Posted: 1:16 pm Friday, April 3rd, 2009
By Post Staff
It has been an interesting four months for new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin and SEC football fans, to say the least.
In no particular order, Kiffin has:
- Called out Florida at his introductory press conference.
- Stolen assistant coaches from South Carolina, Auburn, Alabama and the Oakland Raiders.
- Orchestrated an elaborate scheme to get Pahokee recruit Nu’Keese Richardson to sign with Tennessee on National Signing Day, and not Florida, including telling him to lie to his coaches and the media.
- Stolen away another top recruit from Florida (Marsalis Teague), and one from LSU (Janzen Jackson).
- Landed the nation’s No. 8-ranked recruiting class, according to Scout.com.
- Wrongly accused Urban Meyer of cheating.
- Accused Pahokee football coach Blaze Thompson and school administrators of back-door shenanigans.
- Signed the nation’s No. 1 recruit in Bryce Brown.
- Told a South Carolina recruit he will end up working at a “gas station” if he signs with the Gamecocks.
- Made up a story to Sports Illustrated about firing Tennessee athletic department staffers, which was later debunked by his own athletic director.
- Had a very public contract dispute with Raiders owner Al Davis.
Phew. And it’s only April.
Kiffin, at 33 the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, has been the exact opposite of predecessor Phil Fulmer since taking the job in December. A brash former coach for the Raiders and USC Trojans, Kiffin has broken almost every unspoken rule of SEC decorum since joining the league in December, but he doesn’t apologize for rankling opposing coaches and fan bases.
“I’m sorry to say but the top of our list isn’t pleasing other fans of other schools,” Kiffin said. “Sorry, but that’s not what I was hired to do.”
Kiffin reached out to me this week, offering his time for a 1-on-1 interview. We discussed several topics, including the Pahokee saga, the recruitment of Bryce Brown, his relationship with Urban Meyer, the comparisons to Steve Spurrier and his marriage to the former Layla Reeves, a UF graduate and the daughter of former Gators quarterback John Reeves.
It’s a long one. Enjoy….
First, I’m curious. Why are you reaching out to us?
I just thought I hadn’t been contacted or done any interviews in South Florida. It’s an area we’re very excited about recruiting, obviously has a number of great players every year. We just wanted to be able to talk to someone down there and get us out and about.
How important is Florida to recruiting?
There’s no doubt to me, going down there and going to so many jamborees and watching so many players practice and how physical the practices are in the spring and how great the high school coaching is in Florida. In my opinion it’s the best football in any state in America – California, Texas, no matter where, Florida has the best players. So it’s extremely important to us, no matter where we are, but we happen to be in the SEC, so it’s even more important to us.
Obviously you know what I’m going to ask you about, the whole Nu’Keese Richardson situation at Pahokee. Now that you’ve had a few months to digest it all, how do you feel about the way you handled the whole thing. Were there maybe some mistakes you made you would have done differently?
Well I think it’s hard for anyone who that wasn’t there to understand the setting. It was a setting that was amongst some of our donors and was kind of just a very energetic breakfast. It just wasn’t something that was meant to go in front of the media and make a big statement to the media like the way it sounded, which I understand that by the way that it came out, but that was not the case at all. And it’s why immediately that day I apologized and made sure that everybody understood it wasn’t my intention to offend anyone at University of Florida or Coach Meyer. It was a setting that I think when you’re there, you wouldn’t have thought anything like what you probably think of just reading about it.
Outside of that breakfast, the whole situation, that last weekend with Nu’Keese – telling him to keep things under wraps, the things you maybe mentioned about Pahokee and Blaze Thompson – is there anything you’d like to clarify about that situation? Is there anything you feel was exaggerated or blown out of proportion? Anything we don’t know that you would like to say?
You need to understand that we’re talking about the exact same setting and the exact same time in both those stories. This wasn’t a different time where I said those things, this was the same thing with some of our donors at a breakfast. Just trying to excite them about how difficult it was for our staff to be able to recruit such a great player from an area far away from here, the same setting.
And so as I said with the University of Florida in that same talk that morning, if I offended anybody in Pahokee or have to do with Pahokee or in the schools, I apologize and I want to make sure it’s understood that is not what was meant by it at all. It was just an energetic breakfast with some of our donors. Didn’t even know that there was a camera present when the things were said to our boosters.
Have you been back to Pahokee or the Glades since then?
We can’t. It was the day after Signing Day, so recruiting is in a dead period and does not open back up again until late April.
Do you see yourself going back there to look at the prospects?
Yeah, most definitely. There are so many great players there and such great coaching that the players have such success, especially early because of the quality of coaching there. It’s a place that we’ll be back every year.
How do you think you’re going to be received by the coaches and prospects?
Uhh, I don’t know that. I know that when we’ve talked to some prospects on the phone, I can’t specifically comment obviously, but we’ve had great conversations, we’ve been received very well. I talked to Coach (Blaze) Thompson immediately after that situation when I got back off the road from what I was doing to make sure he understood the setting and the situation. We think we’ve moved on and hope everyone else has.
What about Nu’Keese? You kind of put him in the spotlight, almost like a bull’s eye on him. How do you feel about all the attention you brought to Nu’Keese?
Well I think Nu’Keese has such a dynamic personality and is such a special player that he is one of those personalities that can handle it. And he knew that’s part of coming here. He knew that coming here that a lot of people would say, ‘Well why did you go there when you were committed to Florida and you could stay in state and do the natural thing?’ He went against that and I think that says a lot about his personality. He wanted to go where he felt where it was the best place for him and it was the best fit for him, and not what other people wanted him to do. I think it says a lot about him.
What do you see as his role in 2009?
I don’t know. There’s so many variables in that – how fast does he pick up the offense, and his transition, and how other guys are doing. But we’re going to give him a great opportunity, and from Day 1 throw him right in there and see how long he can stay at the top.
So you’ve had an interesting first few months on the job. How would you assess the job you’ve done with recruiting and some of the comments you have made in the media?
Well I think we’ve had a great first four months, starting with putting our staff together. It’s an unbelievable staff of great coaches and teachers, obviously unbelievable resumes of recruiting, five or six guys that have been recruiting coordinators before at extremely high levels. And to put that staff together was unbelievable to have them all come here. A lot of them left great jobs to do that, to do something special here.
And then to follow up, it’s so hard to get it going in the first year of recruiting because we were so late, especially waiting for some of these coaches to come from the NFL. To finish with a couple kids like Nu’Keese and Marsalis (Teague) that were committed to Florida, for them to turn to come here was unbelievable. Then a kid who was committed from LSU from Louisiana, Janzen Jackson, five-star player, to come here and leave the state of Louisiana, it was great up to that point the day after Signing Day. Then to sign two top tailbacks, including the number one player in the nation in Bryce Brown, I can’t imagine it going better. So we love what’s going on.
There’s three main things to us – our fans, who are highly energized right now, extremely excited about what’s going on here, the recruits out there, we’re getting great responses from them, a number of kids have been coming up here to visit, wanting to be a part of this program, and our current players. Our staff has a lot of confidence in them, our staff believes in them and they’re practicing extremely hard. I can’t imagine it going better than it has.
Are you under orders from boosters or people in the athletic department to maybe cool down the act a little bit?
So how much support have you been getting from those people?
Unbelievable support. As I said, our fan base, our athletic director, everyone around our program, all our responses that we get is blown away right now by what’s going on here and the excitement around the Tennessee program and the recruits we were able to bring in in such a short time with our first class. We love the way that we’re starting and we have a lot of work to do and we’re excited about continuing to get better.
So the boosters, the president, nobody said, ‘Hey Lane, maybe we shouldn’t talk so much?’
No. If anything, exactly the opposite.
What do you think of the comparisons to Steve Spurrier?
I’m flattered. Coach Spurrier has an unbelievable record, has won a bunch of championships. I don’t think it’s a fair comparison because I’ve done nothing in comparison to him, but I’m flattered.
You’ve kind of created this renegade atmosphere around your program – you don’t care about who you upset and you’re going to do what it takes to get the best recruits. You realize it’s kind of an Oakland Raiders culture that you’re creating at Tennessee?
Well I don’t see it as renegade. I see it as making sure that we’re doing what’s important to us. And like I said there’s three things that are important to us – our fan base, recruits out there, and our players. And so if we’re doing those three things, that’s what matters. I’m sorry to say, but the top of our list isn’t pleasing other fans of other schools. Sorry, but that’s not what I was hired to do.
Is it possible a little bit of Al Davis rubbed off on you?
I can’t comment on that. I have a court case still going on out there so I really shouldn’t answer that one.
Tell me your reaction when you heard in February that Bryce Brown was back on the market and not signing with Miami?
Well we had been kind of recruiting him through that, just because he hadn’t signed anywhere yet. When that information came out we kind of had already known that at that point. It was a long process to get him, one I was really excited about our assistant coaches and how well they did being able to land him.
Have you met Urban Meyer face-to-face at all?
Yeah actually I saw Coach Meyer in Pahokee High School the day I went down there. He was there at the same time.
That was before signing day?
So what do you expect your relationship to be like when you see him at the SEC coaches meetings next month?
I hadn’t thought about it.
We’ve heard you are happy about Florida having the Tennessee logo up in their locker room. Could you expand on that a little bit?
Yeah, I was shown a picture of it. Someone asked what I thought about that, I thought it was great. Recruits go through locker rooms, the fact that our logo is up around their locker room is a pretty powerful thing to me. It’s free advertising.
Sure, definitely …. but the Gators are the national champions, with Tim Tebow and everyone else coming back. Aren’t you afraid you set your kids up for a really bad day when your team comes to Gainesville?
Well I would ask you this question – Do you think in the last two years when we’ve lost by 64 points to them, do you think they weren’t trying?
Fair point, but don’t you think you gave them that little added extra motivation for their summer workouts and things like that?
I think Florida is operating at the highest level that there is right now as a football program and everyone is just trying to catch them. I don’t think there’s extra added motivation because I wasn’t here before, and obviously they didn’t need it last year to win a national championship. So I doubt they need much more motivation because Coach Meyer is doing as good as you can right now, and they’re at the top and they’re where everybody else wants to be.
Are you trying to bring the swagger of USC to Knoxville?
I’ve never once thought about trying to make this the USC of the SEC. I have philosophies about how we believe we do things that really have no relevance to trying to bring USC here or anything like that. We do want our players to play confident and have confidence in themselves and that’s our job to motivate them and get them to that point by Saturdays.
Can you tell me one thing about your program, in the job you guys have done in four months here, one thing that nobody knows about?
I know that it would probably shock people the amount of hours this staff has worked every day to get to the point. Just to have a good practice or to have a good junior day or to have a good clinic that we’re having right now. It’s a highly competitive staff, one that brings it every day and it’s hard for some people to keep up because there are so many great coaches on this staff that work so hard and so long, it’s just impressive to see them compete against each other.
So what are your goals for 09?
Just to play good football. I’m not worried about the wins and losses right now, because you throw a number out, that’s got nothing to do with what you do. We got to take one day at a time and get our players better and learn how to play better ball. We want to come out and play physical, smart football and be disciplined and see how far that takes us.
Do you have a three- or five-year plan?
No, we’ll be good when we get good. There’s too many variables to know when that will be. As always quarterback will be one of the main variables, so no, I don’t have that.
Finally, what’s it like being married to the daughter of a former Gator QB?
Well there have been a lot of Florida games played in my house, lets put it that way, a lot of sweatshirts around and other clothes. It’s been pretty neat to be around. I got to go to a Florida-Tennessee game actually on one of our first dates probably eight or nine years ago, whenever that was. (Gainesville) is a great place, a great city and great tradition. I’ve heard a lot about it for a lot of years between her and her mom and dad going there as well.
Kiffin photo courtesy of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Tennessee logo photo courtesy of gatortailgating.com