The night Lane Kiffin left Tennessee: An infamous YouTube video, press conference chaos and a mattress fire
Lane Kiffin waited in a shadowy hallway, yellow legal pad in hand and a blank expression on his face, to give his farewell statement in a hastily called news conference on the University of Tennessee campus.
Angry students gathered outside. Puzzled players searched for answers. And a mattress was set on fire in the street in one of the strangest off-the-field scenes in recent college football history.
It was around 10 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010. But you’ve heard that story before.
The bizarre episode that occurred inside the news conference room — which produced an infamous YouTube video — and the media’s frantic moments before and after Kiffin decided to bolt UT for Southern Cal may be just as interesting years later.
That story started with a prayer and ended with a glass of whiskey.
Kiffin, in his second year as coach of Ole Miss, returns to Neyland Stadium when the Rebels (4-1, 1-1 SEC) play the Vols (4-2, 2-1) on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network).
Some of the reporters who covered his shocking exit are still around Knoxville, but many have moved on. Their personal stories behind the ones they reported provide a unique angle to the night UT fans will never forget.
“As soon as people figure out that I covered that season at Tennessee, (the night Kiffin left) is all they want to know about,” said Austin Ward, former UT football beat reporter for Knox News.
“I’m sure I’ll be talking about that night as long as I live. But I still can’t believe it happened.”
LANE KIFFIN LEAVES TENNESSEE:Lane Kiffin takes blame for his chaotic Tennessee press conference
The ‘TV guy’ who held up Kiffin’s news conference
Kiffin couldn’t talk until Bill Shory got his way, or at least that’s how it played out. And it was all captured on a video posted on YouTube.
Shory, then the news director at WBIR-TV, argued with UT sports information director Bud Ford about the ground rules for Kiffin’s news conference, scheduled for 9:30 p.m., hours after news had leaked that he was leaving for the USC job after only one season with the Vols.
Ford said Kiffin didn’t want TV to broadcast his remarks live. Then he said Kiffin wanted to speak to media off camera to explain why he was leaving before doing an on-camera portion.
Shory disagreed on UT setting ground rules for a news conference at a public university. A stand-off occurred in the Gordon Ball boardroom — used that night to avoid students protesting near the entrance of the usual news conference room — as Kiffin waited in the hallway.
“I’m surprised they didn’t just have security escort me out,” said Shory, who now owns a strategic communications company in Louisville.
Sports writers didn't know Shory, who usually didn't work UT sports events, which only added to the confusion.
"Who is this TV guy in a black trench coat? And why is he holding up the proceedings?" recalled Mike Strange, who covered the Vols for Knox News for 34 years. "The fact that he was the central figure and we didn't know who he was made it even more bizarre."
Why Lane Kiffin held a news conference at UT
Some reporters in the room said they agreed with the principle of Shory’s stand but thought the unusual circumstances should’ve tabled the debate for a different day. They were on deadline, and Kiffin wasn’t obligated to address media.
“We’re burning daylight, and he may walk,” Ford warned reporters.
Coaches rarely hold news conferences at the school they’re leaving. Ford, who had just left a prayer meeting at Salem Baptist Church before being called to campus, said he told Kiffin it would be wiser to hold his comments until he arrived at USC.
"However, that is not what occurred," Ford said.
Kiffin confirmed he ignored the advice of Ford and agent Jimmy Sexton in holding the news conference and a team meeting before leaving UT.
"That was my idea only," Kiffin said. "(They) said, 'Get out of town, get on a plane, show up at USC and then speak there.' I think both of them backfired, but that’s not the point. You do things in life because they’re the right things to do, whether they work or not."
Kiffin saw his final news conference at UT as a courtesy, albeit for the purpose of smoothing things over with media and fans.
Sports reporters who regularly covered Kiffin understood that and sympathized with Ford's position in trying to manage an impossible situation. Some news reporters thought that was irrelevant, especially since a public university was managing a news conference on behalf of Kiffin.
“The TV guy was stubborn. I just wanted a press conference, where we could ask Lane questions,” said Jimmy Hyams, sports talk radio host on WNML.
“The fan base was cheated from getting an explanation because of one darn news director. I still get frustrated talking about it,” said Mark Packer, who was reporting for WVLT-TV.
Kiffin said media that covered UT regularly were "not just fair but awesome." He wanted to explain why he was leaving in a private setting, and perhaps answer a few questions, without holding a full-fledged news conference until he got to USC.
But coaches at high-profile college football programs can't tip-toe that line, which is why he was advised against it.
Kiffin eventually spoke for 59 seconds, did not take questions and returned to his office to wait for the protests outside to die down.
Shory won a national award for ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists for taking the stand. And he said important context has been missing from the story.
In 2010, livestreaming capabilities were becoming easier, and Knoxville TV stations had been pressing UT for months to allow live broadcasts of news conferences and major news events. They were arguing over ground rules that would later affect the use of smart phone cameras and livestreaming on social media.
“It was an issue beyond those 30 seconds with Lane Kiffin. It was about who gets to decide what you do with the content once it enters the lens of the camera,” Shory said. “That was the time that stake needed to be put in the ground.”
Ford and Shory had lunch a week after the news conference to discuss what happened. They share a mutual respect to this day.
YouTube video shows media vs UT officials, other media
There’s a 7-minute, 57-second video on YouTube that showed the behind-the-scenes bickering in that boardroom — media vs. UT officials and media vs. media. Debates on journalistic practices, a responsibility to get the story and frayed nerves on deadline led to the chaotic scene.
"I felt like a cat watching ping pong," WNML host Heather Harrington said. "Just people fighting back and forth. It was awkward. It was wild."
The video is sort of a cult classic, like a director’s cut of the actual Kiffin appearance immediately afterward.
Media members still joke about lines they shouted in the pair of videos.
“He’s a snake! You can’t worry about what he wants,” Packer shouted about Kiffin before he entered the room.
"What does this mean for recruiting, Lane?" Harrington shouted at Kiffin as he left the room.
Kiffin said he watched the video for the first time this week after ESPN's Chris Low sent it to him. Incidentally, Low sat conspicuously quiet in the frame of the behind-the-scenes video.
“I remember thinking, ‘I bet a million dollars someone is rolling tape on this’ and they were,” Low said. “I was taught in Journalism 101 that you never want to become part of the story.
“Right or wrong — and I’m not judging here — the media sort of became part of the story that night.”
Shory said he doesn’t know who filmed or posted the video which showed him arguing with Ford and reporters, but it wasn’t part of his TV crew. He’s still asked about the video whenever Kiffin changes jobs, and reporters reference it when trying to make sense of that strange night.
“It was great theater, almost comical,” Strange said. “I remember thinking it looked like a made-for-TV movie about a college football team because it was so weird."
Kiffin to USC reports send media scrambling
That day was bound for chaos before the sun set.
Josh Ward and Will West, co-hosts on WNML, speculated on air during their early afternoon show that Kiffin could leave if offered the USC job.
UT fans lit up the phone lines to scold them. Even a coworker cautioned them during a commercial break to cut out the Kiffin-to-USC talk.
The Vols had been led by only two coaches — Johnny Majors (1977-92) and Phillip Fulmer (1992-2008) — for the previous 32 seasons. It was a destination job, not a stepping stone.
“And then it happened a few hours later,” Ward said. “It was fascinating to see the range of emotions in a 24-hour period from fans believing Lane would never leave to then hating him for doing what we tried to warn people would happen.”
Rumors had swirled about Kiffin’s exit all afternoon. Wes Rucker, then covering UT for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, was getting a new set of tires put on his Mazda 3 when a media friend in Los Angeles messaged him.
Kiffin had become the frontrunner for the USC job, and it was only a matter of time before he accepted it.
“I said a lot of foul-mouthed words and ran to the counter,’” Rucker said. “I told the guy that I cover Tennessee and Lane Kiffin is going to USC, so get my tires on or get my fricking car down.”
The news broke after dinner. Brent Hubbs, publisher of Volquest.com, was playing Chutes and Ladders with his toddler son when he got a call confirming Kiffin was leaving.
Before rushing to campus, Hubbs typed, “Guys, it’s true” as a thread title on his Rivals message board, but nothing else. That phrase is still a running joke on Volquest, referenced by fans whenever they want to know if a report is true.
From mattress fire to a glass of whiskey
Reporters arrived on campus to find a few angry students protesting Kiffin’s departure. The emotions sharpened when Shory and Ford sparred in the boardroom.
When reporters exited the news conference about 45 minutes later, the crowd had swelled to hundreds along Johnny Majors Drive, outside the football complex.
“They were raising hell and burning a mattress right beside me. And a lot of folks there were drunk, so I thought a fight might break out,” Hyams said. “Then someone yelled that a coach was leaving from the back office, so everybody started running to see who was leaving.”
It wasn’t Kiffin. He was tucked away in his office after Low and John Brice, who was working for Volquest, had followed him down the hallway, trying unsuccessfully to coax another comment.
Then they stepped outside.
“And I got my defining memory of that night,” Low said. “Here comes (longtime UT football equipment manager) Max Parrott. He walks beside me with an extinguisher and just calmly puts the mattress fire out, looks at me with this quizzical look, shakes his head and walks off.”
Around 3 a.m., Hubbs said Kiffin was escorted by security out of his office and home. Austin Ward had been texting Kiffin, who agreed to an interview the next morning.
But when Kiffin’s coaches started calling midterm enrollees to persuade them to go to USC instead of beginning class at UT, the coaches’ phones were shut off by the university. Ward still got his interview, just as Kiffin had promised.
After the news conference, Rucker drove home in his Mazda 3, which sported a new set of tires. He filed his story just before deadline, took a deep breath and asked himself a series of questions to sum up the night.
“Was that real? What just happened? And who’s the next coach going to be?” Rucker recalled. “And then I put whiskey on some ice and just sat there for a minute.”
Reach Adam Sparks at email@example.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.