SEVIERVILLE — For the Israel family in Sevierville, an attempt to have fun with their son, Landon, turned into a memory that will last a lifetime.
Landon, who is nine years old, has always known Big Orange due to living near Knoxville and his dad, Justin, being a Tennessee graduate, but due to the team’s lack of success lately, Landon wanted a change of scenery.
“My favorite player on the Vols last year, Henry To’o To’o, (is transferring) and all the other good players started leaving,” Landon said. “So I was like they aren’t going to be very good this year, and I’m going to pull for another team.”
He decided to enter the fan transfer portal by writing letters to a couple of teams, and Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin scooped him up thanks to his efforts in the recruiting process.
Alabama, LSU and Tennessee were in the final four for Landon’s fandom along with Ole Miss after he narrowed it down to four schools.
“He came up with the idea of picking a new team and writing a letter. I told him to narrow it down to four schools and write them,” Justin said. “He had reasons for each school. Alabama was in it, because they win national titles and Nick Saban. LSU was because one of his favorite NFL players Odell Beckham Jr. played there and he likes when Coach O says ‘Geaux Tigers’ at the end of interviews. Ole Miss was on his list because he likes the Manning family and DK Metcalf and Evan Engram, and Tennessee was on the list, because of Peyton (Manning) and his dad likes Tennessee.”
The Crimson Tide and Tigers tried to recruit Landon by sending him gifts, but it was Kiffin’s personal touch of calling Landon that won him and his family over.
“We get a lot of letters over the years. We try to respond to them in some manner,” Kiffin said. “I thought his was a little bit different. It was neat for him to take this much time, so we wanted to do something that the kid will remember for the rest of his life. Instead of just sending something, we decided to call him and talk to his dad. We set up a call with (Landon) so we could personally talk to him. We wanted to find him a home for a fan. He is a really mature kid, and I think he will develop into a premier five star fan. He is one that we won’t need to redshirt, and he will be ready when he gets here.”
With so many of Landon’s favorite NFL players and the Manning family ties to Ole Miss, on top of his new relationship with Kiffin, the fit is perfect.
When Kiffin called Landon, he even admitted that he got star-struck, and Justin was equally as surprised that the two connected to talk.
“(Coach Kiffin) said good afternoon, and asked me if I had been to a Vols games,” Landon said. “I said ‘yeah,’ and then he told me I should be an Ole Miss fan, because in school you’ll see an Alabama shirt or LSU or Tennessee. When you see an Ole Miss shirt though, you’re the cool kid, and I like Ole Miss and I think they’re going to be good this year.”
Going after Landon’s fandom against Alabama and Tennessee was nothing new for Kiffin since he recruits players against both those teams, and he knew exactly how to beat them out.
“Just like recruiting, you have to know your opponent and know how invested they are,” Kiffin said. “I think some people wrote letters, some send some sunglasses, but there is nothing like personal touch. I think calling him myself and talking to him was the big factor in this. Maybe those guys will learn next time.”
As for the Rebels this fall, Landon believes they are going to go 12-0.
The Israel family will making a much anticipated trip to Oxford for the LSU game in October, but Landon still has to figure out before the season who his favorite Ole Miss player is going to be.
The family didn’t expect much out of the attempt to have fun thinking they might get something back by mail, but never in their wildest dreams did they think Kiffin would tweet pictures of the letters Landon had sent.
They also never thought that Kiffin would call them, but here they are with Landon now being an Ole Miss fan.
They mainly wanted to help Landon get better at writing letters like he has been doing in school, but now they have two teams to pull for on Saturday’s in the fall.
“I am a Vols fan. I have been for a long time, and he came to me and asked why I pulled for them when they lose,” Justin said. “I told Landon that when I was his age that Tennessee had their powerhouse years. Unfortunately, he hasn’t got to experience that with Tennessee. As a dad, I wanted him to pick his team and he didn’t have to follow in my footsteps if he didn’t want to.
The way Kiffin handled the situation put smiles on everyone in the family’s face, and it has Landon as excited as can be.
“I was shocked whenever I got a message that Coach Kiffin wanted to recruit Landon,” Justin said. “I figured it would be something in the mail or something like that. I got a message that he wanted to talk to him on the phone, and I was really caught off guard and shocked. It is pretty funny, and Landon is enjoying it. I am enjoying it too as his father. We didn’t do this to get glory or credit or 15 minutes of fame. We just did it to have a good time with Landon. Coach Kiffin has been great, and Landon will remember it for the rest of his life. He will always have a story to tell.”