Destin, Fla.—Lane Kiffin did apologize for using the word “cheat” and Urban Meyer in the same sentence back in February. He was wrong and the SEC commissioner let him know it with an official reprimand.
But the new Tennessee coach ain’t apologizing for anything else and here’s why: Given the realities of the football program he inherited, Kiffin believes he was just doing what he had to do to jump-start the process of making the Volunteers a contender again.
“Do I love everything I had to do to get us to this point? No I don’t but my job is not to love everything that I do,” Kiffin said as he met with the collective SEC media for the first time on Tuesday. “My job is to do the best thing for our university and the best thing for our people.”
Kiffin, 34, has ruffled more than a few feathers since joining the SEC coaching fraternity last December. The episodes have been well documented so we won’t review them here. But here at the annual SEC spring meetings, where he sat down with his fellow coaches for the first time on Tuesday, Kiffin said his aggressive approach to date is simply what the job requires.
“I think as you look at this job (Tennessee) you have to have a national presence,” Kiffin said. “We’re not fortunate enough to be able to sign 23 or 25 players from our state. When you become a head coach, you take a specific plan into a job. This one, as I looked at it, needed to have a spark immediately as far as exposure.”
Kiffin’s point was that he had to do some unconventional things to get Tennessee noticed nationally. Some of his controversial decisions drew scorn in the national media and from fellow coaches. Kiffin had a little dust up with Steve Spurrier, who wondered if Kiffin had taken his NCAA recruiting test before calling prospects. Turns out he had taken the test and Kiffin wondered if he was going to get an apology. The two rode in an elevator on Tuesday and patched it up, but not before Spurrier reminded the young coach that he never accused him of cheating. He simply asked the question.
Kiffin and Meyer? That relationship is going to take some work and, given the jobs they hold, will remain chilly. Meyer said the key to the situation is to be “professional.” But he also admitted that it wasn’t easy.
But here’s the reality: While Kiffin’s style in the past six months has gone against the grain, it also made Tennessee the most talked-about 5-7 team in college football. And six months into the job, Kiffin said, the plan is working. Tennessee closed fast in recruiting, signing a Top 10 class that included running back Bryce Brown, rated by some services as the No. 1 player in the nation.
“If you look at the plan over six months you’d have to say it is going extremely well. There aren’t any six-year plans anymore,” Kiffin said. “None of you guys are going to write ‘Well, they will be good six years from now.’ To sit back and say we’ll take it easy and sit in the weeds and say someday we’ll sign a Top 10 class….we didn’t have time to do that.”
Kiffin said that he hopes the other coaches in the SEC understand that every job is different. What might work at one place may not work at another. His job is not to make friends among the SEC coaches or the media.
“I was hired to satisfy three groups of people. No. 1 is our people, our fans, the people of Tennessee. I think they are extremely excited. We had the second largest attendance we’ve ever had for a spring game.
“No. 2, our own players. I think some of the things that we’ve done puts it back on your own players. They know you’ve gone out and said some things about what you’re going to do and what you’re going to accomplish. When you’re working out with your players at 5:30 in the morning they come up to you and say ‘Thanks for doing that coach. It makes us want to work that much harder because we’ve got your back.
“No. 3 is recruiting because it’s the lifeblood of the program. I don’t think if you took a conservative approach—whether you thought it was right, wrong, or indifferent—I don’t think there is any way you sign that class and there isn’t any way you sign the No. 1 player in the country. There are some things that have to be done specifically for this particular job.
“As you look at kids today they respond to confidence a lot. Guys that we’ve signed talk about the confidence they feel from the staff. We’re not backing down and kids like that. They like the energy around our program.”
Before his first face-to-face meeting with Meyer since the comments in February, Kiffin was asked if he felt the need to apologize again.
“I really haven’t thought about it. I would expect everybody to understand that we all have a job to do,” said Kiffin. “But I did request that coach Meyer and I would get adjoining rooms (at the hotel).”
He was kidding. At least I think he was.
This is going to be an interesting fall.