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Dan Shaughnessy

In college, honesty is academic

When he left Tennessee, Lane Kiffin left behind recruits who felt betrayed. When he left Tennessee, Lane Kiffin left behind recruits who felt betrayed. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe columnist / January 17, 2010

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College coaches lie. How do these guys sleep at night?

It’s unfair, of course, to include all coaches in the Liars Club, but it’s an odious and ever-expanding group. Put Lane Kiffin in a room with Jeff Jagodzinski, John Calipari, and Rick Pitino and you could make a polygraph machine explode.

I’ve always liked the pro game more than college because professional teams all work with the same rules. It’s a cutthroat business, but it’s all out in the open.

Big-time college sports is different. Nobody who competes can possibly play by the rules, so we get degrees of cheating. Duke plays UNLV and it’s framed as the clean guys against the rule-breakers.

In big-time college sports, institutions create phony academic sanctuaries for young men who couldn’t find a campus with a GPS. Yahoo towns with nothing else to offer make college football/basketball a local religion with poisonous Booster Clubs (“I love Dillon Panther Football’’: Buddy Garrity) and grubby bag men selling players like antique cars. Meanwhile, the “student-athletes’’ (love the NCAA pomposity there) look at the fistfuls of cash being made by coaches and universities and wonder how they can make a score for themselves. Many never graduate.

The guardian at the gate of this cesspool is the lying head coach in search of his next (bigger) job. He’s the guy with the one-way contract and zero conscience. He’s the one who goes into the living rooms and makes promises to kids and parents. He romances the athletic department, the student population, and the local yahoos (i.e. people who’d buy a book written by Calipari). He knows he’ll get paid even if he fails, because, well, he has a contract. But as soon as a sweeter deal comes along, he blows out of town leaving a trail of chaos, confusion, broken promises, and maybe some impending NCAA sanctions.

Memo to high school athletes everywhere: Do not believe the man or woman who tells you how great things will be if you come to play at State U. Choose a school because you like the school, not because you like the coach. Schools are institutions. They stand still. They don’t relocate. Coaches? They lie and they leave. And unlike you, they don’t have to take a year off when they decide to go to another school.

Kiffin’s departure from Tennessee last week set the gold standard for the Royal Order of Coaching Liars - no small feat in any club that includes Coach Cal. One year after riding into Knoxville with promises of beating Florida and singing “Rocky Top’’ all night long, Kiffin stiffed athletic director Mike Hamilton and bolted for Southern Cal to fill the vacancy left by Pete Carroll. Pumped-and-jacked Pete is having another go of it with the NFL (Seahawks) and needed to get out of ’SC before the NCAA comes down with penalties in the wake of multiple investigations. USC already put itself on probation for basketball violations.

In fairness to Carroll and USC, it must be noted that Kiffin leaves behind his own mess of at least six secondary NCAA violations and an ongoing NCAA review of the Vol football program regarding use of “hostesses’’ to attract recruits. Very nice.

The 34-year-old Kiffin’s departure triggered a near-riot in Knoxville. He needed a police escort to get off campus and it only got worse when it was learned that his assistant, Ed Orgeron, had contacted Tennessee-committed recruits to remind them that USC was now an option. The jilted Vols immediately tried to steal Duke’s head coach before settling for Louisiana Tech’s.

On and on it goes.

Kiffin’s timing is particularly brutal. Losers who catalogue such things (folks who dedicate their lives to ranking 16-year-old offensive linemen) claim Kiffin’s 2010 recruiting class was top-10 material. National signing day is Feb. 3, and eight of Kiffin’s recruits enrolled at Tennessee last week so they could get jump-starts for spring practice. After the shocking switch, some of the recruits stayed away from the classroom, believing it might enable them to get out of their scholarship commitments.

Gary Willis, the father of a Vol recruit, Brandon Willis, told USA Today, “I knew we weren’t going to Tennessee, because Kiffin was the only reason we were going. They called and offered him a scholarship to Southern Cal. I told them, ‘If I can’t trust you at Tennessee, I can’t do Southern Cal, because if somebody offered you more money, you would get up and move again.’ ’’

Willis, a defensive end, is taking his skills to North Carolina.

“Coach Kiffin recruited me,’’ redshirt freshman Robert Nelson told the New York Times. “Ed Orgeron came in my living room and recruited me and now they’re gone. Guys were really angry at him last night. Really angry.’’

Just as angry as those Boston College football players who were brought to Chestnut Hill by smiling Coach Jags while he plotted his (brief) return to the National Football League. Just as angry as those kids Coach Cal brought to Memphis hours before he bailed for his dream job at Kentucky.

Remember all the lies we got from Pitino when he ran the Celtics? Little Ricky could always make it go away by saying, “That was how I felt at the time.’’

Same with Kiffin. He really believed all those things he was saying about Tennessee.

Knoxville was the best place for those kids.

That’s how he felt at the time.

Before the betrayal.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.