Kiffin, not Vols, real target for NCAA

Behind closed doors at Tennessee, Lane Kiffin is referred to sarcastically as the gift that keeps on giving.

His lasting “gift” was an NCAA investigation.

But with the release Wednesday of the NCAA’s notice of allegations, the guy who had to come in and clean up Kiffin’s mess, Derek Dooley, can finally see the finish line in this whole ordeal, one that has festered ever since Kiffin left town in January 2010 to the smell of burning mattresses.

Some of the students on Tennessee’s campus went into semi-riot mode the night it was announced Kiffin was bolting for USC.

The real riot, though, may be that Kiffin, even though he’s now on the West Coast, may be the one who gets spanked the hardest by the NCAA for his refusal to adhere to the simplest of NCAA rules and monitor his assistant coaches.

Even when warned, Kiffin found a way to sidestep NCAA rules.

What’s it all mean for Tennessee football?

The Vols are by no means completely in the clear, nor should they be. After all, current Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton is the one who hired Kiffin. But what is clear is that the NCAA seems a lot more intent on going after Kiffin than the Tennessee football program.

The violations outlined in the NCAA’s report could end up costing the Vols some recruiting visits, limit who goes out on the road during contact periods and maybe even dock them a scholarship or two, although precedent in similar cases suggests scholarship reductions probably won’t be one of the penalties handed down by the NCAA.

But the more serious charge of failure to monitor was slapped on Kiffin … and not Tennessee.

For Dooley and the current team, that’s a huge win.

Recruits have no doubt been pestering Dooley for the last year about what kind of punishment the Vols can expect to receive and whether or not major probation was on the way for the football team.

The Vols still won’t find out their specific punishment until after they go before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in June. But reading between the lines, at least based on what was in the notice of allegations, those penalties figure to be minor in nature.

Keep in mind, too, that there was real concern by Tennessee officials that the Vols’ football program would get hit with a failure to monitor charge along with Kiffin, but Tennessee fought hard against that the whole way and was able to avoid that stain on the program.

If there’s a hero for Tennessee in this whole mess, it’s senior associate athletic director David Blackburn, who was put in charge of football administration and operations during Kiffin’s 14-month reign of terror.

Blackburn, a stickler for doing things the right away and universally respected by everyone on Tennessee’s campus, tirelessly monitored the program under Kiffin and was continually warning Kiffin what he could and couldn’t do with regard to recruiting.

Sometimes Kiffin listened, and sometimes he didn’t listen.

The key element here is that Blackburn wasn’t in any way negligent. He obviously couldn’t go on recruiting trips with coaches and wasn’t around for every recruiting call, but he stayed on top of things. He watched. He listened, and he didn’t bury his head in the sand.

If not for Blackburn’s diligence and his professionalism, there likely wouldn’t be a finish line in sight right now for Tennessee’s football program.

In fact, the Vols might well be finished.