TAMPA, Fla. — As bad as Sunday’s season-ending loss was for Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was, the drive home figured to be even worse.
Alone in his thoughts, Kiffin knew he would surely realize the finality of an incredible run in Tampa which turned a perennial laughingstock to a Super Bowl champion and elevated him into one of the most highly respected coordinators in the history of the NFL.
“It’s one thing to lose when you’re coming back next year. I’ve done that before,” said Kiffin, who has accepted a position as the University of Tennessee’s defensive coordinator. “I get so fired up in the offseason (after a loss), I’d be in the office tomorrow watching tape.
“You can’t do that now.”
Instead Kiffin will meet with his Bucs’ players one last time on Monday. He’ll then join his son, Lane Kiffin, who was hired as UT’s new coach earlier this month.
The elder Kiffin carries to Knoxville the stigma of a defense that collapsed shortly after he told his players he would be leaving them at season’s end.
The Bucs weren’t terrible defensively even when they struggled this season. They just couldn’t get the stops that mattered most.
That was evident by Oakland’s two touchdown drives in the second quarter and two more such drives in the fourth quarter, which included a 67-yard touchdown run by Michael Bush.
Then there was the clock-killing, field goal drive that all but eliminated any chance for a Bucs’ comeback.
Since their 9-3 start, the Bucs’ defense has given up about 13 more points and 95 more rushing yards per game in the final month of the regular season. All that adds up to a 9-7 record, which turned out to be one win short of the playoffs.
“Well what do you say? I didn’t write a very good script, I’ll put it that way,” Kiffin said. “If I had to do it over again, it certainly wouldn’t be this way. The wheels just fell off.”
Despite being a pseudo-icon in the Tampa Bay sports community, Kiffin might be remembered by some as a short timer whose thoughts wandered elsewhere in his final days as a Buccaneer.
It’s a charge that Kiffin denies. He said he hasn’t called a single UT prospect and has remained focused on the Bucs.
Season-long statistics back his claim.
Despite the late collapse, the Bucs came into the final weekend of the regular season ranked ninth in total defense and seventh in points allowed, not Kiffin’s best year but respectable.
Kiffin refused to lay blame on his players or how they responded to his announcement that he was headed to UT.
“These players never let down. They really didn’t,” Kiffin said. “(Did players say) ‘Cause coach is going to Tennessee, we’re not going to play hard’ ? I don’t believe that. It just didn’t work out.”
Similarly, the Bucs supported their coach.
One defensive starter said he didn’t want his comments even associated with the theory that Kiffin’s announcement hurt the Bucs.
Another, linebacker Derrick Brooks, said that the local media is the only group making such assertions about Kiffin’s departure.
“You guys chose to say that,” Brooks said. “We don’t choose to take that approach.”
The Bucs came out with the type of approach one would expect of a highly motivated team. Oakland looked befuddled on its first three drives on Sunday, gaining only 27 yards and one first down, which came via a penalty.
“I thought they did great, especially early on,” center Jeff Faine said of his much-maligned offensive counterparts. “As much as the offense was shooting themselves in the foot, for them to keep us in the game and really kind of bail us out, I thought they did great.”
Then things got bad. And Kiffin took full blame.
“Coach Gruden didn’t lose that football game today,” Kiffin said, referring to Bucs’ head coach Jon Gruden’s offense. “Put that one on coach Kiff.”
It’s not often that an assistant coach’s departure causes such a commotion as Kiffin’s did.
Kiffin was the subject of several farewell media features and the most popular post-game interviewee on Sunday.
Kiffin wasn’t completely comfortable with all of that.
“It’s really not about me. It’s not about Tennessee, with all due respect to them,” Kiffin said. “It’s about 13 years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a great run.”
One didn’t have to be coached by Kiffin to understand what he meant to the Tampa Bay area. Just ask longtime Bucs running back Warrick Dunn.
“Monte has meant everything to this franchise and its turnaround,” Dunn said.
It’s the next turnaround that the Bucs will have to handle without Kiffin – and that’s what stings the most.
“The hardest thing right now is you can’t come back with these players,” Kiffin said. “We’ve always fixed it. I just want to go back and start again - these last four weeks. But you can’t do that.
“You have to move on. That’s life. All I can say is I’ll always love the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’m sure there’s a lot of people that are wishing that Kiff takes the first bus to Tennessee.”
Including the Vols.