published Friday, January 23rd, 2009

One-on-one with new UT football coach Lane Kiffin


by Wes Rucker

KNOXVILLE — Lane Kiffin has been a busy man. The only time he’s spent away from recruiting and putting together a coaching staff was in California, where wife Layla gave birth to their third child — son Monte Knox Kiffin.

Lane Kiffin found 15 minutes for The Times Free Press this morning before making final preparations for a big recruiting weekend, featuring several prominent prospects from several states (more on that in a later blog).

Without further ado, here’s the interview with Coach Kiffin:

Q: Now that your coaching staff is set, did you accomplish what you hoped to accomplish?

KIFFIN: “Yeah. I had an initial plan put together — an ‘A-B,’ list, and all these thoughts — and we actually did better than I thought we would. Better than my initial plan, anyway. The guy I didn’t know anything about was (former Alabama linebacker coach) Lance Thompson. After being on the road and seeing how the high school coaches talked about him, and the way that recruits talked about him ... I didn’t know he could coach at all, but I figured out that he was a heck of a recruiter. Then I had him interview at the convention with my dad (defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin), and he grinded him and went through all the X’s and O’s stuff, and he came back and said, ‘This guy is great, X’s and O’s wise, defensively.’ That was big, because the rest of the staff, for the most part, went the way that I thought it would go. That was just kind of a big bonus.”

Q: So you’re pleased, then, I take it?

KIFFIN: “There was a plan a long time ago about this, from the first interview (with athletic director Mike Hamilton). It was, ‘Here is the plan, and here is what I think it will take to get it done,’ and all of those things. It never goes exactly the way that you planned, but it actually went better than what I planned.”

Q: Obviously you’ve had to recruit like crazy and fill your staff, and you haven’t add tons of time to plan this, but have you determined whether you or offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Jim Chaney will call the plays?

KIFFIN: “To add Jim, with his completely different background offensively than me, was really big. I know what I know, so I don’t need to hire someone who knows what I know; I can teach that. But here’s somebody who has been a little more spread out. We’ll integrate some of his stuff, and that will make us better on offense. But it will also make us better on defense, because we’ll get to practice against stuff we’ll see down the road from other teams.”

Q: But have you decided who will call the plays?

KIFFIN: “We’re going to figure that out throughout this spring, and we’ll work together to find out how it goes. We’ve never worked together before, so we’ll need to see how it goes.”

Q: Even with the impressive list of recruiters you’ve hired, was this year’s signing class still going to be a patchwork effort?

KIFFIN: “Oh, yeah. We’re two years behind with this class. Now that our staff’s here, by the time a kid signs with us, we’ll be two years into the guy and have two years’ worth of relationships with him, and the people around him. But we’re going on two weeks of relationships with some of these kids right now, so it’s a very difficult situation, but one we’ve just got to try to make the best out of.”

Q: Has being the UT head coach helped you get a foot in the door with some of these kids, even late in the process?

KIFFIN: “I think we’re in a lot of peoples’ top three. We’ll see how we close here. But once again, to be that far behind, it’s hard for a kid and a family to make a decision when they’ve known the guys you’re going up against for two years and they’ve known your staff for two weeks.”

Q: How much have you been able to deal with your team the past few weeks, considering everything else that’s happening?

KIFFIN: “A little. I try to get back here some for the 5:30 a.m. workouts, and then fly out (to recruit) after that. This morning, I was here, and so I get to see them and get in front of them some. But that’s just one evaluation tool. We’re trying to work with them physically right now, but we’re trying to work with them mentally as well, and making them mentally tough. But until we get on the grass and get the ball to them, I won’t be able to truly evaluate them.”

Q: Do your quarterbacks have at least some basic knowledge of what the new UT offense will look like?

KIFFIN: “No. We haven’t had time. We’ve been on the road recruiting. If we were spending time in here coaching them up, we wouldn’t be having the chance to get some of the players we have a chance at getting. There’s film available here for them, but that just gives them a little bit of a start.”

Q: So basically, the message now is to get (or stay) in shape?

KIFFIN: “Yeah. We see them in the morning working out and stuff, and our guys stay out there and throw and stuff and do some things, but as soon as signing day is over, we’ll really get into them.”

Q: What do you anticipate your role being with the defense? Obviously, you’re hired a competent defensive coordinator.

KIFFIN: “Not very much, to be honest. That’s why that (Monte Kiffin) hire was so important, to have someone in there that you don’t have to worry about, or situations where we don’t know what we’re doing or understand an offense that we’re playing. I know the person so well, too, obviously. He’s my father. I know his core beliefs, his principles, his philosophies, and to know all those things is such a security blanket. You know that one-third of your team is taken care of.”

Q: Do you think that, by in large, your players are buying into this regime change?

KIFFIN: “I think some of them are. We’ll continue to build, but everybody’s not going to buy in on day 1. They might say they do, but they really don’t. It will take a little bit if time, and there may be some guys that aren’t here. You’ve already seen some (offensive lineman Ramone Johnson and wide receiver E.J. Abrams-Ward) that don’t, and there may be some more that don’t, but we’re going to win with championship-type players that have that mentality and aren’t excuse-makers. If players don’t want to be champions, if they don’t want to train and work like champions and go to class like champions, then they’re not going to be here.”

Q: Every coach I’ve covered has hated getting to that last option with troubled players. But if nothing else, do you hope that Johnson and Abrams-Ward’s dismissals will send a message to their teammates?

KIFFIN: “Oh, sure. That all goes into it. You need to have the mentality on your team, a championship mentality of how to do things, and how to be accountable and be disciplined. If players aren’t going to do that, I owe it to our team for them to not be here, because they’re affecting the culture, and they’re affecting the players that want to do it right. As hard as it is to dismiss someone from the team, you have to understand that you’re also looking out for the 84 other (scholarship) players on the team.”

Q: Have you targeted any leadership so far from inside the lockerroom?

KIFFIN: “We don’t need leaders right now, because they don’t know how to lead. They don’t know what our expectations are. They don’t know exactly what we want from them right now, so I’m not worried about leaders. I’m worried about getting in shape physically, No. 1, and then mentally tough. We’ll worry about leaders down the road. We’re the leaders right now. They don’t know how to lead yet.”

Q: Will you have a geographical base to your recruiting system, with certain coaches taking certain areas?

KIFFIN: “Yeah, it will definitely be broken down by areas, and that went into it a lot with hiring the staff. When you look at the staff, there’s great recruiters, but there’s also guys that are based in certain areas that have done a great job over the years in those areas. You don’t want to get a whole lot of guys that have recruited the same area, because then they’d have to go into new areas. It’s come together great that way, as you look at the Southeast. We have people that have been in all of those different areas and pockets.”

Q: Have you settled on a primary Chattanooga-area recruiter? Defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell from UT’s old staff had an extremely high batting average in the tri-state area.

KIFFIN: “I don’t know yet. We’ve got to sit down (after signing day) and go through how we’re going to break up the state and divide it up. I don’t have that figured out yet, just because we’re trying to scramble on this senior class right now. Monte is down there in that area this morning, though. I can tell you that.”

Q: Are you breaking this up into sections, with regards to your time management? If so, will the period after signing day be a crash course going into spring practice?

KIFFIN: “Yeah. We’ve got to get our players ready. We’ve got to start coaching our players, as much as we can, getting them ready for spring ball and teaching them as much as we’re allowed to.”

Q: You said at your first press conference that no one on the team had earned a starting position. Do you hope to have a better grasp on your depth chart after spring practice?

KIFFIN: “Yeah. We better. We need to have a better idea going into (preseason camp), because the beginning of fall is most important for our new guys, because our new guys are going to get in front of those lines. We’ve got to see which of these new guys coming in can be championship players for us right away. We don’t go the old school, ‘Fourth team and work your way up,’ because you won’t find them fast enough that way. We need to find which of these guys can help us win right away, and so our returning guys need to know that spring is so important. They need to establish who they are and how they fit into our system, because they’re not going to get as many opportunities in the fall as the newcomers.”

Q: What about the offensive guys, specifically? Your system will their third in three years. Does that change anything in your mind?

KIFFIN: “That has nothing to do with it. Whether you’ve been in five systems in a row or the same system forever, this is a new system, period. How many systems they’ve been in before doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s a brand new system coming in, and we’ve got a lot of work to do, just like we do on defense. It’s no different.”

Q: Looking at the offensive statistics from last season — and simply watching film, for that matter — revealed an offense than simply struggled to do anything. How much of a challenge will it be to turn that around next season?

KIFFIN: “I’m not a big numbers guy, unless you’re talking about the number of wins and losses. And just because somebody was considered an important player or a player who hadn’t done anything, that doesn’t matter now. Everybody gets a clean slate, and we’ll go from there.”

Q: Are you open to position changes with some guys, considering the new systems on each side of the ball?

KIFFIN: “We’ve got to figure our where our best players play best. They’ll be times I’ll flop people in spring practice, and put a guy on the other side of the ball to see what he can do. We’ve got to figure out who are our best players, and where can they help us. You’ll see guys move around, for sure.”

Q: Where have you grown the most as coach from your early days?

KIFFIN: “Communication, definitely. I’ve always been an X’s and O’s guy, because I love the game and love studying the game. But building relationships and communicating with other coaches and players is something I’ve learned how to do better.”

Q: UT players for years under Coach Fulmer said they loved the program’s family atmosphere. Do you expect this situation to smooth itself out, considering how they felt about the old staff? Many of them came here because of the old staff’s longevity.

KIFFIN: “Surprisingly, I have not felt resistance because of the new staff. I have not felt that from our players. I haven’t heard them talk about it. I haven’t felt any of that, ‘Well, this is how we’ve done it before.’ I think our players have been really good that way. It helps brining in such a successful staff that’s won national championships and a Super Bowl championship. You’ve got a bunch of people that have won a lot of games here. When they come in, and their position coaches and their coordinators are selling them on, ‘This is how we do things, and this is how you play at championship level,’ they can prove it. That makes it easier.”

Read Saturday’s Times Free Press for more information, and email Wes Rucker at wrucker@timesfreepress.com.

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