Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin talks about the upcoming season during the Southeastern Conference football Media Days in Hoover, Ala. on Friday, July 24, 2009. (AP Photo/ Butch Dill)
HOOVER, Ala. -- One by one, for more than one hour, Lane Kiffin absorbed the blows.
Many of the nearly 1,000 reporters at the Southeastern Conference football media days pelted Tennessee's polarizing new coach with questions about his controversial first seven months on the job.
But Lightning Rod Lane killed everyone with kindness, at least for one day.
"Was that really Lane Kiffin?" one reporter asked another shortly after one of the coach's countless interview sessions.
"It's weird," the other answered. "He's much more likable than I thought. I thought he was going to be a jerk."
One Alabama television station camera man was assigned to follow Kiffin's every step in the building -- he stood guard just outside the restroom at one point -- because his bosses were convinced the coach "would say something crazy." Another reporter admitted to Kiffin that he was a little surprised and disappointed by the coach's "real, average, normal" comments.
"That was way too boring for you, then?" Kiffin quipped at the man.
Essentially, it was. Kiffin mentioned a UT billboard that soon will rise above at least one South Florida highway, but none of Thursday's comments figure to end up on opponents' billboards.
If anything, Kiffin channeled former college football coach Lou Holtz by consistently downplaying his team's chances to compete for SEC and national championships this season.
Kiffin predicted UT rival Florida would win "another national championship" this season and Gators quarterback Tim Tebow would "win another Heisman."
"That wasn't a joke," Kiffin said. "I was serious about that."
Those remarks came from the same Lane Kiffin who said at his introductory news conference in December that he looked forward to "singing 'Rocky Top' all night long after we beat Florida next year."
Kiffin continued to sprinkle the Gators with verbal jabs in the following months -- none more publicized than an in-jest comment to UT fans on national signing day that Florida coach Urban Meyer "cheated" but still couldn't keep Sunshine State star Nu'Keese Richardson from signing with the Vols.
Friday was a different story.
"I have great respect for Florida, what they've done there," Kiffin said. "I would think Florida is not worried one bit about us. We're 5 7 and they're the powerful Gators. We're just trying to play in the same conference as them."
Kiffin played nice all day long, but he didn't apologize for any of his actions. He refuted claims of malice but didn't deny his intention to do "anything I could to get people talking about Tennessee football.
"And I don't think there's any doubt we've been the most talked-about program in college football this offseason," he added. "Do I love everything I've done? No, I didn't like having to do it. We'd love to have waited until the season started to win games and create interest, but we didn't have time. It needed to be done right away.
"These seven months, I can't imagine it going any better than it has. All of the questions come back to things that I've said. It's so hard to recruit in this conference. You've got to do something unique and special to get kids to want to come to our state."
Motivating the players already at UT also is a necessity, obviously, but the players still on Kiffin's team have adamantly defended the coach's offseason bravado.
"People can say whatever they want, and that's fine, but the bottom line is I know Coach Kiffin's got everybody's back in our locker room," said junior Eric Berry, the SEC's preseason player of the year. "With Coach Kiffin saying all the stuff he's said, we take that as his show of confidence in us.
"He obviously feels like we can back him up, and that's what we're focused on. He's got our back, and we've got his."
The players don't feel free to run their mouths, though, senior tailback Montario Hardesty added.
"We'll leave that up to Coach Kiffin," Hardesty said with a smile. "He's pretty good at it."