Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton could have easily played it safe when he made the biggest hire of his career.
UT interviewed plenty of solid candidates for its football head coaching job. But only one had the upside that Hamilton coveted: Lane Kiffin.
"That's what I'm betting on here," said Hamilton on Tuesday on the News Sentinel's radio show, The Sports Page, a day after introducing Kiffin as head coach. "I think all the guys that we looked at and interviewed could come in and do the job well and win eight or nine games regularly and maybe do better than that in some years.
"But what you're trying to do is you're trying to find the guy that has 'it'. For me, age, energy, recruiting ability, focus, bloodlines, all those things, Lane Kiffin had the most upside."
With that upside comes a risky downside. With such a short track record as a head coach (less than two seasons with the Oakland Raiders), Kiffin's ability to discipline his players could be questioned.
Hoping to address that concern, Hamilton talked to Kiffin's former boss, Southern California head coach Pete Carroll.
"There's always a gamble in anything you do," Hamilton said. "All I can go on is what Pete Carroll told me about that. He said that he actually learned some things from Lane as it related to discipline.
"I've got to trust Pete. He's had a pretty good success record over the years."
Hamilton received a great answer from Carroll, but knows it's no guarantee.
"Talk's cheap until it comes to fruition," Hamilton said. "We'll see what happens."
UT's disastrous 5-7 season in 2008 all but guaranteed that a significant press conference would be held in early December.
Perhaps it would be changes to Phillip Fulmer's staff. Perhaps it would be to announce Fulmer's departure.
Instead, it was to formally announce Kiffin as UT's 21st head football coach.
Had UT waited until after the season to dismiss Fulmer, Hamilton is sure that Kiffin's press conference would have never happened, at least not in Knoxville.
"I don't think Lane Kiffin would have been available," Hamilton said.
While the timing allowed Hamilton to get his man, he maintains it wasn't planned that way.
"That wasn't the reason for doing what we did, because we didn't know Lane then," Hamilton said. "The process allowed us to get on about our business and bring it to conclusion so we could hit the ground recruiting.
"From an emotional standpoint, change is never good. From a standpoint of letting our new coach get on the road yesterday and get out of the gate in the right way, in this case it was beneficial."
Yet in some ways the change kept things the same. Kiffin's resume presents UT with a tireless recruiter and an offensive coach willing to turn over his defense to an experienced coordinator.
Hamilton acknowledged that some of Kiffin's characteristics are quite Fulmer-like: "The determination to succeed, the competitive fire and certainly Phillip has always been about a very intense approach to recruiting. Those are things that kind of hit me.
"Then there are things that are very different."
One difference is that Kiffin isn't a UT guy. Fulmer knew the lyrics to "Rocky Top" before Kiffin was born. So if Kiffin has success, will he simply use UT as a big orange stepping stone?
Many said the same about UT basketball coach Bruce Pearl. Now Pearl seems content in Knoxville thanks to pay increases, facility upgrades and something far less tangible.
"That's a day-to-day relationship-building experience you go through," Hamilton said. "We all want to work with people we trust and feel good about coming to work with everyday.
"We all want to be compensated for our efforts but there's something to be said for living in a great place, working in a great place, feeling like you have the resources to be successful and the support to be successful."
If Kiffin ends up as coveted as Pearl, Hamilton's gamble will look like a winning lottery ticket.