Ascending Rocky Top
The first-year Tennessee coach has taken the SEC by storm — before even coaching a single game
The No. 1 recruit in the nation has signed. The 2009 recruiting class is ranked No. 10 in the country according to Rivals.com. The coaching staff is regarded as one of the best in America. The new defensive coordinator is an NFL legend. Yes, Lane Kiffin is working toward his goal of making the Tennessee football program “national” again…and a few spicy comments about conference rivals hasn’t hurt either.
While most of the media circus focuses on sound bites here and there, all of the fan-frenzied, sport’s radio hot-button comments simply deflect attention away from what actually is happening in Knoxville. With just the right coaching and recruiting pieces in place, the Volunteers might soon be ready, once again, to be in the national conversation with conference rivals like Florida, Alabama, Georgia and LSU.“This program has to go national. We need to recruit everywhere,” says Kiffin. “There are some great players in this state but we must look nationally to fill out our roster.”
For a squad that went 5-7 last season and is 11 years removed from a national championship, Kiffin explains that making Tennessee national meant first building the coaching staff, then working on changing the mindset of the team.
“The first thing I wanted to do was build the best staff in the country as far as recruiting and teaching. We’ve accomplished this and I can’t imagine it going better,” Kiffin says. “We have a great mix of SEC and NFL assistants on our staff.
“Then, the next step was to get the team into a mindset that we’re going to be competitive. For me, I didn’t care what these players had done before on the field. I want every player to have a clean slate.”
Kiffin took the clean-slate idea to an extreme by not allowing his assistant coaches to watch any tape of last year’s team except for “just enough to learn what we need for recruiting.”
Recruiting A Winner
Clearly, Kiffin’s decisions have paid huge dividends as Tennessee enters this season with the No. 10 recruiting class in the nation, according to Rivals.com. Headlined by Bryce Brown, a running back from Wichita, Kan., who was at the top of many recruiting boards (No. 1 by Rivals.com), Tennessee also is going to be stronger in the defensive secondary for years to come with the additions of defensive backs Janzen Jackson (Lake Charles, La. ) and Darren Myles (Atlanta, Ga.). Plus, the Volunteers signed a big-time receiver from Florida (Nu’Keese Richardson), once again proving Kiffin and his staff know what they are doing when it comes to recruiting.
And it’s no coincidence that the latter three recruits all hail from SEC enemy territory.
“This job has been a good fit for me because when I was at Southern Cal I was fortunate to recruit the whole country,” Kiffin says. “That prepared me for this job because you have to go everywhere. I made connections and I recruited against everyone in the country to go after the kids everyone wanted to get.”
The recruiting also stretches deep into the assistant-coaching staff (see sidebar on page 29), many of whom have SEC experience, including Ed Orgeron (three years as head coach at Mississippi); Eddie Gran (spent the last 10 years as an assistant at Auburn); David Reaves (spent the last seven seasons working under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina); Lance Thompson (spent the last two seasons as the linebackers coach at Alabama); and Frank Wilson (spent three seasons as an assistant at Ole Miss).
“Lane has assembled an extraordinary staff at Tennessee and they’ve already recruited some major talent,” says University of Southern California head football coach Pete Carroll, who employed Kiffin as an assistant from 2001-06. “With that staff and Lane’s work ethic, drive and football sense, I think they’ll get off to as good a start as possible.”
Plus, with the addition of defensive-coaching icon Monte Kiffin (Lane’s father), the Volunteers coaching staff has all the ingredients necessary to bring big-time talent to Knoxville.
“We set the bar high with the expectations for our staff. I wanted to get the best defensive football coach, so I went after him (Monte),” Kiffin explains. “The timing was right for him and he was ready for a new challenge. For 13 years he led one of the best defenses of all-time in Tampa Bay. Now, he’s here and he’s re-energized. His charismatic personality is great for the college game, too.”
Kiffin As A College Coach
While Kiffin bestows admiration upon his father as a talented, gifted college coach, it is Lane who is manning the helm at Tennessee. He is now the youngest head coach in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), just like he was the youngest coach in the modern era of the National Football League when hired by the Oakland Raiders in January 2007.
“Being the youngest coach doesn’t mean anything to me. To get a job is not that special…to excel at it is,” Kiffin remarks. “Being the youngest coach to win a championship — now that would be special. But, I haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
Adding to the pressure on Kiffin is that he is just the third Volunteers’ coach since 1977 and follows in the footsteps of two legendary Tennessee leaders — Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer. Majors won 116 games in his 16 seasons while Fulmer won 152 games in his 17 seasons, including the 1998 national championship.
“Coach Fulmer did such an unbelievable job here and had a hall-of-fame career,” says Kiffin. “He continued the great tradition here at Tennessee.”
By now, everyone knows the circumstances that brought Kiffin to Tennessee. After just 20 games as an NFL coach in Oakland (compiling a 5-15 record), Raiders owner Al Davis fired him. The professional divorce was messy with Davis making many public comments disparaging Kiffin.
Despite the difficult time after being let go, the 34-year-old Kiffin shows maturity and takes it all in stride. In fact, to this day, he still says that taking the Oakland job was the right move.
“Having my first head job being in the pros was a great thing. I was only 31 but I was dealing with everything…the media, the draft, the salary cap…I was dealing with players older than me and who were making more money than me and I was dealing with some players I could not cut because of contracts. But it was a great experience and my time in
Oakland will help me do a better job here at Tennessee,” explains Kiffin.
For a lifelong football coach, however, being let go just four games into the 2008 pro season left Kiffin with a lot of time on his hands. Kiffin says he spent that time focusing on the jobs that were becoming (or projected to become) available. He studied the universities, the rosters and the histories of the schools, as well as reviewed game film from those schools to formulate an idea of the programs as a whole. So, when Tennessee came calling, he was ready.
“This was the best opportunity and the reality is that the college season comes before the NFL,” Kiffin says regarding whether he was considering jobs from both college and pro teams. “I studied this job and saw it as a great match.”
Plus, Kiffin says he is actually more drawn to the college game due to its recruiting system and emotions of the fan bases.
“One of the best things about college is that you don’t have to wait to pick your players, as opposed to the NFL draft system, where the successful teams pick last,” he says. “You are not penalized for doing well. Everyone has the same opportunity to go after the best players in the country.”
As for having an emotional, knowledgeable fan base, Tennessee rivals that of any school in the country. More than 50,000 fans packed Neyland Stadium for the spring game in mid-April, which was the second-largest turnout in Volunteers’ history.
“This is a school that has a passion for its sports like no other. There is high standard of excellence here at Tennessee, especially in football, and I love that, because that’s how I am. The fans are committed and involved, and we are committed to building a championship team.”
Keeping Expectations In Check
Tennessee definitely is on the right track to becoming nationally relevant again, but Kiffin takes a typical coaching stance when it comes to immediate expectations.
“We take things one day at a time and not look ahead. We can’t be worried about what our opponents are doing. We just need to be worried about ourselves,” he says. “We don’t put any goals on paper for the number of wins we expect. What happens when you reach that goal? We are just focused on working hard to get better — game by game and month by month.”
Of course, fan bases don’t want to hear about keeping expectations in check, especially when your team’s logo is being plastered on sports news channels and websites due to comments from your head coach. Kiffin, however, keeps his cool under the white-hot spotlight and says being a national program means having the media place you under the microscope. But, as long as the Tennessee name is getting in front of potential recruits around the country, the head coach is fine with it.
“You come into a situation where there already is a lot of passion for football. Add in that you are a young coach and you pay your assistants top dollar. So, you’re now giving off the appearance of being an elite-level program and all of a sudden you start signing top recruits nationally. When you combine all of that together — it brings about a lot of attention,” Kiffin says. “Now, Tennessee football is a cause of concern for other competing programs.
“But, we need that national attention. To play at a championship level and recruit on a championship level, we need to be on SportsCenter. Our high school recruits need to see the Tennessee ‘T’ when they turn on the T.V.”
At some point, the worry might be about overexposure and if all the attention, both positive and negative, is actually a good thing for the program. Kiffin doesn’t see it that way and believes all the talk only helps Tennessee.
“From a recruiting standpoint, when things (or comments) are blown up or taken out of context, the players are still seeing and hearing about Tennessee. We have been talked about quite a bit in recent months, but we also signed the No. 1 player in the country.”
Stat That Matters
Signings, recruits, media hyperbole and expectations are one thing, but taking care of business on the field is another. Kiffin says his team is hard at work to improve.
Some of that work has centered on taking care of the football, which Kiffin believes is the most-critical factor in wins and losses. He says it’s important to understand third-down conversions, rushing yards per attempt and hundreds of other football stats but in reality, everything really boils down to one glaring statistic — turnover margin.
“The No. 1 thing for our program is taking care of the football,” he explains. “Turnover margin is the No. 1 stat for winning teams.”
The numbers back up Kiffin’s claim as Florida was +23 and Oklahoma was +22 in turnover margin last season. The Gators and Sooners met for the national championship while 5-7 Tennessee only posted a +2 in that department.
If the Volunteers do a better job holding onto the ball this year, and for seasons to come, those high expectations from the fans and alumni in Knoxville might just be met.
Things always seem to happen sooner rather than later for Kiffin. Growing up in a football family, Lane wanted to emulate his father, Monte, and had plenty of opportunities not afforded to other players.
“When you grow up and your dad does something, you tend to go in that direction,” Kiffin says. “I always remember being around the game. I think back to my dad drawing plays on a blackboard and me trying to draw plays myself. When I was young, I knew I was going to do something in football. My dad helped me achieve a lot in this game at an early age.”
In particular, Kiffin says he called his own plays while quarterbacking his Jefferson High School squad in Bloomington, Minn. He then moved on to play quarterback at Fresno State from 1994-96.
His coaching career advanced rapidly as he began as a student assistant at Fresno State in 1998, then moved to Colorado State as a graduate assistant working with the offensive line. In 2000, Tom Coughlin, then of the Jacksonville Jaguars, hired Kiffin as an assistant coach and person responsible for defensive quality control. After a year, Kiffin earned his big break when Pete Carroll hired him to be the tight ends coach at the University of Southern California. Kiffin moved up the ranks at USC from coaching tight ends to wide receivers to eventually becoming offensive coordinator (as well as recruiting coordinator) in 2005. During the 2005 season, the Trojans led the nation in offense with Reggie Bush earning the Heisman Trophy (USC quarterback Matt Leinart won it the previous season). In 2006, USC eclipsed 50 points per game an astonishing seven times in one season.
“I’ve known Lane since he was a child. He was always precocious in his football knowledge and had savvy for the game that was unique because of his upbringing and his family background,” says Carroll. “He was always way ahead of the curve, very bright and just understood the nuances of the game.”
Kiffin credits working under Carroll at USC as one of the main reasons why he is coaching a big-time college program right now.
“It’s impossible to just say one or two things about Pete Carroll because he was so significant in my growth as a coach and as a person,” Kiffin explains. “His ability to motivate his staff is what makes him so special on a daily basis. His competitiveness and relentless pursuit of a competitive edge is what makes him truly special. And, he’s a well-rounded, great person as well.”
The admiration is mutual, according to Carroll. “Lane’s work ethic is what attracted him to me and when I had the chance to hire him, I jumped at the opportunity. He was part of some remarkable teams at USC and did a great job for us,” Carroll says.
Working for a coaching mind like Pete Carroll and having Monte Kiffin as a father provides Kiffin with more football experience than most at the age of 34. It’s a win-win for Kiffin as he possesses the knowledge to succeed with the youthful look and attitude that resonates with high school recruits and college players.
“Being a younger coach does help a lot in that players are comfortable with me coming into their living rooms and discussing football,” Kiffin says. “But, just being young doesn’t mean you automatically can relate to players. Look at my father. He has the energy of someone half his age and relates just as well to players as anyone I know.”
Family Of Volunteers
Hiring his father as defensive coordinator has added another level of football to the Kiffin family. Having your dad work for you is not a set-up tailored for everyone but Lane says working with Monte is easy.
“You never know for sure how the situation is going to work but it has gone better than I ever imagined. I wasn’t sure if he’d take the job because he had 13 great years on the beach in Tampa. He went to the same coffee shop…the same breakfast place…for 13 years. But, he really loves it in Knoxville,” Kiffin says. “And, he’s so good at what he does that I never have to get after him.”
As he’s handing out praise to members of his family, Kiffin credits his wife for keeping the family strong while football has moved them around the country.
“It takes a really special person to be the wife of someone in this profession,” says a serious Kiffin. “We had two kids when I got the Oakland job, so that was a transition for all of us. Then, she’s eight months pregnant when I get this job, and she has to pick up and move across the country. That isn’t an easy thing to do.”
Kiffin, however, says that Knoxville already feels like home for him and his family. “It’s great being in Knoxville. I can just feel the passion of the people here. It is a university that loves its football.”