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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin isn't talking as the former Tennessee coach prepares to make his much-anticipated return to Knoxville.
He has no choice.
Alabama coach Nick Saban's policy of keeping his assistants off limits to the media during the regular season means Kiffin isn't sharing his emotions as he heads back to a town that hasn't forgiven him nearly five years after his messy departure. Kiffin coached Tennessee for just one season before leaving for Southern California three weeks prior to National Signing Day.
"We had a great year there," Kiffin said in August, the only time he's spoken to reporters since coming to Alabama. "The people were phenomenal there. (I) really loved being there. It was just a unique situation that came about. You can't look back."
Tennessee fans also want to move forward, but they haven't forgotten the past.
"I think all Tennessee fans didn't appreciate it one iota — the timing and the way in which he left," said Jeff Hagood, president of the Knoxville Quarterback Club. "And I don't think those feelings have dissipated very much at all."
Still, as No. 4 Alabama (6-1, 3-1 SEC) gets ready for Saturday's game at Tennessee (3-4, 0-3), both teams are downplaying Kiffin's return. None of the current Volunteers played for Kiffin.
"I think it's only a distraction if you allow it to be a distraction," said Saban, who has had to deal with a similar situation himself.
In 2008 he took Alabama to LSU for the first time. He had coached the Tigers from 2000-04. Alabama beat 27-21 in overtime.
"It was very negative, getting hung in effigy and burned at the stake and just about everything that could happen happened," Saban said. "The way I tried to manage that with the players is to let them know that that was going to happen and to not be affected by it, and that it would probably be pretty rowdy when we got off the bus to go to the locker room, but that would really have nothing to do with what happened in the game."
Tuning out the outside noise would be good for both teams with all the bad blood in Tennessee regarding Kiffin.
Tennessee went 7-6 under Kiffin in 2009. He raised optimism by taking shots at the Vols' biggest rivals and landing heralded recruits.
"I think in two or three years, we would have built a dominant program back to where Tennessee was the years that Coach (Phillip) Fulmer was there and Coach (Johnny) Majors was there," said Ed Orgeron, Kiffin's defensive line coach at Tennessee.
But then it all suddenly ended.
Kiffin announced his departure at a late-night media gathering amid reports his assistants were calling Tennessee recruits and attempting to bring them to USC. Students burned mattresses and gathered around the athletic department building in protest.
Oregeron said this week the move to USC was a "hard decision" and indicated he wished that last night at Tennessee had gone differently.
Kiffin went 28-15 in 3 ½ seasons at USC before getting fired last October. Saban hired him in January.
"For me personally, it's been a while ago," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Luke Stocker, who played for Tennessee from 2007-10. "A lot of things in my life have developed since then. I guess you could say time heals all wounds. I'd like to think he probably did what he felt was best for his family. It obviously hurt a lot of people at Tennessee — players, fans, whatever. But as a program, we've moved on."
Well, Tennessee has tried to move on.
The Vols are on probation through Aug. 23 due to violations committed by Willie Mack Garza, an assistant on Kiffin's staff. Tennessee has endured four straight losing seasons since Kiffin's departure. A political action committee recently sent out a mailer comparing a Tennessee state representative running for re-election to Kiffin because both are "all talk."
Tennessee officials want to make sure Neyland Stadium's sellout crowd isn't too hostile to Kiffin, who works on the sidelines rather than in the coaches' box.
After Tennessee fans made profane chants Oct. 4 during a 10-9 loss to Florida, students received an email from chancellor Jimmy Cheek calling their language "totally unacceptable. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said this week that "It is important that they understand what they represent. They represent a brand."
The president of the Knoxville Quarterback Club believes fans will control their emotions.
"Tennessee people are warm people and inviting people by nature," Hagood said, "so I think the vast majority of fans will receive Kiffin very negatively in their hearts and thoughts, but their actions will not be offensive."
AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall in Tampa and John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.