By Andy Staples
May 26, 2009

DESTIN, Fla. -- Grasshopper, meet the master.

As five SEC football coaches -- Tennessee's Lane Kiffin, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Kentucky's Rich Brooks, Arkansas' Bobby Petrino and Auburn's Gene Chizik -- waited for an elevator Tuesday after a four-hour pow-wow at the SEC's spring meetings, a handful of reporters quizzed Spurrier about the proceedings. Were there fireworks between Kiffin and Florida's Urban Meyer, whom Kiffin accused on Feb. 5 of breaking a non-existent NCAA rule? (Answer: No.) Were there any new rules suggested? ("Some of these schools have too much time in the summer," Spurrier joked.) Did Spurrier feel he owed Kiffin an apology for accusing the first-year volunteers coach for his December comments about Kiffin calling recruits before being announced as head coach?

Spurrier sighed, slumped his shoulders and turned on his heel. He walked a few feet to Kiffin, whose face reddened. "I didn't accuse you of cheating," said the man who coined the phrase "Free Shoes University" and who once reminded everyone that you can't spell Citrus without U-T. Then Spurrier explained the misunderstanding that produced those comments. That explanation lasted past the moment the doors shut. The only coach on board with a national title on his résumé was still talking.

Before you get too titillated, this wasn't a fight. Not even close. Most of the folks standing around were snickering. The exchange just proved once again that in the SEC, the fun never stops. It's too bad Commissioner Mike Slive will implore Wednesday that his coaches quit yapping. When he does, Slive probably will stare directly at Kiffin, the young ingénue, and Spurrier, the wily veteran. He will tell them to keep the focus on the conference's fabulous brand of football. Unfortunately, even in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, fabulous football doesn't move the meter during the offseason doldrums.

Kiffin's spring has proven that the league is a lot more interesting when it has a provocateur. And while reporters like the idiot you're reading now may have written off Kiffin as in over his head after the Meyer incident, Kiffin basically admitted Tuesday that much of his bluster was calculated.

And it worked.

Without playing a down, Kiffin has made Tennessee the most talked-about program in the country. For a guy who must scour the country to populate a program to compete with the juggernauts at Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU, publicity is crucial. And during the buildup Tuesday to the anticlimactic meeting between himself and Meyer in the Sandpiper C meeting room, Kiffin grabbed a little more.

At the 27-minute mark of pre-meeting interview session Kiffin finally cracked. "I did ask for adjoining rooms with Coach Meyer," he said.

Gentlemen, start your headlines.

Of course Kiffin kidded. He had to spend hours seated at the same table with Meyer. He didn't need Meyer popping his head into the room asking if Kiffin wanted to see his national championship rings. We lapped it up anyway. Within hours, a Google News search of the phrase "adjoining rooms" produced 65 stories that mentioned Tennessee -- right at the top of the page.

As longtime Volunteers sports information whiz Bud Ford hurried to move the conversation to another question, Kiffin turned and smiled. "You left me up here long enough, Bud," Kiffin said. "I had to say something."

And he did. Somewhere in the package of material Kiffin brought to his interview with Vols athletic director Mike Hamilton in November is a section that more or less says any publicity is good publicity. After each bold statement, Kiffin may as well have said, "That's Tennessee, with four Es, two Ns and two Ss."

After his firing from the Oakland Raiders last October, Kiffin compiled a dossier on each college team with a head coach opening. For each program, he created an individualized plan to bring that team to prominence as quickly as possible. When he studied Tennessee, Kiffin saw a storied history dating back to Gen. Robert Neyland, but he noticed no buzz that would excite a 17-year-old. Kiffin reasoned that he couldn't teach anyone Gen. Neyland's maxims if recruits didn't know the Vols existed.

"We're not fortunate enough to just sit and go through our state and sign 23 of 25 players from our state and get it done," he said. "When you become a head coach, you take a specific plan into each job. ... This one, as I looked at it, needed to have a spark immediately as far as national exposure. It's a program that has had great coaches and great players over many years, but the way recruiting is nowadays, you can't go out and sign 50 guys. We've got to be able to have kids around the country -- and I'm talking about kids in middle school -- seeing Tennessee, seeing our logo, seeing our colors, seeing our players, being familiar with our staff. That was a lot to that.

"We haven't had a chance to play any games. And unfortunately there are no six-year plans anymore. ... We had to make an immediate impact."

So Kiffin started down a path worn smooth when Spurrier dominated the league as Florida's coach in the '90s. He launched offensives. He ruffled feathers. News outfits hungry for their next piece of grist and bloggers searching for snark-ready topics did the rest.

There is one crucial distinction between Kiffin's gigging of his colleagues and Spurrier's. Spurrier didn't start squawking until after he humbled the league, which was downright prehistoric before Spurrier returned to his alma mater in 1990. Kiffin didn't have the luxury of time to wait for the actual games, and given the team he returns relative to the talent in the rest of the league, Kiffin may need another recruiting class before the Vols show the kind of on-field improvement to justify his crowing.

But Kiffin understands he's essentially in the entertainment business. Like the WWE wrestler who realizes he'll make a bigger splash as a heel than as a babyface, Kiffin considers his words and their consequences to be occupational hazards."Do I love everything that I had to do to get us to this point? No. I don't," he said. "But my job is not to love everything that I do. My job is to do the best thing for our university and the best thing for our people."

Obviously, not all of Kiffin's gaffes were calculated. He certainly didn't want everyone to know that the program had turned itself in for a few secondary violations."I'm trying to go one week without that," Kiffin cracked Tuesday. He certainly regretted disparaging the city of Pahokee, a town near Florida's Lake Okeechobee that happens to produce some of the nation's fastest football players. Still, much of the talk produced the desired effect.

"I'm on [ESPN's Pardon the Interruption] during March Madness and we're talking about Lane," Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl said. "He's playing you guys perfectly."

He's also controlling the message. Meyer, who has only won two of the past three national titles, found himself dragged into two national stories this offseason primarily because he hadn't talked in a while and we hunger for any scraps about the defending champs. Later, Spurrier cracked on Paul Finebaum's Birmingham-based radio show that Meyer once called Notre Dame his "dream job." Anyone who knows Spurrier and Meyer immediately wrote off the comment as good-natured joshing about a well-worn subject, but the story exploded on the Web, talk radio and television. Meyer had to again say he wasn't going to Notre Dame, the school he turned down in 2004.Meyer marveled Tuesday at the speed at which the story snowballed on a slow news day. "That was national news?" he said.

Maybe he should have taken a few swipes at Kiffin or at Alabama's Nick Saban. I would have written about it. You would have clicked on the story. Alas, that's not Meyer's idea of fun, and his program gets all the publicity it needs.

Indeed, Meyer and Kiffin's meeting was firework-free. According to Meyer, he said hello, and that was that. Disappointed? You weren't the only one."There is that ultimate fighting going on there now," Arkansas coach Petrino joked before the meeting. "If you want to quit talking about it and you want to just go jump in that ring, that would be fun. That would sell some tickets."

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