Before losing a game to Lane Kiffin, Tennessee Vols football fans lose composure, class | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean
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KNOXVILLE – Tennessee hadn’t even lost the game yet when its fans — and more specifically, its students, it would appear — lost composure and every shred of class.

There is never a reason to throw things onto a field.

Not a tough loss. Not a boisterous former coach. Not what you perceive as poor officiating. 

There were 54 seconds remaining in Ole Miss’ 31-26 victory at Neyland Stadium when debris sailed from seats behind the visitors’ bench in the general direction of Lane Kiffin and his players. To avoid being hit, the Rebels moved off the sideline and onto the field, delaying the game for about 20 minutes or more.

“I don't know how long,” Kiffin said. “It felt like a 30-minute delay.”

Kiffin said he got hit by a golf ball. He joked with a smile after the game that he saw bottles with a brown liquid, but it probably wasn’t moonshine since “I don’t think they’d waste the moonshine on me.”

“The majority of the people were actually really good,” Kiffin said. “... I think it was more students.”

After the game, university leaders took to Twitter to condemn actions as unacceptable. 

WHAT'S NEXT?:SEC will review Tennessee football fans' 'unacceptable' conduct and consider penalties

OLE MISS REACTION:How Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss football players reacted to trash-throwing delay at Tennessee

ADAMS:Tennessee football comes up short, Vols fans embarrass themselves in loss to Ole Miss | Adams

But Tennessee can expect penalties from the SEC, and it'll deserve those penalties.

"The actions of fans at Saturday night's game were unacceptable under any circumstances," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. "We are accustomed to intense competition every week, but under no circumstances is it acceptable to endanger the contest participants and disrupt a game."

Once the small portion of Vol Nation was finally done spoiling a fun night and embarrassing a football program and university — and it took way longer than it should have — those fans should have considered themselves lucky.

Lucky that no one was seriously hurt by their appalling display of entitlement.

Lucky that the teams were able to eventually start playing again and the Vols didn’t have to forfeit a still-winnable game.

The fact that was even in question was shameful. Same for the image of Tennessee’s own band members and cheerleaders having to flee into the tunnel while its players and coaches stood helpless on the other side of the field, waiting to play.

Tennessee’s team had just lost possession when a fourth-down pass play came up just short of the marker — via a controversial spot and unsuccessful review. But the Vols still had three timeouts and 54 seconds. They nearly pulled it off, too, driving to the Rebels’ 21 before failing to find a game-winning touchdown.

Tennessee fans boo Mississippi Football Coach Lane Kiffin as he's escorted off the field following Tennessee's game against Ole Miss at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.

Credit the Vols players. None of this had been their fault. They played hard Saturday night. They kept fighting to overcome the actions of their own fans in addition to a ranked opponent … and Kiffin.

That's not easy.

Playing Kiffin’s Ole Miss is like trying to beat your buddy in a video game.

He plays fast. He scores a ton of points (and gives up a bunch, too), and just when you think you’ve got his offense stopped, his swift quarterback will just run to pick up a pivotal first down. Matt Corral ran for 195 yards Saturday. He is so that quarterback, which becomes especially annoying when …

Kiffin hardly ever punts.

He burns all his timeouts before a pre-halftime field goal just to annoy, too.

So many people love this about Kiffin: The way that he quips and tweets is the same way he coaches on Saturday – without fear and with shirttails out, the way you’d want to do it if you were a coach.

The worst thing, however, about not having Kiffin as your coach anymore is having to play him. Knowing that he’ll enter your raucous stadium and it’ll be about him … and thus his team … and his smirk … and all the boos that are meant for him.

Before long, it feeds itself. You want to beat him even more than you already did.

And it was there for the taking. This game was always going to be circled on Tennessee’s schedule, but when it actually arrived, the Vols had been gaining steam quickly in Josh Heupel’s first season. They had a good shot to knock off the nation’s No. 14 team. That’d be a huge boost for Heupel’s rebuilding project, no matter who Ole Miss’ coach might be.

But Kiffin is a better coach now than he was a dozen years ago. As encouraging as Heupel’s first season at Tennessee has been, I’d imagine a decent percentage of Vols fans would still take Kiffin back on their sideline right now.

The Vols weren’t going to chase Kiffin — I mean, he broke up with them — but they did chase Kiffin’s style of football. Both Heupel and Kiffin run fast-break offenses that heralded an entertaining matchup Saturday night.

You could perhaps compare it to when Nick Saban first took Alabama teams back to LSU, but one key difference: Saban won LSU a national title before leaving for the NFL. Tennessee never got to find out what Kiffin was capable of doing with more than one season in Knoxville.

Another key difference: When Saban went back to Baton Rouge, Tigers fans didn’t throw things at him.

That’s going to be a stain for Tennessee’s program and university that will linger and be applied to far more people than were actually guilty.

“I just wish they had better class,” said Ole Miss linebacker Mark Robinson.

Same here.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

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