Will the real Lane Kiffin please stand up?
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The practice field at Tennessee’s football complex is encircled by a wrought-iron fence and rows of tall, bulky holly bushes designed to block the view of opposing scouts and spies.
Still, shortly after 6 on Tuesday evening, two students managed to wade beyond the prickly leaves to catch a glimpse of the Volunteers’ workout. Peering through the fence, Todd and Caleb wouldn’t reveal their last names. Their friends would “kill them,” they said, for making negative comments about the state’s beloved team – and coach.
“But hey,” Caleb said, “let’s be real. They’re going to get their asses kicked Saturday.”
Todd grimaced and shook his head.
“Seriously,” he said, “why did Kiffin have to say all that?”
Moments later, first-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin hurried off the field at the conclusion of practice and headed toward his office. With his team’s showdown against top-ranked and defending national champion Florida just days away, Kiffin needs every possible minute to prepare.
Especially this season.
A few weeks after accepting the job in December, the 34-year-old Kiffin riled up Gator Nation when he said he looked forward to “singing Rocky Top all night long after we beat Florida next year.”
Two months later, during a speech to Tennessee boosters, Kiffin wrongly accused Gators coach Urban Meyer of cheating while trying to lure a recruit.
“Lane didn’t make a very good decision,” said Jim Sweeney, who coached Kiffin at Fresno State from 1994-96. “He picked the best way possible to infuriate his opponent.
“It’s tough to play with blood in your eyes.”
Indeed, Florida has beaten the Vols by a combined 63 points over the past two seasons and won 59-20 the last time Tennessee played in Gainesville. Thanks to Kiffin’s offseason comments, the fear is that things could get even uglier during Saturday’s game at the always-hostile Swamp, where Tennessee is a 29-point underdog.
“It’s going to be worse than it’s ever been down there because of some of the things that have been said,” Tennessee defensive end Chris Walker said.
Perhaps because of the reality that set in during his team’s poor showing in last week’s 19-15 home loss to a rebuilding UCLA squad, Kiffin is trying his best to say all the right things as Saturday’s game inches closer.
During a news conference Tuesday, the former Oakland Raiders coach and USC offensive coordinator opined that Florida might be the most talented team “ever to play [college] football,” adding that all 11 of the Gators’ defensive starters were NFL prospects. Kiffin heaped compliments on the Florida coaching staff and praised the game-day experience at The Swamp.
Unfortunately he’s too late. The talk may be trashed, but the damage has been done.
Florida offensive lineman Matt Patchan recently referred to Kiffin as “a bozo,” and pieces of paper with Kiffin’s quote about singing “Rocky Top” after a victory on Saturday have been hanging in the Gators’ locker room since March, when players reportedly texted Meyer and told him to save some extra timeouts for the end of the game so they could soak up – and rub in – a blowout victory.
Yes, even if it’s only for one day, Kiffin’s mouth finally appears to have pinned him into a corner from which he can’t escape. Barring an upset of mammoth proportions, he’ll be given his medicine as more than 90,000 Gators fans cheer on each dose.
Kiffin’s mother, Robin, chuckled when asked if she was looking forward to Saturday’s game.
“Looking forward to it?” she said. “Or dreading it?”
Robin said she plans to watch the game on television in Knoxville, while Kiffin’s older sister, Heidi, will attend in person. Heidi joked that she’ll choose her attire carefully.
“I probably won’t be wearing my ‘Got Kiffin?’ shirt,” she said.
A few weeks after he was hired at Tennessee, Lane Kiffin received a text from Scott Hackett, his childhood friend from Minnesota who served as the best man in his wedding.
“Doesn’t sound like you’re making many friends down there,” it read.
Kiffin responded a few days later.
“I can’t remember his exact words,” Hackett said. “But it was something like, ‘Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it sounds.’ ”
Still, few coaches have garnered as much publicity before ever appearing on the sideline at their new school. Although his sauciest escapades involved Meyer and the University of Florida, Kiffin didn’t limit his barbs to the Gators.
Kiffin reportedly told recruit Alshon Jeffery that he’d end up “pumping gas” if he signed with South Carolina, and he razzed Alabama fans when he reminded them that he had stolen the Crimson Tide’s top recruiter when he added assistant Lance Thompson to his coaching staff.
Kiffin twice broke NCAA secondary recruiting rules by discussing recruits publicly, and he basically offended the entire town of Pahokee, Fla., when explaining why he asked 2009 signee Nu’Keese Richardson to fax his national letter-of-intent from a secret location.
“Someone at the school was going to screw it up,” Kiffin said. “The fax machine wouldn’t work, or they would’ve changed the signatures. All the things that go on in Pahokee.”
With each incident, the national criticism of Kiffin became louder and more intense. Kiffin’s father, Monte – the legendary NFL defensive coordinator – said his son’s comments were “overblown” and his mother pointed out that Lane is “only 34.”
“The mindset is different now that the season is underway compared to when he first got the job,” Robin said. “He felt like he was on top of the world.”
Both parents said it bothers them when their son is referred to as “cocky” and “arrogant.”
“If that’s the perception people have of him, they’re wrong,” said Monte, who is now the defensive coordinator at Tennessee. “He’s enthusiastic. He got fired up a couple of times and said a couple of things. He has tremendous respect for the coaching profession. There’s no way he doesn’t.
“It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful.”
Maybe not, but Kiffin later revealed that some of his antics were calculated attempts to catapult Tennessee back into the headlines after its national presence had faded during the final few years of Phil Fulmer’s career.
Kiffin’s claim that his comments and actions were premeditated hardly surprises Jon Leverenz, the head coach at Jefferson High School in Bloomington, Minn.
“Not one bit,” said Leverenz, who was an assistant during Kiffin’s junior and senior seasons in 1993 and 1994. “Lane loves to get under people’s skin. He’s great at distracting people to the point where they quit focusing on what they should be doing.
“Look at what’s happening at Florida. I mean, his picture is up in their locker room.”
While Kiffin was one of the best players on his high school team, he was also one of the most difficult to coach. He acted as if he knew more than the coaches – “And sometimes,” Leverenz said, “he did” – and often changed plays in the huddle. As smart as Kiffin was, Leverenz said he was difficult to motivate in the classroom and that teachers grew tired of his “shenanigans.”
“He was Monte Kiffin’s son and football was going to be his main deal in life,” Leverenz said. “That was kind of established. He’d make coaches want to pull their hair out at times. It was Lane Kiffin’s show, and he was going to get the attention.”
Still, for every criticism Leverenz has of Kiffin, there is a compliment to match. Leverenz said it was amazing how much Kiffin’s teammates hung on his every word and listened to his advice during games. He called Kiffin “personable” and “extremely likeable,” noting that, as a high school senior, Kiffin introduced Leverenz to his future wife.
That’s the thing about Kiffin. People see him as so many different things and have so many varying opinions about him that he’s almost a walking contradiction.
One minute Sweeney is criticizing him for the remarks he made about Meyer and Florida, the next he’s talking about how Kiffin, even as a backup quarterback at Fresno State, had so much respect from the starters that they’d ask him for advice.
“His ability to command people’s attention … it’s unique, it’s special,” Sweeney said.
Kiffin’s knowledge of X’s and O’s was so impressive to Al Davis that the Oakland Raiders owner hired the then-31-year-old as head coach in 2007. But less than two years later Davis fired him when the two couldn’t get along.
Even Kiffin’s sister has some funny stories about her brother. Whenever Lane contacts Heidi by phone, the caller ID reads, “L.P.”
“Lane the Pain,” she said, giggling.
Heidi said one of her friends used to call Lane “The Helicopter.”
“Because he’s always stirring stuff up, always stirring up trouble,” she said. “He likes to get reactions out of people and get them stirred up for fun, just to keep things interesting.
“If I was ever in trouble with my mom, he’d come up with this super-sweet expression on his face and say, ‘Mom, can I get you anything?’ Then he’d look at me like the Cheshire Cat.”
“He’s actually a real sweetheart,” she said, “although he’d probably kill me for saying that.”
Hackett met Kiffin when Kiffin moved to Minnesota in the fourth grade. Their dads ended up coaching their Little League baseball team together. Hackett said Kiffin was often guarded when meeting new people because he was afraid they were befriending him simply because his father was famous.
“It’s tough to get through his outer shell,” Hackett said. “But once you get to know him and get in his circle, he’s as loyal of a friend as you can have.
“Some people think he comes across as cocky sometimes, but that’s because he’s so sure of himself. He expects himself to be the best. He’s never wanted to settle for anything less.”
About 10 years ago, Lane Kiffin and his father were walking through the hallway of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ headquarters when, suddenly, Lane disappeared. When Monte Kiffin turned around, he realized his son had taken a detour into the office of Layla Reaves, a stunning blonde who worked in special events.
Three months later, Kiffin phoned Layla’s father, former NFL quarterback John Reaves, and asked if he could meet him at his office. There Kiffin asked for Layla’s hand in marriage. John Reaves reminded Kiffin that he and Layla had only dated for a short time.
“I don’t care,” Kiffin said. “I know what I want. She’s what I want.”
Just as he is in his personal life, Kiffin has always been driven in his professional life.
It didn’t take long to realize that Kiffin was cut out for coaching. Kiffin was 4 when a group of friends and relatives gathered at his grandparents’ house in Nebraska for a holiday party. With about 15 people talking at once, the room was rather loud until Lane began talking.
“He was sitting on the floor, just yapping away at no one in particular,” Robin Kiffin said. “All of a sudden, everyone stopped and just started listening to him. When he realized it he looked up and said, ‘Who do you think I am? E.F. Hutton?’ ”
Much of Kiffin’s childhood was spent in NFL locker rooms or at training camps while his dad was coaching at places such as Minnesota, Green Bay and Buffalo. Some summers he’d serve as a ball boy. Other times he’d raise money by washing players’ cars while they practiced.
Kiffin’s exposure to high-level football was invaluable.
As he got older and began to understand the game, Kiffin developed his father’s habit of diagramming plays on anything he could find. His mother would find X’s, O’s and squiggly lines on the inside covers of books and in the margins of his homework. When Monte Kiffin was the head coach at North Carolina State, 6-year-old Lane phoned into his call-in radio show and said that, if the school would give his dad a new contract, the family would be able to buy a new blackboard for drawing up schemes.
“Kids would come over to our house all the time to play,” Robin said. “Lane wouldn’t just play with them. He’d try to coach them, too.”
After starring at quarterback in high school and moving on to Fresno State, Lane gave up his final year of eligibility when offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford asked him to become a graduate assistant instead of spending his senior season on the bench.
“We were just speeding things up for him, because it [getting into coaching] was obviously going to happen eventually,” Sweeney said. “He was football-smart, but it was more than that. Lane didn’t want to be given anything because of his father’s name.
“When people ask me what his best asset was, I tell them, ‘Three words: dedication, dedication, dedication.’ ”
After stops at Fresno State and Colorado State and a one-year stint with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, Kiffin was hired by Pete Carroll at USC in 2001. Four years later he was selected to replace Norm Chow as offensive coordinator. With Kiffin calling the plays, USC went 23-3 in the two seasons before he took the Raiders job, which ended after 20 games.
“One of Lane’s biggest assets is that he’s a good recruiter – he can talk anyone into anything,” said Chris Kiffin, Lane’s younger brother and a coaching intern at Nebraska. “But the other thing he has going for him is that he was at USC for six years, winning national championships and working with Heisman winners and first-round draft picks.
“To learn and witness how that’s done … it’s an intangible you can’t describe. He’s got that in his back pocket that few coaches have. He knows the steps to winning a title because he’s seen it.
“You use that stuff to come up with your own little plan. It’s like starting your own little business. That’s what he’s doing at Tennessee.”
On the final day of November, an SUV pulled up in front of Gus’s Good Times Deli on Tennessee’s campus, and in walked Lane Kiffin and a handful of friends. Turns out Kiffin had interviewed for the head coaching job that day. Now it was time for one of Gus’s famous steamed sandwiches – to go.
“He didn’t say much,” said Aaron Hale, who was working behind the counter. “But while he waited, he walked around and looked at all the pictures of former Tennessee players on our wall. You could tell he was really interested, really into it.”
A diehard Vols fan, Hale had heard Kiffin was a candidate to replace Fulmer and wanted to ask him if he got the job.
“But I kept my mouth shut,” Hale said. “Instead, he left – and I hoped.”
Kiffin was named Tennessee’s coach the following day. Since then thousands of fans have passed through Gus’s and gossiped about Kiffin as Hale and his co-workers dressed their sandwiches or cooked their burgers.
“The young crowd loves him,” Hale said. “There are some old-school people who are loyal to Fulmer who were a little taken aback by some of the things [Kiffin] has said. But I think everyone is at least willing to be patient. Everyone is eager to give him a chance.”
And Kiffin is eager to make the most of it.
Less than a year into his tenure, Kiffin has expressed to friends that he and his family couldn’t be any happier in Knoxville. During the summer he hops in a boat or rides the jet skis on the lake behind his house. In the fall his young daughters, Landry and Pressley, dress up in their cheerleading outfits and join Dad at Tennessee pep rallies, barbecues and booster functions.
Heck, at a pregame tailgate last week attended by the coach’s wives, about 10 fans formed an impromptu line to have their picture taken with Layla, who was the most searched person on the internet the day Kiffin was hired.
“He tells me, ‘You wouldn’t believe how great it is down here,’ ” said Hackett, who will make his first trip to Knoxville for the Auburn game Oct. 3. “I think he’s overwhelmed by the passion of the fans. From the sounds of things, it’s Tennessee football, and that’s it.”
Along with his dad, Kiffin hired a high-profile staff that includes former Ole Miss coach and recruiting standout Ed Orgeron. Highlighted by national No. 1 recruit Bryce Brown, a running back, the Vols signed the 10th-ranked recruiting class in 2009 despite getting a late start.
Brown wasn’t even heavily considering Tennessee until Kiffin showed up at one of his private workouts and hopped on a stationary bike next to the treadmill on which Brown was running.
“He started talking all this smack about how slow I was going and about how he could outdo me in long distance,” Brown said. “It just showed me how cool he was, how easy he was to relate to.”
Even after last weekend’s disappointing loss to UCLA, Kiffin was able to soothe some of the fans’ pain by securing verbal commitments from three of the top 100 players in the Class of 2010.
“He’s an intense son-of-a-gun,” Monte Kiffin said of his son. “He can flat get after it in recruiting. We’re going to have a great run here. We just have to take it one game at a time. We’re not ready to jump up and play for the national championship just yet.”
Nor do the the Vols look ready to go on the road and beat No. 1 Florida. Not that Tennessee is ready to concede defeat. Chris Kiffin said his father told him he spent more time studying film on the Gators this summer than any other school. And just like Meyer’s players have come to the defense of their coach, the Vols want to back theirs.
“I know my team is going to be ready to play,” Tennessee linebacker Rico McCoy said. “I’m confident. I hear the stuff about [Florida] not taking knees and [saving] timeouts.
“You know, if we leave ourselves in that situation, go ahead and do it. If you can do it, do it. But we’re ready to play. We’re going to fight until the last second is off the clock.”
Whatever happens Saturday, it will be interesting to see how Kiffin reacts. Will he continue to make snide comments about his opponents and colleagues in the coaching profession? Or will he place 100 percent of his attention and focus on his players and his program?
“It’s better to sneak up on people than to rattle your saber,” Sweeney said. “I’m surprised Lane did that much saber-rattling. You can be capable of hating your enemy without broadcasting it publicly. It doesn’t seem like a very effective way he’s chosen.”
“Then again,” he said, “it’s probably judgmental to say it was wrong before it proves to be wrong. Let’s see what happens Saturday.”