, and a lot of fans at other schools who were angry they missed out. How'd that work out for Tim Floyd?

I guess what I'm saying is, Kiffin can trumpet the success of his over-the-top approach all he wants. In terms of bringing talent and attention to Tennessee, it certainly seems to have worked. But sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.

Gary spent a lot of years tormenting the gang at Cheers, but in the episode I watched yesterday, he finally got what was coming to him. Harry convinced Gary he was a billionaire developer interested in buying the property where Gary's bar was located. Hoping to play one final prank on Cheers, Gary demolished his own bar and tried to pin it on the Cheers gang, only to learn that Harry was a fraud. In the end, his arrogance was his own downfall. (Well, that and some delightful hijinks from Harry the Hat.)

Being the loudest, most confident guy in the room has its immediate rewards, but there's an upside to being understated and biding your time. Kiffin might take a lesson from Gary's ultimate demise. While a lot of talented players want to have their ego stroked and the world handed to them, there are plenty of others who simply want to go where everybody knows their name.


Anthony said...

Great Article. Love the cheers tie in.

BulldogBry said...

Wow, David. That was pretty deep. I truly enjoyed that. And having lived in East Tennessee for eight years, I can tell you one thing you're right about. Vol fans may SAY they like the fact that Kiffin's shaking things up, but deep down inside they do prefer the stodginess and tradition-laced aura of college football.

Ripping shirts off and yelling like neanderthals? If I had any respect for Orgeron, it would be gone by now.

Chuck said...

You should be reading Ken Levine's blog. He wrote for Cheers, The Simpsons, and MASH among others, and he's a broadcaster for the Dogers.

Scan through his stuff--he's often really good. And if you do, let me know.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, per usual.

Twilb Dawg said...

Awesome article David. Great tie in with Cheers! I thought you were just rambling at first...

NCT said...

I smell Pulitzer.

Anonymous said...

Great work!!

cousinwalter said...

If Kiffin could talk or BS the way Fulmer could he wouldn't have to make an ass out of himself. That man had a gift for fiction.

tenn.DAWG said...

Good stuff,I have lived in the Knoxville area since 82 and have alot of vol fan friends,they are really getting tired of kiffins antics.He better win big,and win big soon.

Terry said...

Excellent, excellent summation. I'm glad someone finally had the guts to say it. We will see how it plays out but I for one am glad UGA and Coach Richt don't have to do that kind of stuff to land top recruits.

Anthony Charles said...

That's just an outstanding piece of work David. You really are developing into a leading UGA writer.

Very, very good.

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