Thursday, March 5, 2009
Kiffin has raised profile without coaching a game
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Some see negative press. Lane Kiffin sees a recruiting bonanza.
If you think all the attention Tennessee's new coach has gotten in his first 100 days has been a negative for him and the team, think again.
When he tried to fire up donors at a recruiting celebration by joking that Florida coach Urban Meyer cheated, Kiffin drew a reprimand from the Southeastern Conference. He also had to apologize to the Gators.
Then the coaching staff staged a mock news conference for prospects and Kiffin mentioned a recruit by name on the radio, resulting in three minor recruiting violations that the university voluntarily reported.
The 33-year-old former Oakland Raiders coach isn't fazed.
"For the three months that I have been here we have been in the media a lot. That has helped us tremendously in recruiting. They're seeing our logos and seeing our colors," Kiffin told The Associated Press.
Kiffin had no problem criticizing the Raiders and owner Al Davis before and after he was fired four weeks into last season. So it shouldn't be surprising that he hasn't been afraid to stir things up in the bruising SEC. Now comes his biggest task: backing up his bold approach by returning the Vols to their winning ways.
Kiffin's comments about Meyer earned him the moniker "Boy Blunder" from a number of football analysts and newspaper columnists in the South, and the distinction as "most hated SEC football coach" on online message boards.
But after 17 seasons of the mild-mannered Phillip Fulmer mostly being on the receiving end of ribbing from coaches -- especially former Florida and current South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier -- Vols fans are cheering the change.
"The way he went about it may have been a little too far, but I like the fact that he's firing on that rivalry again," said Nick Meals, a 29-year-old fan from Maryville. "He knows exactly what he's doing. He's saying, 'We're not scared of anybody."
On the December day he was introduced as Tennessee's coach, Kiffin promised to Vols fans something to treasure: a win over the Gators, their most-hated foe.
It's been a lopsided rivalry for years. Florida has won four straight over Tennessee and beaten the Vols by a combined 63 points in the past two meetings. This year's game will be at Florida on Sept. 19.
Kiffin isn't worried whether his words are providing motivational fodder for the Gators. He knows Florida was going to be ready to play regardless of his comments.
"We're concerned about the Tennessee fans and the Tennessee players, and they feel very confident about what we're doing," Kiffin said. "We're not going to sneak up on anybody because of the tradition here at Tennessee."
Kiffin has been very clear about his priorities since he was introduced on Dec. 1. He promised to focus on recruiting, assemble a talented staff of assistants and return Tennessee to the national championship hunt.
He appears to have delivered so far on the first two promises. The Vols signed a top 20 recruiting class in February, only two months after Kiffin's arrived. Tennessee also compiled a staff of assistants that included Kiffin's father, longtime NFL defensive guru Monte Kiffin, and noted recruiter Ed Orgeron.
That much has grabbed the attention and respect of someone who understands what it takes to coach at Tennessee and in the SEC.
"It's no place for anyone to be meek," former Tennessee coach and player Johnny Majors said. "There's not going to be anyone who runs for cover in this conference."
Majors, who coached the Vols from 1977 to 1992 and now lives in Tennessee, met Kiffin recently at a Tennessee booster club meeting and said he appreciated the coach's straightforward talk.
"I respect anybody who says what they believe as long as they back it up with what they say they're going to do," Majors said.
The Vols will begin work on backing up Kiffin's words when they open spring practice on Tuesday.
Kiffin has outlined some notable changes -- spring practices will be more physical than before and he hopes to open one Friday night session to fans. He said it's the best way for the coaching staff to get a sense of which players will meet his expectations come September.
"I like the confidence he's showing," said Meals, the Vols fan. "So far it seems to be working. We got a top recruiting class. We've just got to back it up on the field."