When Tennessee linebacker Rico McCoy heard Lane Kiffin say he wanted to sing “Rocky Top” after beating Florida this fall, he was a little intrigued.
But after offseason workouts began and spring practice started with a bang, McCoy has a simple message for his new coach: Say whatever you want.
“I was like, ‘Oooh, coach is talking trash,’ ” McCoy said. “But after we started the workouts, I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, coach.’ I know we’re going to be in the best shape, and we’re going to have the best coaching. Say whatever you want. We’re going to play ball. I feel like we ought to be able to beat anybody.”
Tennessee’s Sept. 19 trip to face the Gators — who happen to be the defending SEC and national champions — in The Swamp is still some six months away, but the Tennessee-Florida rivalry has plenty of juice.
It got another boost this week, when Florida players revealed they have posted pictures of Kiffin in their locker room.
Kiffin said he’s aware of what the Gators did, and he loves the exposure.
“Somebody showed me a picture of it and a couple recruits said that they’d seen it. The fact that our logo is in their locker room and recruits are seeing it is a pretty powerful thing,” Kiffin said after practice Tuesday. “Their logo won’t be in our locker room.”
There’s a reason the Gators hung Kiffin’s picture in the locker room like a post-office mug shot.
In addition to his “Rocky Top” comment during his introductory press conference in December, Kiffin promised a fired-up group of boosters after National Signing Day that he would turn in Gators coach Urban Meyer for a recruiting violation.
That comment drew a reprimand from the SEC, but UT’s players are loving every last word.
“I absolutely love it,” receiver Gerald Jones said. “I absolutely love it. Usually it’s a player that runs off in the media and says something about a team that sparks everything, like (former Florida linebacker) Brandon Spikes did last year about us. But when you got your head coach really firing it up between the two teams, it shouldn’t do nothing but get you pumped and get you ready for the game. It fires me up. I love that he’s taking shots at Florida and he’s saying things.”
McCoy feels the same way.
“If he’s confident in this team and wants to talk some trash, we’ll back him. We back him 100 percent. I don’t have a problem with it,” McCoy said. “The team doesn’t have a problem with it because we know we’re working our (rear) off. ...We’re not allowed to do stuff like that, but (shoot), we’ll back you. We’re here for you, coach. Go ahead, do what you want. We’re working our (rears) off, we’re going to be ready come the season for anything. That’s how we feel.”
Florida’s players feel differently.
“I couldn’t believe what he said,” Florida safety Ahmad Black said, according to ESPN.com. “Not trying to be cocky or anything, but we’ve beaten them four years in a row... by a lot, too. Taking shots at our coach is like taking shots at us. We’re family. It’s definitely personal now.”
That the game remains months away hasn’t done much to dampen enthusiasm among players, although Kiffin said Tuesday that “we’re not thinking about that game or worrying about that game.”
Jones, though, always has the Florida game circled.
“I’m always looking forward to this game,” he said. “It’s the biggest game of the year. Like I said, Florida’s got a target on their back, and I want to be the first team to beat them. It doesn’t matter he said or she said or how close we are (to the Florida game), I’m ready to play. I know I got to think about the first game first, but everybody’s got Florida in the back of their mind.”
Players say Kiffin’s comments are a sign of confidence in his new team, which hasn’t beaten the Gators since 2004, the year before Meyer arrived in Gainesville.
“You always have to show another team respect, especially after they won the national championship, but you’re not supposed to bow down to them,” Jones said. “That’s what coach is saying, you know, ‘You all are good. Everybody knows that in the country, but we don’t care. We’re going to get better and we’re going to play you all until the end and you all better come with it.’ I’m all for him. I’m right behind him 100 percent, and I’m going to ride with him until the last quarter.”
It’s been since 2006, when Florida won 21-20 in Neyland Stadium, that the outcome against the Gators has been in doubt in the final quarter. The last two seasons UT has lost by a combined 63 points, including a 59-20 drubbing in the Swamp in 2007.
McCoy, though, isn’t worried about those who point to those lopsided scores as a reason Kiffin should keep quiet.
“That’s cool, but coach hasn’t lost a game here yet,” McCoy said. “That’s all I can say. Coach hasn’t lost a game here yet.”
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.