Everything’s back to normal between the University of Tennessee’s football coaches and Pahokee High School.
Which is to say the Vols are once again welcome to recruit at the talent-rich South Florida school.
Two weeks after UT running backs coach Eddie Gran was asked to leave the Pahokee campus, town officials and principal Ariel Alejo got the apology they were seeking, the town’s vice mayor said Tuesday evening.
Pahokee vice mayor Henry Crawford Jr., mayor Wayne Whitaker, city manager Matthew Brock, Alejo and Gran met at city hall and Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin delivered an apology by telephone late Tuesday afternoon.
“Everything is a go,” Crawford said. “(Kiffin) apologized once again, and they are welcome any day, any time.”
The saga began after Kiffin signed Pahokee wide receiver Nu’Keese Richardson, a longtime Florida commitment who flipped to UT days before National Signing Day on Feb. 3.
During a recruiting celebration for UT boosters Feb. 4, Kiffin made comments that were reported in the Gainesville Sun that offended many of the town’s residents and officials. He also told boosters that he asked Richardson to fax his letter of intent from the middle school so no one at Pahokee would “screw it up.”
Kiffin later apologized, saying his comments weren’t meant to offend and he didn’t realize media were present when those comments were made. He echoed that apology in an interview with the Palm Beach Post last month.
On Tuesday, Kiffin apologized over the phone to Alejo and three Pahokee officials, and that was enough to regain access to Pahokee High School, where the Vols have offered at least five prospects in the class of 2010.
“We got an apology,” Crawford said. “That’s all we wanted.”
Alejo, who until recently had a Florida logo underneath his bio on the school’s Web page, angered Tennessee fans by banning UT’s coaches from Pahokee’s campus. Crawford, however, supported Alejo’s response to Kiffin’s comments.
“I commend the principal for the steps that he took,” Crawford said. “He had the best interests of the community at heart, his school and his football players. I don’t think he took it personally. He deemed the statements were inappropriate. I applaud him for taking steps to protect the school, our citizens and my community.”
Crawford also said he believes Kiffin’s comments about Pahokee were taken out of context.
“I don’t think the words were from the heart,” Crawford said of Kiffin’s comments from the recruiting celebration. “I think he was caught up in the minute and just said something. I don’t think it came from his heart. I really don’t. I’ve done things like that myself. After saying them, you find out what you said and how it affects the community or a person you either said them to or about.”
Tuesday’s reconciliation also ends an awkward situation at school for Richardson, as well as those players UT is recruiting.
“Things like that, that’s between (UT) and (Pahokee),” Richardson said Tuesday in an interview with WNML radio. “I’m a player. I just like to keep my boundaries. They’re in the same boat I am. They try not to pay too much attention to it.”
Crawford, for one, is glad that things are back to normal.
“I feel relief,” Crawford said. “It’s not about us. It’s for the kids. We can overcome our mistakes, but we shouldn’t hold back the kids.”
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.