The biggest misconception about Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is the magnitude of his transition.
After all those years in the NFL, he is coaching college kids again. What a challenge, huh?
He laughs at that. Watch a few minutes of a UT spring practice and you can see why. No one looks more at home than Monte Kiffin.
“Coaching is coaching,” he says.
But there’s more to it than that. In a way, he is back home.
Long before he became an NFL defensive guru, he was an assistant coach in a football-crazy college town much like this one. He just didn’t have nearly as much money or security. And he didn’t have a son, Lane, for his head coach as he does at UT.
He was a 29-year-old defensive line coach under Bob Devaney at Nebraska, which had finished 6-4 in back-to-back seasons. That doesn’t play any better at Nebraska than last year’s 5-7 record did at UT.
The ending to the 1968 season made the 6-4 record even darker. Archrival Oklahoma thumped the Cornhuskers 47-0.
So changes were made. They included the promotion of Kiffin from the freshman team to varsity defensive line coach. Warren Powers, who eventually would become the head coach at Missouri, took over the secondary.
All the revamped defensive staff had to do in the 1969 season opener was figure out how to slow down Southern California, which was 19-2-1 over the previous two seasons.
“They beat us 31-21,” Kiffin said. “We got beat on two bombs from Jimmy Jones to Bob Chandler. Warren and I were talking after the game, saying, ‘We’re going to have a short career here.’ ”
Devaney wasn’t sympathetic.
“Come in here,” he told his two young defensive assistants.
“We’re both 29 years old, and we’re both thinking this might be the shortest career in history,” Kiffin said. “Coach Devaney got up there on the chalkboard and said, ‘Warren, if I ever see that corner get beat like that again, you will not be coaching this secondary. And Coach Kiffin, we better get a better pass rush.’ ”
The assistants got the message. That was obvious when the coaches viewed the video from the next week’s game against Texas A&M.
“The corner was back so far, he wasn’t in the frame of the picture,” Kiffin said with a loud laugh.
That marked the beginning of Nebraska’s glory days, and Kiffin, who played for Devaney in the early 1960s, was right in the middle of them. Although he didn’t have the title of defensive coordinator, he called the defensive signals.
Nebraska went 9-2 and beat Oklahoma 44-14 in 1969. In the next two seasons, they won back-to-back national championships. The foundation was laid for one of the most successful runs in sports history. From 1969 through 2001, Nebraska never won fewer than nine games in a season.
By the time the streak ended, Kiffin was the defensive coordinator of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Bucs. But a quarter of a century in the NFL hasn’t quelled his college spirit. It’s evident on the practice field and in a casual conversation.
“I’m having so much fun here,” Kiffin said. “The fans are unbelievable. It’s like I’m back at Nebraska. But it’s even bigger, because I’ve never coached in front of 107,000 people.
“I’ve coached in two national championship games. I’ve coached in a Super Bowl. But I’ve never coached in front of 107,000 people.”
The six-figure crowd is a huge fringe benefit. But all Kiffin needs to enjoy his work is one player. Give him an entire defense, and he becomes so lost in his work, he’s oblivious to the hazards of his profession.
As a play unfolded in Kiffin’s direction Wednesday, he didn’t notice how close a ball carrier came to sideswiping him as the coach screamed at a defensive back who was out of position.
“Lane said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to get back,’ ” Monte said. “I was right in the way.”
He laughed and said, “I love it.”
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.