KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Lane Kiffin isn’t concerned that his highly publicized verbal jabs and headline-seeking antics will make things tougher for Tennessee this season.
He shrugs off talk of teams such as Florida targeting the Volunteers for especially harsh treatment because of his sharp comments. Gators coach Urban Meyer and the defending national champions were at the top of Kiffin’s hit list.
“Everyone always asks me about Florida,” Kiffin said. “We lost by 64 points the last two years combined, so were they not motivated for those games?”
Actually, it was 63 points — and a lot of people are counting.
It was brutal losses like that which prompted Tennessee to hire the 34-year-old Kiffin. Some Tennessee fans had stopped showing up for games and poor outings against Southeastern Conference rivals helped cost Phillip Fulmer his job.
Enter Kiffin, an interesting choice for a storied program. While he did win a national championship as an assistant under Southern California coach Pete Carroll, Kiffin went 5-15 with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, his only other head coaching job.
So when he started saying things about Florida, people listened — and winced.
His first day on the job, he promised a win over the Gators when they play Sept. 19 and tried to fire up Vols donors by accusing Meyer of cheating in attempts to land eventual Tennessee signee Nu’Keese Richardson.
“We look forward to every game,” Florida wide receiver Riley Cooper said. “But that’s obviously a big one with all the trash talking going on and stuff. I’m not going to say any more, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Meyer has hardly acknowledged Kiffin’s words other than to say he didn’t find the situation humorous.
Perhaps appropriately for a guy who came from the Raiders, Kiffin hasn’t apologized for anything he has done since getting the job.
“I think our seven months have gone great in what we’ve done,” Kiffin said. “It’s put us in position for where we want to be right now.”
If so, the Vols have taken an odd route to get there.
Kiffin has bragged about hiring some of his fellow SEC coaches’ best recruiters for his staff and traded jabs with South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier — a longtime needler of Fulmer’s — over whether Kiffin had passed the NCAA test that allows him to recruit.
Tennessee has reported six minor NCAA violations since Kiffin became coach for things such as staging a mock news conference for prospects and for mentioning recruits by name both on the radio and on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Kiffin’s bravado kept Tennessee in the news and the attention helped him sign a heralded recruiting class. It includes Bryce Brown, the consensus top running back prospect in the country, and the recruit who Kiffin named on the radio in one of his NCAA violations.
But the way the Vols figure it, Tennessee needed a little extra attitude to attract recruits after a 5-7 season.
“I think that more than anything it just injects some excitement and swagger into the program again,” Rivals.com Southeast recruiting analyst Barton Simmons said. “There’s not a lot to hang a hat on from last season.”
Former Tennessee and Pittsburgh coach Johnny Majors says the Vols shouldn’t be too concerned about becoming bulletin board fodder for their opponents.
“I think the majority of the time when it comes to Saturday and kickoff time it probably doesn’t amount to a hill of beans,” he said. “When the whistle blows it pretty well boils down to ability, preparation and game planning because you’re so involved with playing that there’s no time to think about that sort of thing.”
Kiffin has avoided one topic — Fulmer’s last Tennessee team. That has earned him the respect of his players.
“A lot of people gave coach Kiffin a lot of harsh things because of stuff that he did,” freshman tailback David Oku said. “But when it comes down to it coach Kiffin is a great coach.”
The Tennessee players seem to be thriving off Kiffin’s energy and attitude as they work through probably the most physical fall camp they’ve been through.
“We’re not going to let a team outwork us,” junior defensive end Chris Walker said. “That’s the mindset we have to take in every day. Florida’s working hard, and Georgia’s working hard, so we’ve got to come out here and match that.”
And Kiffin has motivated the Vols’ fan base, lifting them out of the doldrums after a disappointing end to Fulmer’s long and mostly successful tenure. Fans are fired up and talking about their team with the kind of affection that had been missing in recent years.
“I think he’s brought the team back to life,” 27-year-old Tennessee fan Kevin McGlothlan said. “I think it’s great. I love the cockiness. Tennessee needed cockiness.”
Now the Vols need to win.
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