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Lane Kiffin says outrageous preseason comments were calculated

In taking over a flagging Tennessee program, Kiffin was determined to shake things up and did so by guaranteeing victories and criticizing fellow SEC coaches: 'We had to find a way to get attention.'

September 07, 2009|David Wharton

KNOXVILLE, TENN. — To call Lane Kiffin's desk just a desk would be grossly insufficient.

It is big and sleek, set on a platform so that visitors seated before him must crane their necks slightly as if gazing up at a shrine.

And Kiffin doesn't like it much.

The new Tennessee football coach says this piece of furniture came with the office and he'd rather talk in a backroom where the mini-fridge is stocked with cold drinks and there are comfortable leather couches, one of which is strewn with blankets for late nights at work.

In this way, Kiffin doesn't seem too different from his time as a young USC assistant, low-key in a T-shirt and shorts. Though he remains extremely self-confident, it is a quiet sort of bravado.

Which makes his behavior over the last nine months all the more puzzling.

"Some of the stuff I had to do," he says. "I didn't like it."

The moment he arrived in Knoxville last winter, the guy began shooting his mouth off in every conceivable direction, promising victories, taking shots at rival Southeastern Conference coaches and bragging about stealing top assistants from their staffs.

"I had to be aggressive. I had to attack," he says.

Not that he is apologizing. Far from it. Still, there is a hint of remorse.

"People who don't know me, they think that's how I am," he says. "They think that's how I've always been."

Now, after opening the season with a blowout victory over Western Kentucky, his team preparing to face UCLA at home on Saturday, Kiffin wants those people to understand.

Big words

It started with his first news conference in Knoxville, the coach announcing his plans to sing "Rocky Top" all night long after defeating Florida on Sept. 19.

That would be the same Florida currently ranked No. 1 in the nation.

If the comment raised eyebrows, well, Kiffin was just getting warmed up.

With a tall, gangly frame and soft features, he can seem downright languid until you hear him on the practice field or during games, the edge in his voice, flashes of intensity that burn hot.

In early February, after national signing day, he criticized Florida Coach Urban Meyer for calling a recruit's cellphone while the player was visiting Tennessee. Receiver Nu'Keese Richardson ultimately signed with the Volunteers, prompting Kiffin to add: "I love the fact that Urban had to cheat and still didn't get him."

The SEC quickly issued a reprimand -- and Kiffin apologized -- because the call wasn't a violation. About a week later, though, he addressed the talents of unsigned recruit Bryce Brown on the radio, which was a violation.

The following weeks brought a verbal jousting match with South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, who questioned whether Kiffin had taken the required coach's test on NCAA rules. They also reportedly had a testy encounter on an elevator at the SEC's spring meeting.

And Kiffin delivered a jab at Alabama's Nick Saban, amid bragging about hiring away top recruiters from the Crimson Tide, South Carolina and Auburn.

One more thing: By the end of spring, the Volunteers had amassed a string of secondary violations. In one case, they used a fog machine as recruits emerged from a tunnel at Neyland Stadium, the same misdeed that Kiffin's former USC colleague, Steve Sarkisian, committed at Washington.

Florida offensive lineman Matt Patchan was asked what he might say if he passed Kiffin on the street.

"I've got nothing to say to that guy," Patchan told the Gainesville Sun. "He's a bozo."

The plan

Go back to 2001, a 26-year-old tight ends coach at USC, temperamental in practice. More than once, it seemed that Kiffin's players might punch him.

"One time, I was going to deck him," former USC assistant Ed Orgeron said. "He was kind of cocky and brash."

But the son of veteran NFL coordinator Monte Kiffin possessed a lifetime of football knowledge. He improved at controlling his emotions and, when Norm Chow left abruptly in 2005, was promoted to offensive coordinator, sharing duties with Sarkisian.

Then came an unexpected turn. In 2007, the 31-year-old became coach of the Oakland Raiders.

Given his youth and the dysfunctional nature of the Raiders organization, it is no surprise he lasted less than a season and a half, going 5-15 before owner Al Davis abruptly fired him, claiming insubordination.

Kiffin tries to put a positive spin on the situation: "The No. 1 thing people talk about with head coaches is experience. Well, you can't have experience unless you've been a head coach."

His father offers a different take: "The Oakland thing crushed him. He knew what he was taking on, but he's a very optimistic person and it didn't work out like he hoped."

Either way, Kiffin jumped at the next challenge, taking over a Tennessee program that had slipped into mediocrity.

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