OXFORD, Miss. – The 12th question I ask Lane Kiffin during an interview inside his office earlier this month is the one I’m dying to know the answer to.
Where is the yellow golf ball?
Kiffin reaches inside the top right-hand drawer of his desk and produces the ball.
“There it is,” Kiffin says, before rolling the ball across his desk to me.
The infamous yellow golf ball thrown at Kiffin from the Neyland Stadium stands last fall is a Strata Super Range ball. It shows signs of weathering, with the NGE of Range nearly worn off.
It’s now a token from Ole Miss’ 31-26 victory over the Vols on Oct. 16 amid a raucous scene that turned ugly in the fourth quarter.
Incensed by the officiating, revved up by Kiffin’s return and perhaps influenced by a little too much nectar of the gods, Vols fans threw a deluge of debris onto the field, interrupting the game for nearly 20 minutes.
Among the objects that flew onto the field was this golf ball. Directed at Kiffin, it wound up at the feet of the former Tennessee coach. He pocketed the ball, and it now resides in the top drawer of his desk.
“That’s not on purpose that it’s there,” Kiffin says, “not like I bring it out every day to look at it.”
The golf ball reappeared in March when Kiffin swapped a baseball in favor of the Strata as he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the first game of Ole Miss’ home baseball series against Tennessee.
“There were a lot of people, when they said, ‘Hey, you’re throwing out the first pitch. You’ve got to do the golf ball,’ ” Kiffin said. “And I was kind of like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t want to take away from the baseball. Is that going to give Tennessee baseball motivation? Like, bulletin board (material) right before the first pitch?’ “
Kiffin discussed the idea with Ole Miss baseball coach Mike Bianco beforehand, and “they were all on board.”
Kiffin left Tennessee in January 2010 after one season as coach in favor of the Southern Cal job. He’d previously spent six seasons with the Trojans as an assistant to Pete Carroll and he’s said that USC was the only job that would have uprooted him from Tennessee.
Some Vols fans have forgiven Kiffin, and some remain intrigued by him, but others still consider him a pariah.
Kiffin sensed Vols fans bubbling toward a bursting point during the fourth quarter of last season’s game, when they cheered while Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral briefly went down with injury.
“That’s when it turned,” Kiffin said, “like, in ‘Gladiator,’ literally when the guy gives the thumbs up and then he gives the thumbs down to kill the guy. That’s what I felt like, like it was a gladiator where the coliseum had one common theme about winning this game, hating this person, hating this (opponent). It just got electric, and we couldn’t hear.”
“That’s a home-field advantage,” Kiffin added. “It always has been there, especially at night. I say, there and LSU, night games there, those places are electric. The fans are wired differently because they’ve been drinking for 12 hours, not four hours.”
Kiffin had returned to Neyland Stadium twice as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, but he admits that the scene last fall “was different.”
The golf ball in Kiffin’s desk drawer is proof of that.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.