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Rocking Old Rocky Top

Feb. 16, 2009
Feb. 16, 2009

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Feb. 16, 2009

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Rocking Old Rocky Top

Brazen coach Lane Kiffin is winning few friends in his new job at Tennessee—raiding SEC foes for assistants, running off staffers and accusing a major rival of a recruiting violation

WHEN LANE KIFFIN first met Layla Reaves, he didn't court her so much as recruit her. They were both 24. Layla was working as the special events coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lane, an offensive line assistant at Colorado State, had come to Florida to see his father, Monte, the Bucs' defensive coordinator. ¶ One day Monte showed up at the building where Layla worked. He had Lane with him. "I had to be nice to him," Layla recalls. "I mean, he was Monte Kiffin's son. I thought he was a nice guy, but I might've had a different impression had I known he'd been scouting me for a while."

This is an article from the Feb. 16, 2009 issue

As it happened, Layla was the daughter of John Reaves, a former All-America quarterback at Florida who'd played in the NFL and the USFL. Lane liked her football pedigree, but she was also good to look at. Layla's parents had named her after the girl in the Derek and the Dominos song.

"You never want your dad to introduce you to a girl," Lane says, "but I have to give it to Monte. He's a pretty good talent evaluator."

Three months after the introduction, Lane's recruiting blitz complete, he and Layla were engaged. Married since July 2000, the Kiffins have three children, the youngest a son born in January, some six weeks after Lane was named head coach at Tennessee.

"When Lane sets his mind on something, he gets it," Layla says. "He can coerce you into anything. And he can charm anybody. This man ... trust me when I tell you this, he can get you to jump off a cliff."

KIFFIN, OF COURSE, was the coach of the Oakland Raiders until the team's owner, Al Davis, fired him in September just four games into his second season. Coaches are inured to such treatment, but Davis added to the insult by refusing to pay out Kiffin's $6 million contract "for cause," claiming that Kiffin had violated the terms of his contract. Davis further assailed Kiffin in a press conference that remains as memorable for the old man's appearance as for the lengths to which he went to discredit the coach. Except for his voice, which projected strength and conviction, Davis was a frail, tissue-thin approximation of his former self, wrapped this day in a black-and-silver coat that sagged from his shoulders like a pup tent on a pole.

Accused of insubordination and labeled a "flat-out liar," Kiffin absorbed Davis's remarks with bemusement, later saying he "felt bad" for Davis and was "embarrassed to be associated" with such a spectacle. Whether the spectacle was the press conference or Davis himself, Kiffin never made clear.

Kiffin, now 33, has never suffered from a lack of confidence, and he'd managed to put his Raiders experience in perspective even before Davis had completed his harangue. Before his time in Oakland, where he produced a 5--15 record, Kiffin had coordinated Pete Carroll's offense and recruiting program at USC, and he'd always planned to return to college football. Even as a high school quarterback in Bloomington, Minn., where he called his own plays, and later as a seldom-used backup at Fresno State, where he surrendered his last year of eligibility to help coach the offense, Kiffin had dreamed of leading a big-time college program. Davis might or might not have succeeded in raising questions about Kiffin's character, but hiring him in the first place allowed him to include head coaching experience on his résumé, a prerequisite at some schools.

"Lane took that job because, as he told me, it's hard to get a good college job unless you've been a head coach somewhere," says Monte. "He'd been spoiled at Southern Cal, and the only job he wanted was a head job at a big school. He didn't have any interest in working his way up at small schools."

Kiffin interviewed with Clemson, Syracuse and Washington before landing at Tennessee after Phillip Fulmer was forced into retirement. Kiffin had been the youngest coach in the NFL when Davis hired him at age 31. Now he holds the same distinction among college coaches at major programs.

Only a few weeks after accepting the job, Kiffin was already crowing about the coaches he'd stolen from rival schools in the Southeastern Conference. He called it addition by subtraction. "I could've gone to places like Oregon and Michigan and found great coaches to hire, but that's only addition to us," he explains. "By finding them at SEC schools and taking them away, that's addition by subtraction."

"I have to play Alabama every year," Kiffin says. "I basically stole their best guy. I have to play South Carolina. I took their best guy. I took Mississippi State's. Ed Orgeron was going to be LSU's recruiting coordinator. I went and got him. I also got Eddie Gran—he's the coach who recruited players like Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown for Auburn. I like to joke that we'd have the best recruiting class in the country right now if I'd spent as much time recruiting players as I've spent recruiting coaches."

Even so, Tennessee did well on signing day, getting one Rivals.com five-star recruit and eight four-stars in a class of 19. "I think Lane and his staff did a good job, especially considering they didn't have a lot of time to secure those kids who committed when Fulmer was still there and might've been inclined to go elsewhere," says Mike Farrell, the leading football recruiting analyst at Rivals, which ranked Tennessee's class 17th in the country and seventh best in the SEC. The team stole a couple of players away from Florida: wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson of Pahokee, Fla., and athlete Marsalis Teague of Paris, Tenn. But the biggest score might've been the five-star recruit the Volunteers signed. Defensive back Janzen Jackson of Lake Charles, La., declared for Tennessee the day after he postponed a scheduled news conference to announce his decision to join coach Les Miles at LSU.

Such defections are demoralizing to the schools that lose players and galvanizing to those that get them. On signing day Kiffin bragged about his first recruiting class, at a breakfast celebration in Knoxville that was attended by more than 1,000 fans. He might've been ignored by the rest of the conference had he made his remarks about the players only. But he also accused Florida coach Urban Meyer of violating NCAA recruiting rules by calling Richardson while the player was on his official visit to the Tennessee campus. "I love the fact that Urban had to cheat and still didn't get him," Kiffin told the raucous crowd.

Kiffin issued an apology the next day, after Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley accused him of slander and pointed out that there was no NCAA rule like the one Kiffin described. (The SEC reprimanded the coach.) What Foley didn't say was that Kiffin needed to memorize the SEC's invisible handbook on manners, which promotes Southern football virtues such as false humility and self-deprecation and provides this instruction: A coach in our conference should never run his mouth unless he expects to have it bloodied.

TWO WEEKS before, it was Alabama that wanted a piece of Kiffin. Once again he'd been bragging about stealing people, in this case Crimson Tide super-recruiter Lance Thompson. Kiffin referred to Thompson as "Saban's righthand guy going back to when he was at LSU," a dig that seemed to bother everyone in Alabama until news broke that Stacy Lynn Thompson had filed for divorce from Lance Thompson on Jan. 8, the week before he bolted for Knoxville. Would a noisy, ill-mannered upstart like Lane Kiffin have been able to steal Thompson away if not for his marital woes? Judging from comments left on website message boards dedicated to Alabama football, not a soul in the state thought so—even though Tennessee would be paying Thompson $350,000 a year, $125,000 more than Alabama had paid him.

"Lane has that USC arrogance," says Rivals' Farrell. "He's already gone after two coaches, Urban Meyer and Nick Saban. But this is something I like about him. Lane Kiffin is not afraid to ruffle feathers, and he really has put an impressive staff together. Give them some time and they'll get it done."

Houston Nutt, the Ole Miss coach, thinks Kiffin is on the right track. "You just can't go wrong by bringing in quality coaches who can recruit," he says. "And this is something Lane's probably figured out by now: When you're the coach at Tennessee, you won't find 25 players a year in your home state. You'll need to go outside the area to find them. There's never any slowing down for a coach in the SEC. You can never let up."

Kiffin is making $2 million a year, a salary that ranks him seventh or eighth among the 12 SEC head coaches, says Mike Hamilton, Tennessee's men's athletic director. Kiffin might've negotiated a wage closer to the $4 million that Nick Saban earns at Alabama or the $3.65 million that Meyer made last year at Florida, but he agreed to accept less if the university budgeted more to pay for his assistants. In fact Tennessee doled out $3.325 million for the assistants and issued a press release noting each coach's salary. "You can't win without the staff," Kiffin says, "and for the staff you've got to have money.

"When I was interviewing, Alabama was 10--0 or something like that, and they had gone above and beyond what anybody had ever done in terms of paying staff. You think [Alabama athletic director] Mal Moore ever worries about what he's paying Nick Saban and his staff? You don't win championships by having the cheapest budget." (Last year Alabama reportedly paid Saban's assistants a total of $2.4 million.)

Given these hard economic times, Kiffin's attitude might seem callous if the university's expectations weren't so clear. Like other big-time football schools Tennessee funnels money from its athletic department to its academic side, which adds to the pressure on the football program to win. Under Fulmer last year home attendance slipped as the Volunteers endured a 5--7 season. For the first time the school charged students for tickets to home games in 102,037-seat Neyland Stadium, and while around 10,000 of them were sold, "the number still fell slightly short of our allocation," says Chris Fuller, Tennessee's associate athletic director for sales and marketing.

THE UNIVERSITY introduced Kiffin as its new coach on Dec. 1, but he'd begun to court assistants even before the announcement, and he did so with the same determination he once showed in courting his wife. The first coach he went after was his 68-year-old father, widely considered the best defensive coordinator in the NFL. Monte was making $2.1 million a year in Tampa. Tennessee got him for $1.2 million this year and a $300,000 retention bonus to be paid on Dec. 31. The $1.5 million total makes him the highest-paid assistant in college football, and he earns more than at least one head coach in the conference, Mississippi State's Dan Mullen. Hamilton, the Tennessee athletic director, considers Monte's deal a bargain. "We essentially have two guys [Lane and Monte] in the $3 million to $4 million range, which is what other schools are paying for one coach," he says.

Monte had spurned opportunities to interview for NFL head-coaching positions over the years, and today he's as well-known for the coaches he has mentored (Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Raheem Morris) as for the All-Pro players he worked with (Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Warren Sapp). "I didn't want to get paid too much," he says. "I just want to be a ball coach with my kid. I would've come even if the money hadn't been there."

Orgeron, who had worked with Lane at USC, was a more difficult hire. Although Ole Miss fired him after the 2007 season, his reputation got a boost last year when players he'd recruited handed national champion Florida its only loss and dominated Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Orgeron, 47, was working as a defensive line coach for the New Orleans Saints when Kiffin approached him. Orgeron turned him down, so Kiffin started recruiting the coach's wife, Kelly, and three kids: 10-year-old twin boys and a 16-year-old stepson. He sent the boys text messages. Then he sent them Tennessee caps. "It's the same thing I always do in recruiting: identify the champion," says Orgeron. "Who's going to help the young man make the decision? Find out and recruit that person. Lane was doing this to me."

Kiffin might've had an easier run at Orgeron had not Miles, the LSU coach, also wanted him. Orgeron grew up in a small town in Louisiana's Cajun country and often fantasized about coaching at LSU. The school's offer, which would balloon to $900,000, showed how much Miles coveted his talents as a recruiter.

To help make up his mind, Orgeron retreated with his family to a beach house in Destin, Fla. They weren't there long when Kelly said, "Lane called, and he wants the address here."

"He's coming," Orgeron told her. "I'm telling you, I know him. He's coming."

"Nah," she said. "I think he wants to send us something."

"I walk outside, and there are Lane and Monte," says Orgeron. "They've flown down, and they're dressed from head to toe in orange."

Lane could pay Orgeron only $650,000 a year, but by now the money was secondary. Orgeron wanted to study under Monte, and he wanted Lane to stop pestering him. Says Orgeron, "I told him, 'O.K., I'm going. You don't have to recruit me anymore. I'm tired of this. You hear me? You can stop now.'"

LANE AND LAYLA haven't bought a house in Knoxville. She stayed behind in Oakland to be close to her doctor when the baby came. Lane has had only one break since he got the job, and that was to return to California for his son's birth. "I was in labor and Lane was in the room with me, but he was on the phone the whole time," says Layla. "I'm having the baby and he's recruiting."

If anybody doubted that Lane planned for his tenure in Knoxville to rival that of Fulmer, who won a national championship and was 152--52 in 16-plus seasons, one only had to consider the name he and Layla gave their son: Monte Knox Kiffin.

Lane flew back to Tennessee less than 48 hours after his son was born. He'd arranged to have someone fetch him at the airport, but the driver was 25 minutes late. "I came back and within five minutes I'd fired the guy who was in charge of the guy who'd been sent to pick me up," says Kiffin. "Here's the point: We need to win. That's 25 minutes that Nick Saban and Urban Meyer had that I lost because somebody was late picking me up at the airport."

Kiffin has shown no more sympathy for the rest of the support staff he inherited from Fulmer. "You can't count the number of people we've run off because they couldn't keep up, and I'm including secretaries," he says. "They had to go because they weren't going to make it, and they knew it."

Layla and the kids won't move to Knoxville until sometime in the next few months, so Lane has been sharing a house near campus with several of his assistants, among them his brother-in-law, quarterbacks coach David Reaves, and tight ends and tackles coach James Cregg, another assistant he boasts of having stolen, from the Raiders.

Kiffin tolerates this living situation because, as he puts it, he "can coach the coaches not only on a daily basis but on a nightly basis." During recruiting season he listened to their calls and critiqued them when they were done. "I don't have to be their buddy," Kiffin says of his housemates. "I don't have time to watch some TV show with them. We have way too much to do. We're too far behind. I'm not worrying about three or four years from now. I want to win now. Wednesdays and Sundays are the same day of the week as far as I'm concerned. We're at work at 5:30 in the morning, and we don't finish until 10:30 at night. Any other way and we'd be average, and we're not here to be average."

Kiffin snaps photos with his cellphone and sends them to Layla, and he calls every day to speak to his daughters, four-year-old Landry and two-year-old Presley. He was out recruiting on Dec. 13 when Landry celebrated her birthday. "We were in a car on the way to a school," says Clint Dowdle, a former Tennessee assistant director of football operations who accompanied Kiffin on the recruiting trail. "Lane got on the phone and sang to his daughter. He made the comment later that it was the first time he hadn't seen her on her birthday."

In one week during the height of recruiting season Kiffin made 17 trips in a private jet to meet with high school recruits. After each visit the first person he called was Monte. "They talked eight times a day while he was on the road," says Dowdle. "As soon as he got on the plane, he was calling his dad."

When classes resumed in January, Kiffin gave his players three days to adjust to their new schedules before he launched an off-season training program led by Mark Smith, the strength coach he hired away from Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. Three days a week the players meet in the athletic center and run sprints in the early-morning hours before classes begin. Players lift weights on days when they don't have to run. "It's different from before," says junior tailback Montario Hardesty. "Last year we didn't start running until February. And there's more discipline now. We can't wear earrings or jewelry or headbands. One thing I've noticed is how hard the guys are pushing, trying to make a positive first impression. It's tougher than it was, but no one's complaining."

Kiffin's efforts at discipline aren't confined to workouts. One of his rules requires that players sit in the first or second row at every class. If a player sits in even the third row, he's marked as absent and faces time on the StairMaster as punishment. "I was in my 8 a.m. math class the second day we came back," says All-America safety Eric Berry. "I'm the only player in there. Afterward my classmates start coming up to me. 'Dude, did you see Kiffin?' He'd come to the rear door and poked his head in to make sure I was there. Before, the coaches would send the weight-room guys or graduate assistants to check. But this was the head coach.

"Intense, huh?"

"Lane has that USC ARROGANCE," says Rivals' Farrell. "He is not afraid to ruffle feathers, and he really has put an impressive staff together."
"I just want to be A BALL COACH WITH MY KID," says Monte. "I would've come even if the money hadn't been there."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Patrick Murphy-RaceyJUST WIN, BABY Though he's taking over a team that went 5--7 in 2008, the former Raiders coach expects immediate success.PHOTODARREN CARROLLSHAPE UP OR ... Under Kiffin's watchful eye, the Vols have begun a rigorous training program.PHOTOGREGG MARTIN/GREGGMARTINPHOTO.COM (REAVES)PITCHING STAFF Kiffin looked within the SEC to nab expert recruiters (from left) Reaves, Orgeron and Thompson.PHOTODALE ZANINE/US PRESSWIRE (ORGERON)[See caption above]PHOTOKENT GIDLEY (THOMPSON)[See caption above]PHOTOKIMBERLY WHITE/REUTERS (KIFFIN)STEPPING STONE Kiffin, says his dad, had a top college job in mind when he became the youngest NFL coach at 31.PHOTOAL MESSERSCHMIDT/GETTY IMAGESFATHER KNOWS BEST Monte (with Bucs corner Ronde Barber) was widely viewed as the NFL's top defensive coordinator.