Star-laden staff in place, but plenty of work in store to turn around Vols

Thursday August 20th, 2009

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Watching a Tennessee Volunteers practice this preseason is like being at a coach's convention. Everywhere you look, there's someone else you recognize.

As the defense recovers a fumble during a goal-line drill, a slightly hunched 69-year-old in a black T-shirt and orange cap rushes over to a group of celebrating players and excitedly delivers a first-down signal. That man is Monte Kiffin, the NFL's most renowned defensive coordinator during his decade-plus tenure with the Tampa Bay Bucs.

As the two sides come to the line for another snap, a loud, bellowing voice rises above all others to pump up the defensive linemen. It's the unmistakable roar of Ed Orgeron, the former Ole Miss head coach, USC recruiting coordinator and central character from the 2007 book Meat Market.

All the while, a thin man in spectacles keeps the offense moving, shuffling different running backs on and off the field. As a longtime running backs coach under Tommy Tuberville, Eddie Gran's backfield stable included Deuce McAllister, Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown.

But when practice comes to a close, these three decorated assistants -- who between them make more than $2 million -- stand amid a circle of 100-plus bodies and listen to closing remarks from their 34-year-old boss: Lane Kiffin.

"My relationship with Lane is special," said Orgeron, a native Louisianan who turned down an offer from his dream school, LSU, to join his former USC colleague in Knoxville. "I believe in him. He's a genius on offense, a great recruiter and a championship coach."

Across the Internet, and in locker rooms across the SEC, Lane Kiffin carries a less flattering reputation. A Florida offensive lineman recently called Kiffin a "bozo," and anonymous Web trollers regularly call him far worse than that. Having yet to coach his first game for the Vols, much of the public knows Kiffin primarily for his ugly parting just four games into his second season as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, the series of controversial jabs he threw at several SEC rivals last recruiting season and his penchant for committing NCAA secondary violations.

"Maybe there were times he's come off to the public as a little bit arrogant, but believe me, he's not that type of person," said Monte Kiffin, who returned to the college ranks for the first time in 27 years to work for his son. "He's got a lot of confidence in what he's doing, but I know the kid better than anyone else and he has tremendous respect for the coaching profession.

"I promise you, if I thought my kid was a jerk, I wouldn't have come here."

He's not alone. A whole bunch of highly respected coaches thought highly enough of the younger Kiffin to join him in what figures to be an incredibly challenging rebuilding chore.PREVIEW: SI breaks down the SEC race

Tennessee, once a fixture on the national scene, has gone 11 years since its last SEC championship and suffered losing seasons twice in the past four years. The Vols' talent level has fallen far behind that of conference rivals Florida, Georgia and Alabama. At the height of Fulmer's tenure, in the spring of 2002, the program produced 10 NFL draft picks, including first-rounders Albert Haynesworth, Donte Stallworth and John Henderson. Last spring, Tennessee had just one player selected the entire draft, linebacker Robert Ayers.GALLERY: Top 10 players in the SEC this season

In tapping the as-yet unproven Kiffin as Phillip Fulmer's successor, Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton trumpeted a "new model" for coaching hires. Rather than spending $4 million a year on a big-name head coach (the type of dollars Pete Carroll, Charlie Weis, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer now command), Hamilton gave Kiffin a $2 million salary -- and another $3.3 million to lure his dream staff. Tennessee didn't hire a coach -- it hired a package of coaches.

In addition to Monte Kiffin, Orgeron and Gran, Tennessee's staff includes linebackers coach Lance Thompson, formerly Saban's ace recruiter at Alabama; Jim Chaney, longtime offensive coordinator to former Purdue coach Joe Tiller (he spent the past four seasons with the St. Louis Rams); and quarterbacks coach David Reaves, formerly Steve Spurrier's recruiting coordinator at South Carolina.

"You have a lot of guys on this staff who left really good jobs," said Lane Kiffin. "They're not here to collect checks. They're here to do something special and prove their decisions right."

Kiffin, for one, has been here before. He earned a reputation as a football savant while helping Carroll build USC into its current dynastic state. Starting as the Trojans' tight ends coach, he worked his way up to offensive coordinator by the age of 29 and landed the Raiders' head-coaching job at 31. He and Orgeron worked side by side during Carroll's first four seasons at USC, resurrecting the fallen power into a national player; now, they're trying to rebuild Tennessee in much the same mold.

"It's very similar to the way we ran things with Pete Carroll," said Orgeron. "The players relate to [Lane]. They know how smart he is. Tennessee players want a coach who's going to challenge them."

Much like at USC, words like "challenge" and "competition" are constantly on the tip of the coaches' and players' tongues.

"Everything is a competition," said Tennessee's All-America safety Eric Berry. "Everything we do between offense and defense, they keep score. They even call our scrimmages 'preseason games.'"

Kiffin has stated repeatedly all but one starting job -- Berry's -- is up for grabs. Nearly every practice this month has included segments with live hitting. Coaches and players sprint together from one field to another between periods.

"Because it's our first year, we don't know what any of these players can do in our system," said Kiffin. "We have to find out in a competitive manner. We've gone live more in this training camp than anywhere I've been just because there were so many question marks."

Those questions start first and foremost at quarterback, where senior Jonathan Crompton and junior Nick Stephens combined for a woeful 1,739 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Kiffin has yet to decide on a starter, and from watching practice, it's easy to see why. Both continue to struggle, though it's tough to say how much of that lies with them and how much is a result of the Vols' depleted receiving corps. Junior Gerald Jones is the lone returnee with experience, and he's practicing with a cast on his surgically repaired left wrist.

While Chaney holds the coordinator title, Kiffin is clearly in charge of the offense, and he's already leaning heavily on several members of last winter's top 10 recruiting class. Freshman receivers Nu'Keese Richardson and Marsalis Teague are seeing significant action, with Richardson even featured in a Wildcat-type package, while freshman tailback David Oku is pushing senior Montario Hardesty and sophomore Tauren Poole (one of the surprise stars of camp) for carries.

Tennessee figures to be in better shape defensively -- despite losing seven games last season, the Vols still ranked third nationally in total defense -- but much will depend on how quickly the players grasp Monte Kiffin's complex playbook.

"You have to have a lot of patience," said the architect of the famed "Tampa Two" defense. "When you've coached Derrick Brooks, he's been playing the same defense for 13 years. You can't expect some linebacker who's 18 years old to come here and play the same defense."

For his part, Monte Kiffin is still adjusting to the most hectic part of his new job: recruiting. His fellow staff members never seem to take a break.

"It's very, very intense compared to the old days," said Kiffin, a college coach from 1966-82 at Nebraska, Arkansas and N.C. State. "I'm more into coaching right now, but they'll always say, 'We have a recruiting meeting.'"

Lane Kiffin insists recruiting was the primary factor behind some of his unpopular p.r. tactics last winter.

In lauding his program's recruiting success last February (Tennessee landed 11th-hour commitments from four Top 100 prospects), Kiffin took shots at several SEC counterparts, most notably Meyer, whom Kiffin infamously and falsely accused of cheating in front of 1,000 boosters at a post-Signing Day breakfast event. Kiffin received a reprimand from SEC commissioner Mike Slive and publicly apologized to Meyer and Florida AD Jeremy Foley, but the comment continues to haunt him, as it will until Tennessee visits Gainesville on Sept. 19.

"I've said it before -- do I love everything I've had to do?" said Kiffin. "No, but I think it needed to be done for us to do what we needed to do immediately. This isn't the old days where you have four or five years to develop a plan. You have to find impact ways to recruit immediately."

Tennessee's all-star staff is under significant pressure to land another monster class next February, as 12 players have left the program since the end of last season. It's clear the Vols' quarterback of the future is not currently on the roster, and the offensive and defensive lines will suffer heavy loses when graduation hits. The staff is off to a nice start with 16 commitments -- a group currently ranks as a top 15 class -- but there's not a quarterback on that list.

Meanwhile, Kiffin continues his quest of drumming up enthusiasm. His face adorns billboards that recently went up both locally and throughout the South (including in Atlanta and South Florida) proclaiming: "It's Time." Last Sunday, the coach spoke at UT's freshman picnic and spontaneously invited the new students to attend the next day's practice (a couple hundred took him up on it).

Soon, however, the Vols will start playing actual football games, and there's a strong likelihood Kiffin's inaugural team won't provide quite the same excitement.

"We'll be good when we get good; I don't know when that will be," said Kiffin. "We had a phenomenal recruiting class, and I know our guys are off to a great start right now, but it's not going to happen overnight. There's so much work to be done."

He certainly couldn't ask for better help.

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