What if Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron hadn't left Tennessee?
The change is evident with Tennessee fans, who loved Kiffin when he was here, hated him when he left and now probably wonder what might have been if he had stayed.
Does anyone doubt Kiffin was a better coach than Dooley or Jones?
He won at USC despite being shackled by NCAA sanctions that he inherited from coach Pete Carroll. He excelled as an offensive coordinator at Alabama. And he has Florida Atlantic headed in the right direction in his first season as head coach.
Kiffin's appeal at Tennessee extended to his staff, which included his father, Monte, who coordinated NFL defenses for more than a quarter of a century; offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who currently runs Georgia’s offense; and Ed Orgeron, who will return to Neyland Stadium this Saturday as LSU’s head coach.
Imagine if Kiffin had stayed. Imagine if that staff had stayed intact.
Would it have turned Tennessee into a championship program or run it into a ditch full of NCAA violations?
Kiffin & Co. ventured just far enough outside the NCAA lines to raise the question. But they could coach and recruit. They proved as much in 2009 when they went 7-6 and landed a top-10 recruiting class. They have proved it elsewhere, too.
Tennessee fans have experienced some of their success firsthand. In 2014 and 2016, Alabama totaled 83 points at Neyland Stadium with Kiffin as offensive coordinator. Earlier this season, Georgia beat the Vols 41-0 with Chaney calling the offensive shots.
Next comes Orgeron, whose success defies the odds.
Never mind what he did as an assistant at USC or Tennessee, where Kiffin made him associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. Orgeron's three Ole Miss teams were a combined 10-25 and lost 21 of 24 SEC games from 2005 through 2007.
How can a coach fail so spectacularly, then get a second chance at a better program? It’s not supposed to happen. But it happened for the South Louisiana native, who made the most of interim head-coaching jobs at USC and LSU to be hired by LSU full-time after the 2016 season.
Ron Higgins has seen the best and worst of Orgeron. He was a sportswriter at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis when Orgeron was driving the Rebels into the ground and now covers Orgeron’s second head-coaching act as a columnist for nola.com and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
“He’s more under control now,” Higgins said. “He will tell you he wasn’t ready to be a head coach at Ole Miss.
“He was paranoid because he knew he was in over his head. Ed didn’t know how to be a head coach. He’s not that way anymore.”
After a shaky beginning, Orgeron’s Tigers have upset Auburn, held No. 1 Alabama to 299 yards in a 24-10 loss, and risen to No. 21 in the polls.
And, like his former colleagues, he’s set up for a triumphant Neyland Stadium return.
Reach John Adams at email@example.com or 865-342-6284 and on Twitter @johnadamskns.