(Photo courtesy of Florida Atlantic University)
When I took that job, I knew that some people at Tennessee were going to be upset. People had developed relationships with me, like the chaplain who sent me Rick Warren's book. What I didn't expect was a full riot to ensue on campus. I think sometimes we embellish our memories, but that night there was literally a riot in Knoxville, with people running in the streets and lighting things on fire.
It was confusing to me, because people change jobs every day. A guy goes from McDonalds to Burger King, or from BP to Exxon, or Delta to United, and this happens every day. In fact, the reporters who criticized me had changed networks themselves. But here I was in a police escort, trying to get safely out of town, asking myself why there was so much animosity towards me.
I took the approach that I'd rather have them burning things over my departure than celebrating that I'm gone, but that's still not an easy way to start a new job. And even though the people inside the UT program still respected me and kept in touch with me, nobody wants to burn bridges on their way out, even if it's with fans.
I wish I could say that my relationship with God grew during that rough time, and that my isolation with all those fans brought me closer to Him, but that's just not the truth. I was no closer to him in LA than when I arrived in Knoxville. Why did I need Him, I had everything people dream of; beautiful wife, houses, power and millions of dollars.
I arrived at USC just hoping to put all that drama behind me, but as soon as I got there our program was hit with NCAA sanctions. The infractions had occurred years earlier, before I was the head coach, but our current players and staff would be the ones to pay the price.
It was basically the "Death Penalty". There's a long history of what NCAA penalties can do to programs, and now we were supposed to be next. We had 30 less scholarships than other teams and couldn't go to a bowl game for two years, and all of our juniors and seniors could leave! So it made it hard to recruit players, and yet we still signed the # 1 class in the country. You are trying to bring in players who will have to pay their own tuition, while other colleges are still offering a full ride scholarship. We still went 28-15 during my time there, but once the games start everyone forgot how shorthanded we were.
My dad once told me to follow a coach who has struggled, because your tenure will be compared to your predecessor. I clearly didn't listen, because I chose to follow Pete Carroll.
The last season was brutal. Fans were chanting "Fire Kiffin" during the games, and even at 3-2, after a loss at Arizona State, I was pulled off my team bus, in front of the players at the airport at 3 a.m. to be told I had been fired hours earlier.
I don't wish that feeling upon anyone. I wanted to die, because at the time I was defined by my job.
And just when I needed Him, God answered in a big way. I don't know if God is a sports fan or not, but I do know this: He loves a good comeback.