KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The voice comes over the phone, calmly but urgently.
"You write your story yet?"
It has been a day since the interview and the notebook is stuffed. As a wise man once said, "This is gold, Jerry! Gold!" But there is a dramatic pause on the line and you think: Oh no, all of it was too good. He's going to backtrack. Afraid to hurt feelings, dent chrome, take another swipe after all the damage he has done.
"Well, I'm not going to tell you what to write, but you should make it clear, you know, well, this stuff was on purpose."
|By staying in the news, Lane Kiffin keeps recruits thinking about Tennessee. 'They're seeing the 'T' again,' he says. (AP)|
"But your dad said when you came off the podium on signing day you remarked, 'God, I shouldn't have said that.'"
"See," the voice says. "I even fooled him."
An hour later, the voice on the line is there in person, projecting from a different podium.
"Thanks for coming," Lane Kiffin says to a packed room of media waiting for him to trip up again. "We can't wait to get spring practice to get started ..."
Lane Kiffin gets it
If you've come here to read how Tennessee's new coach is going yap his way out of a job he has barely started, it ain't happening. If you think Division I-A's youngest, most cocksure coach has kicked off his career going negative, well, you're right. There have been three secondary NCAA violations. He called out Florida -- twice. Maybe insulted the entire state of South Carolina. Pissed off the SEC. In the process he has made Al Davis look practically lucid.
Now Kiffin has called to tell you that it was all intentional. No one is that dumb, right? But life is three dimensional and we aren't used to three dimensional in college football. Unfortunately, this sport and its fans tend to view things on a flat plane 120 yards long.
You know, now, that Lane Kiffin gets it. We're all being played. The networks. The writers. The players. Gator Nation. Even Vol Nation.
You either get it along with him or you're missing the biggest college football story of 2009. Embrace the Smirk.
He has a foil -- and a plan
For years, Steve Spurrier played Scrabble with the letters UT. For the most part, Phil Fulmer and Tennessee sat back and took it. It was Dennis Miller vs. Henny Youngman.
Kiffin has chosen to take out a scalpel and make an incision. You're either Lane or Lane Bait. The difference being, Spur Dog had all those SEC titles at Florida and wins over Tennessee. Kiffin is waiting to coach his first college game.
Yeah, well, tough. This is Marketing 101. There is no such thing as bad publicity, especially when top recruits had begun to ignore your school.
It's obvious now the Gators are obsessed with this new phenomenon in their craw.
Hate is a wonderful thing, especially when it can be turned against you.
|Mentioning Kiffin's name probably won't make Florida's Urban Meyer and Jeremy Foley smile. (US Presswire)|
Hee-hee. It seems like the joke is on everybody else. Shortly before the spring presser, someone showed Kiffin a cell phone picture of one of his famous quotes now hanging in the Gators' new Heavener Football Complex.
"I'm really looking forward to embracing some of the great traditions at the University of Tennessee," Kiffin said the day he was hired, "for instance the Vol Walk, running through the T, singing Rocky Top all night long after we beat Florida next year. It will be a blast."
Glancing at the phone picture, the coach smiled and said, "Beautiful. Awesome. Wonderful. They even put our logo on it. Free advertising and we didn't have to pay for it."
Florida has made his day because Florida has taken the bait.
Never mind that mild-mannered Jim Tressel basically did the same thing, calling out Michigan at halftime of a basketball game after he was hired at Ohio State. That was cute. Different conference. Different time. This is war.
The Gator message boards are filled with "Lame" Kiffin bombast. The columnists have bit on the worm. How dare a coach who failed in the NFL and hasn't coached a college game for a school that hasn't won squat since 1998 taunt the defending national champs?
They still don't get it. Kiffin wants you to hate him. Or love him, it doesn't matter. Just talk about him. Get "Tennessee" or "Vols" in the headline. Show his mug on television.
"The best way to do it is to get our colors, our helmet in Sports Illustrated, in USA Today," Kiffin said, "because this isn't the NFL. This is about recruiting. Every freshman, every sophomore, every junior in America saw Tennessee over these last couple of weeks. They're seeing the 'T' again, they're seeing the colors."
That, you cannot deny.
'He doesn't back down'
Kiffin gets it because he understands that, in the SEC, unless you get players everything else is fluff. First, he got the best coaches he can find. His 68-year-old dad, Monte, made a monumental move from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back to college. Lane still crows about ripping master recruiter Lance Thompson from Alabama. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is the answer to the question, Who was Drew Brees' OC at Purdue?
|With his NFL bona fides, Monte Kiffin (left) garners instant respect. (AP)|
The staff makes a combined $5.25 million, huge money but also in line with the goal to get this thing turned around: Get the coaches, recruit like hell and resurrect UT. While you're at it, let everyone know you're coming.
"You better keep up or you show up like a sore thumb," said Chaney of his 5:15 a.m.-to-9 p.m. workdays. "We want high energy. We are passionate. It's not manufactured, it's real."
Kiffin understands that folks had stopped talking about Tennessee. When they did mention the Vols in mixed company, it was about what went wrong in a 5-7 season that cost Fulmer his job. That and how God-awful it was to watch a unit that was fourth-worst nationally in total offense. It was a stale program.
Kiffin sold the fact that he called plays for back-to-back Pac-10 champions in 2005-06 and helped Southern Cal's Reggie Bush win a Heisman. The disastrous dalliance with the Raiders? Kiffin looks at it like he couldn't lose. The Raiders sucked before he got there. If he turned it around, he was miracle worker. If he didn't, it was Davis' incompetence.
Whenever Kiffin opens his mouth lately, Oakland's Crypt Keeper looks more and more credible. Then something like Monday comes along. After only 3½ months on the job, Kiffin snagged No. 1 recruit Bryce Brown out of Wichita, Kan. Another brick in the recruiting wall.
"I love Tennessee and coach Kiffin," Brown told reporters. "He doesn't back down."
It's funny what we can overlook when we fall in love. The Raiders are saying nasty things about Kiffin. The coach has had to come off the road to fly to the West Coast for depositions. A letter sent by Oakland attorneys last week basically threatened to sue the school if Kiffin ever says the words "Oakland" and "Raiders" in public again.
Oh well, there's always the orange love.
"I told him, in this state it's Dolly Parton, Elvis and you," AD Mike Hamilton said. "Not necessarily in that order."
"Whatever it is, I feel like this staff has it," All-American defensive back Eric Berry said.
Berry chose his words carefully. He doesn't want to disparage his former coach. No one inside the football complex does. The anti-Fulmer fans got their way, but that's not what this about. Kiffin himself knew he had to endear himself to a populace that had seen only two head coaches in the past 32 years. There were factions. There were Johnny Majors factions. There were Fulmer factions, too. There was a Kiffin faction that bought in simply because he wasn't Fulmer.
Berry remembers his new coach's first meeting with the players. There was something in the air. The upheaval of a coaching change. The defense, he said, had "separated" from the offense.
"It was just a little awkward," Berry said. "I think he gained a lot of respect in that first meeting. A lot of people were probably making it seem like he was responsible for getting coach Fulmer fired. As soon as he [spoke] I think the players felt better. We felt like we all needed to get on the bandwagon and make this thing work."
What did the coach say? New era. All the jobs are open. There will be no conditioning after practice because practice is conditioning. A coach's son born in Minnesota but who has also lived in Nebraska, Arkansas, Green Bay, Buffalo, Long Island, Fresno, Colorado, Jacksonville, L.A. and Oakland was laying down the (out)law.
"Go back to the way I was raised. I was raised growing up with my dad," he said. "I had to learn to deal in all these situations, all these different cultures."
|Star defensive back Eric Berry quickly became a believer in Tennessee's new coaching staff. (Getty Images)|
When he is done making his points, it is suggested that you might be hearing a repeat of his interview with Tennessee.
The SEC doesn't laugh at itself enough. Great football, but too many clenched jaws. There's just not enough Spurrier anymore, especially since The Ol' Ball Coach began to lose his fastball at South Carolina. Even Spurrier understands you can't tweak the nose of someone who beats your butt.
At Tennessee, football as life and death has been twisted into a balloon animal by Kiffin. Before the Vols can win again, they have to lighten up. The players are mostly clueless to the fact that Kiffin is involved in a heated legal battle with the Raiders. They either don't know or don't care that defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was a failure as a head coach at Ole Miss.
"It's contagious," Berry said. "You wake up at 5 in the morning and see Coach O in his office drinking Red Bull and coffee.
"We don't have a choice but to be excited."
Apathetic was never a word associated with Neyland Stadium. But there they were, empty seats last season. A glorious empire in decline.
Kiffin inherited a desk that was purposefully built up about a foot off the ground by it former occupier. It's obvious there was a throne-quality to the setup. With everything else swirling around him, that is where the new coach draws the line.
"Come on," he said. "Let's go back here."
In a trophy room/lounge appointed with the spoils of Tennessee's glorious football past, Kiffin unwinds.
His reign, to date, is discussed.
The junior day that made national headlines recently: "That's classic SEC," Kiffin said.
Prospects were in a meeting room when several coaches burst in, topless. Not that there is anything wrong with that. However, in the Deep South it is against the code. You know the one: State troopers at the postgame handshake. A lot of polyester and hounds tooth.
Half-naked screaming coaches? Son, you ain't from around here are you?
But on this day, Kiffin is in cross trainers, shorts and a modest UT long-sleeve shirt that wicks the sweat off the body. ("I didn't take my shirt off," he reminds you.) Kiffin brought the topless look from USC, where recruits were asked to do the same thing.
"It's the best story you could ever have," Kiffin said. "You can't get all these recruits on your campus. You've got to convince them to take an official visit. What better way when they read about this.
"We had numerous kids the next day [say] this was the best junior day I was ever at. They had a blast. They said, 'These coaches are so intense, so high energy. You can tell they're going to win here. Tennessee is at the top of my list now.'"
The three NCAA violations: "There's so many secondary violations that go on that you don't hear about. ... Somebody told me Nick (Saban) had 24 his first year. ... A majority of them don't even make it to the media. The problem right here, because it's Tennessee and it's a new job and the approach I've taken of pushing things a little, everybody is looking for something. We're real quick to turn things in. We know everybody is looking at us."
The constant derision of Florida: "I don't think because something was said, all the sudden Florida is going to try harder. This is a great rivalry, a great matchup. I really don't think we're going to be able to go in there our first year and sneak up on them."
Ya think? Kiffin has put his players in a box. They know it but they love it. On the record, too.
"Like I told him, I'm going to ride with him until the wheels fall off," Berry said. "I feel like he's one of my cousins who happens to be a little older than me. ... He called out Florida, so we have to make sure we do everything we need to in the offseason to make his words come true."
Father knows defense best
Monte Kiffin loves Bob Devaney. Loves him.
Late in the 1963 season, Monte, then a Nebraska junior defensive tackle, went out and celebrated a victory over Oklahoma a bit too much. Devaney, the legendary Huskers coach, suspended him. Monte missed the Gotham Bowl and thought his career was in jeopardy.
"He gave me a second chance," said the 68-year-old defensive mastermind. "I started my senior year. Three years later Devaney hired me as a grad assistant. I owe everything to him. It started my whole career. I'll never forget that."
You're living through what happened next. Had the Bobfather stuck his boot on Monte's throat, we probably would have never known the Tampa 2. Monte would have never become Pete Carroll's mentor while they were both at Arkansas 30 years ago. Carroll's wife, Glena, would have never babysat 2-year-old Lane. Certainly, Lane would have never been hired at USC in 2001.
Now Monte is the legend, smiling all the time, kind of half-limping through the day, telling jokes and reviewing film with players. There have been no worries about an NFL coordinator coming back to college after 27 years away. He has been Francisco Rodriguez in recruiting -- the closer. For this generation of players, there is every chance that they know Monte from the NFL more than they know his son from the NFL.
"If you can't do it right for him, who can you do it right for?" linebacker Rico McCoy said.
The strange thing this is, the D last season was not the problem. Tennessee finished tied for third in total defense. Lane has made sure it stays that way, even if Dad did have to take a pay cut to become the nation's highest-paid coordinator ($1.2 million).
"Whether he was here or not, I talk to him every day on the phone," Lane said. "It's not that exciting that my dad's down the hall. Maybe that sounds shallow. It's because I know how well our defense is going to be coached."
Lane doesn't give a damn
Except for the important stuff. Recruiting. Players. Game day. Championships.
The reality is that Tennessee doesn't figure to be a factor in the SEC East this fall. In his fantastic first class Kiffin didn't recruit a quarterback. All the best ones are signed. He preferred to get in on current juniors who will be available in 2010.
The quarterbacks on the roster don't wow you, leftovers from the old regime. Tennessee used to pump out quarterbacks like Honda pumps out Civics. For all the hype and promises and trash-talking, the giant hole behind center reminds us this is still a process.
Florida will still be waiting in Gainesville on Sept. 19.
So will Davis and Foley and the SEC if Tennessee's coach slips up again.
"I think at some point we all liked to be liked," Hamilton said.
Apparently, not all of us.