As I basked in Schadenfreude* Tuesday night upon hearing that Lane Kiffin had abandoned the University of Tennessee's football program to coach at Southern Cal, I just had to go to the Knoxville News Sentinel's website to savor the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
(Don't begrudge me my unseemly pleasure. As I have written here before, I have been living and dying with Vanderbilt football ever since I attended my first game at Dudley Field in 1969, at age six. For most of the past 41 years, the best I could hope for on a Sunday morning in autumn has been to read of a UT loss along with the usual chronicle of heartbreak that was the Vandy game story.)
So I glance at the comments on the breaking story, and seven postings down, I stumble on something familiar:
"I say let's hire someone really good, build up the program, and then in a few years meet USC in the BCS championship game and just kick the @#$! out of him."
And then I realized where I have seen this sentiment before. A brief encounter with a reel of library microfilm the next day brought back the exact wording:
"We're disappointed, Steve. We hope Vandy keeps building, plays Texas Tech, and beats them 60-zip."
The Nashville Banner's lead editorial on Jan. 2, 1975, reads now like an email you instantly wish you hadn't sent. The unidentified editorialist may have been Fred Russell, Edgar Allen or someone on the opinion desk. (Maybe an old Banner hand out there will know?) Whoever it was put a sturdy rhetorical boot into the backside of 30-year-old Steve Sloan, who had announced on New Year's Day that he was leaving his head coaching position at Vandy to take over at Texas Tech.
Sloan had spent just two years at VU, but he had just led the squad to its first bowl game since 1955 — a Peach Bowl tilt against Texas Tech that ended in a 6-6 tie — and his success was already attracting enough attention that the rumor mill had the young coaching phenom as successor-in-waiting to his mentor Bear Bryant at Alabama.
History would suggest he had a special gift for attracting talented assistant coaches. His underlings included future Super Bowl-winning NFL coach Bill Parcells, as well as Rex Dockery, who showed promise as a head coach at Texas Tech and Memphis State before he died in a 1983 air crash.
It wasn't simply the fact of Sloan's departure that riled the city’s now-defunct afternoon paper. It was how he handled the job overture from Lubbock. At 9 p.m. on New Year's Eve, after the local press had been camped on his doorstep for hours, he emerged to say that after "prayerful consideration," he had declined Tech's offer.
"Vanderbilt gave me my first chance as a head coach, and I had owed too many people," Sloan told the reporters.
Exactly 12 hours later, he announced a change of heart.
The salary Tech offered him was reported to be a princely $36,500, with a television contract potentially worth another $40,000 as part of the package. Yet Sloan said at the time that money was not a factor in his decision, and that the comp deal was "about the same" as he had at V.U.
Decades later, he told an interviewer that he had doubts about whether Vanderbilt was "really committed to winning in football." His misgivings are understandable in retrospect, especially considering the antiquated state of Dudley Field — a pretty bleak place prior to the major refurb it underwent in 1981 — as well as the rest of the athletic facilities.
Be that as it may, the Banner spoke of a betrayal.
"Can't help feeling that we've been had by a bright young feller," the editorial wheezed. "Every time a Nashville fan put on a 'Sloan for President' button, he increased your bargaining power." (This was the Watergate era, of course.)
The newspaper thrashed Sloan for leaving his recruits in the lurch and suggested that the university would be within its rights to sue over his employment contract, which still had two years on it.
"We understand why a coach has to take care of himself," the editorial concluded. "We just don't feel much like saying 'good luck and all the best' at the moment. So, just goodbye."
Reader response to the screed mostly came down on the side of Sloan. Numerous letters to the editor echoed the one Maxwell E. Benson of Nashville sent, calling the editorial "shabby, petty, vindictive journalism" and "downright malicious."
Sloan had a few good years at Texas Tech, but the rest of the one-time boy wonder's career ought to be a cautionary tale for Lane Kiffin — and it may represent just the future most of Tennessee would wish on Kiffin at this point.
Sloan became head coach at Ole Miss in 1978 and lasted five years without a winning season. He then moved on to Duke. In three years there, he again never had a winning season. He then lasted two years as athletic director at Alabama and one year back at Vanderbilt as an assistant during the last year of Watson Brown's hapless tenure with the Commodores.
After that, he never coached again.
*That's the German term for joy at the misfortune of others. But if you went to Vanderbilt instead of UT, you probably know that already.