HOOVER, Ala. — As the final head coach to take the podium at SEC Media Days on Friday, Lane Kiffin said he was surprised so many reporters had stayed for his appearance. He shouldn’t have been. The truth was, the rest had all been an opening act. He was the headliner.
Its’ a role Kiffin has worked hard to cultivate during his first seven months on the job, and he’s not apologizing for putting himself in the spotlight.
“Do I love every single thing that I’ve done for my seven months? No, I haven’t loved having to do it,” Kiffin said. “But it needed to be done to get to where we wanted to be.”
In his tenure at Tennessee, Kiffin hasn’t beaten a rival, taken down a top-ranked opponent or even coached a single down of SEC football, but with a seemingly endless string of controversial comments, he has managed to make plenty of enemies around the conference.
Kiffin has voiced criticisms of numerous head coaches, including Florida’s Urban Meyer and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, and has stirred up additional controversy in his approach to recruiting — including landing Tennessee in some hot water with several secondary NCAA violations.
The end result of all the controversy, however, has been a top-10 recruiting class and a team Kiffin thinks is ready to compete in the SEC East.
“It has been a very special seven months for us,” Kiffin said. “I can’t imagine it going much better than it has.”
On the flight to Hoover, Ala., Kiffin said he read an article in Sports Illustrated that focused on the areas with the most top recruits. Not surprisingly for Kiffin, Tennessee didn’t rank high on the list.
Compared to Florida, Alabama and Georgia, Kiffin knew his program was at a disadvantage when it came to finding talent close to home, so he set out to make the Volunteers a nationally recognized program. His methods — calling out other coaches, dispensing huge salaries to his assistants, going hard after recruits already committed elsewhere — may have been unpopular, but the way Kiffin sees it, they worked.
Tennessee landed Bryce Brown, the top overall recruit in the nation, and picked up several players who had already verbally committed to rival teams like Auburn, Florida and LSU.
“The feedback has been unbelievable from players all throughout the country of guys wanting to come and see what’s going on,” Kiffin said.
There have been drawbacks, of course.
A few weeks ago, a recruit came to Tennessee to meet with Kiffin. During the exchange, the mother of the recruit told Kiffin she didn’t want her son to play for him. A coach of another team told her Tennessee was a renegade program.
Kiffin wasn’t surprised. He has made some enemies, and the negative recruiting began almost immediately. But he had a sales pitch already prepared.
Since taking over the Volunteers, no Tennessee players have been arrested. The football team posted its highest combined GPA in four years, a marked improvement from the previous semester. And for all the animosity his comments have engendered around the rest of the SEC, his own players love him.
“We all kind of liked (the comments),” Tennessee running back Montario Hardesty said. “Us as players, that’s how we act. We’re playing football, and there’s always a lot of smack talk going on. We liked it.”
Even the tension with the other coaches around the league seems to have simmered down, Kiffin said. He said Meyer was cordial to him during the league’s meetings in Destin, Fla. in May, and although Kiffin had a minor dust-up with Spurrier during those meetings, the South Carolina head coach downplayed any bad blood Friday.
“I think (each program) is very different,” Kiffin said. “I think coaches understand that and respect that we all have very high-profile jobs we all have to do in different ways.”
Of course, the uproar may have tempered for now, but even Kiffin is aware that his comments may have been forgiven, but they aren’t likely forgotten.
Talking big is easy during the offseason, but Kiffin is aware that the time to back up his words with on-field action is at hand. He’s not worried, he said. He’s excited.
“It’s part of the plan,” Kiffin said. “Now that we got out there, have this energy about our program nationally, that’s what we needed to do. … The only thing to focus on was what was going on in the offseason. Now we have some real ball to focus on.”