How Kiffin Helped Clemson Become Elite
USC fans despise ex-head coach Lane Kiffin for the program’s nosedive on his watch, and Tennessee backers are still angry at how he bolted Knoxville after one season. But there’s at one fan base that should be very thankful for Kiffin: Clemson’s.
By season’s end, Tigers QB Tajh Boyd will secure his place as one of the best players in program history. Yet there was a time when he was seemingly destined to ply his college football-playing trade for a team with a different shade of orange 200 miles to the northwest.
Midway through his 2008 senior season at Phoebus High School in Hampton, VA, Boyd switched his commitment from West Virginia - to whom he had committed the previous March - to the Vols, only to watch them dismiss head coach Phil Fulmer in early November.
Tennessee replaced Fulmer with Kiffin less than a month later, and Boyd was still committed to attending Tennessee despite the regime change. There was just one problem: Kiffin wasn’t interested in Boyd as his quarterback. Although there are conflicting reports about what exactly took place, The Advocate reported that Kiffin never spoke to Tajh directly and told his father that Tennessee would honor Boyd’s scholarship but that he didn’t fit into the team’s plans and its pro-style offense.
In Kiffin’s pseudo-defense, Boyd spent the entirety of his senior season at Phoebus - during which he led the Phantoms to their first of four state Division 5 championships - playing on a torn knee ligament, one that would require surgery before his college career could begin in earnest. It stands to reason that any head coach in Kiffin’s position would’ve viewed Boyd’s injury status as a concern.
Still, it doesn’t detract from the fact that Kiffin essentially told Rivals’ fourth-best quarterback prospect in the Class of 2009, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
As a result, Boyd reopened his recruiting. Both he and his parents, Tim and Carla, fell in love with Clemson’s small-town feel and location in the Blue Ridge foothills - a welcome change from their gritty neighborhood in Virginia Beach. In January 2009, Boyd committed to the Tigers, and he and his family relocated to South Carolina.
While Kiffin’s straight talk helped Boyd wind up in Clemson, it was an entirely different set of factors that allowed him to blossom into a star and the Tigers to become a national power.
After Boyd’s redshirt freshman season, in 2010, head coach Dabo Swinney fired offensive coordinator Billy Napier and replaced him with Chad Morris, who had won two state titles at Lake Travis (TX) High School with a high-flying spread offense. Simultaneously, incumbent starter Kyle Parker gave up football in order to pursue a pro baseball career, while onetime super recruit Willie Korn transferred to Marshall.
All of which allowed Boyd to seize the starter’s job and hit the ground running, with 3,828 yards and 33 TDs passing as a redshirt sophomore in 2011. After an even better junior year, Boyd is now a contender for the Heisman Trophy and expected to be a high pick in next spring’s NFL draft.
Meanwhile, Kiffin is unemployed and Tennessee is desperately searching for a starting quarterback. The two signal-callers who have seen time for the Vols this fall, Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman, have a combined nine touchdowns and eight interceptions.
It’d be a stretch to say that Lane Kiffin is the reason that Clemson has transformed itself from ACC underachiever to Top 10 power. But just imagine: If Kiffin had welcomed Boyd to Tennessee with open arms, he’d be a Volunteer now and Clemson may or may not have found someone else to rewrite the Tigers’ passing record books. Someone else to lead the team to a 27-6 record since the start of the 2011 season. Someone else to help them reach the No. 3 ranking the country.
Someone else to make Clemson, well, stop pulling a Clemson.