A little over a year ago, Lane Kiffin stepped to the podium at SEC football media days and said it was all part of a master plan.
All the moves he made. All the people he angered. All the rules — written or otherwise — he bent and possibly broke.
All of it, he claimed, was a well-orchestrated scheme to create national attention for the University of Tennessee, for which he was — at the time — the head football coach.
It was a little more than a week ago that Robbie Caldwell stepped to the podium at SEC football media days and proved that sometimes the best plan is no plan at all.
With nothing but honesty and an accent rooted in the sandy ground of northern South Carolina, Caldwell did for Vanderbilt in 2010 what Kiffin did for Tennessee in 2009.
The big difference was that Caldwell got people throughout the country to wish nothing but the best for the Commodores. Kiffin had many of those same folks expecting nothing but the worst in his first and — as it turned out — only season with the Vols.
A day after Caldwell’s media debut, columnists across the country and the Internet weighed in. He was referred to as everything from “Larry the Cable Guy” to “Rudy.” On a day when Steve Spurrier, usually one of the best quotes in college football, also stepped to the mic, it was Caldwell who had them all talking.
And the impact of his ruminations on breeding turkeys, the benefits (financial and otherwise) of anonymity and the sudden change in his career path —He even discussed a little football — extended well beyond that Hoover, Ala., hotel ballroom.
Hondo Carpenter, a sports radio talk show host in Michigan (the heart of Big 10 country) said he received nearly 100 emails from intrigued listeners in the hours after Caldwell spoke (ESPNU carried the SEC media days news conferences live and replayed them again later that same night). Carpenter said he had conversations with peers throughout the country who all had similar experiences.
The following night, as Carpenter discussed Caldwell on his show, listeners emailed to say they were buying Vanderbilt tickets and memorabilia.
No team of marketing geniuses could have done more in less time to break through the university’s long-standing reputation as a staid, decidedly blue-blooded institution.
Suddenly, the blue-collar set has a reason to pull for Vanderbilt.
The good news for Vanderbilt is that the first impression often is the lasting one, which means this sudden surge in goodwill is not likely to dissipate anytime soon.
Just ask Kiffin.
The fact that he positioned himself as someone who eagerly wades into the gray areas was likely a factor in the decision by the Tennessee Titans early last week to file a lawsuit after he hired away running backs coach Kennedy Pola. The man said he is willing to test the rules to get what he wants, so it makes sense that the Titans would want to make him prove he did not do so in this case.
Of course, it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. It’s also clear now that some forms are better than others.
Suddenly, an overwhelming number of defeats over a period of decades pale in comparison to the charisma of one man.
People will be watching the Commodores this fall; many of them otherwise would have been ignoring them completely. They’ll do so because they will want to hear what comes out of Caldwell’s mouth — win or lose.
That has to be better than having people tune in hoping to see a coach fall flat on his face.