KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Lane Kiffin is returning to Southern California as the Trojans' coach after just one season at Tennessee.
Kiffin was chosen Tuesday to replace Pete Carroll, his mentor and employer for six seasons. Kiffin was the Trojans' offensive coordinator before his brief stints with the Oakland Raiders and the Volunteers.
"This was not an easy decision," he said Tuesday night, reading a brief statement on Tennessee's campus. "This is something that happens very quick. We've been here 14 months, and the support has been unbelievable here. I really believe the only place I would have left here to go was ... Southern California."
His father, respected defensive coach Monte Kiffin, and longtime USC assistant Ed Orgeron also will leave Tennessee to join him, USC said in a statement. Volunteers assistant Kippy Brown, who joined Kiffin's staff less than four weeks ago, was promoted to interim coach.
ESPN.com first reported the surprising move by Kiffin and the Trojans, who needed just one day to fill one of the most desirable jobs in college football. Carroll formally took over the Seattle Seahawks on Tuesday after winning 97 games, seven Pac-10 championships and two national titles over the past nine years.
"We are really excited to welcome Lane Kiffin back to USC," Trojans athletic director Mike Garrett said. "I was able to watch him closely when he was an assistant with us, and what I saw was a bright, creative young coach who I thought would make an excellent head coach here if the opportunity ever arose. I'm confident he and his staff will keep USC football performing at the high level that we expect."
The 34-year-old Kiffin is one of Carroll's top disciples from his nine-year tenure at USC. Kiffin, a former Fresno State quarterback, worked his way up to offensive coordinator in 2005 while also showing impressive skills as the Trojans' recruiting coordinator after Orgeron's departure from Los Angeles.
For two seasons, Kiffin shared responsibility for the Trojans' offense with fellow longtime Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian, who left USC to take over at Washington after the 2008 season.
Although Kiffin's forceful personality didn't make him a beloved figure among players or administrators, he was a key part of the Trojans' best years under Carroll, coordinating their passing game and providing instruction to quarterbacks Matt Leinart and John David Booty.
Kiffin then became Al Davis' unusual choice to take over the Oakland Raiders as a 31-year-old coach with almost no NFL experience. He made it through just 20 games before an ugly public firing in which Davis called Kiffin a liar who brought "disgrace" on the Raiders.
Kiffin went 7-6 at Tennessee last season as the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Many credited him with revitalizing the program, but he also brought an unwelcome spotlight on the Vols with several minor NCAA violations.
"I know that I can walk out of here and say this, that we've been here for 14 months and there's not one day I didn't give everything I had to the Tennessee football program," Kiffin said. "We're leaving here 14 months later a lot better team than we were 14 months ago."
Knoxville fire officials and university police were on campus after Kiffin's announcement as students burned mattresses and gathered around the athletic department building in hopes of blocking Kiffin from leaving campus. It was not clear if Kiffin was still on campus at the time.
"I think the students have had kind of a violent reaction to that, and a lot of them are disheartened, upset and feel betrayed that less than a year in that he would be leaving and taking off," Knoxville Fire Department spokesman D.J. Corcoran said.
"The Rock," a giant boulder on campus where students often paint "Happy Birthday" messages, had obscenities directed toward Kiffin. Students tried to enter the room where Kiffin read his statement, holding a sign that read "Go home traitor. It's time," mimicking a campaign the university used to promote Kiffin when he was hired. But the students were turned back before Kiffin talked.
Kiffin certainly didn't sound ready to leave after Tennessee's season ended with a loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, saying the Vols were "just getting started" – but the Trojans didn't have a vacancy then.
Kiffin owed an $800,000 buyout to Tennessee for leaving early. He told his players about his abrupt departure moments before reading his statement.
"I want to thank coach Kiffin for his work with our program this past year," Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said. "We have already begun a search for the new head football coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, and we'll complete this process as quickly as possible to put the right person in place to lead our great football program forward in the months and years ahead."
Kiffin returns to USC with the school facing a yearslong NCAA investigation over events during his tenure as an assistant, including Reggie Bush's final years at the school. While no discipline has been handed down, it's widely expected to arrive later this year.
Kiffin was suggested as a candidate immediately after Carroll's departure became official Sunday, but many Trojans thought he wouldn't be willing or able to leave Tennessee after just one year. Yet several coaches with USC ties said they weren't interested in the job, including NFL coaches Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio and Oregon State coach Mike Riley.
Monte Kiffin will lend his defensive acumen to a school that annually fielded an impressive defense under Carroll, while Orgeron is likely to return to his role as the Trojans' best recruiter who helped stack Carroll's early USC teams with a dizzying array of topflight talent.
"Ed did a marvelous job during his previous time at USC, and we all know that Monte is a defensive guru," Garrett said. "I know Lane will fill out his staff with other outstanding assistants like them, ones who Trojan players and fans will really like."
AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham in Los Angeles and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.