Monte Kiffin: Simply born to coach

Motivational ability showed right from start

Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin talks to players before starting a scrimmage on April 4 at Neyland Stadium.

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin talks to players before starting a scrimmage on April 4 at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin talks to players before starting a scrimmage on April 4 at Neyland Stadium.

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess // Buy this photo

Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin talks to players before starting a scrimmage on April 4 at Neyland Stadium.

The 1963 Lexington Midget baseball team poses for a photo after winning the area tournament. The team won the Class C State Midget title under the coaching of Monte Kiffin.

Photo by Lexington (Neb.) Clipper-Herald file photo

The 1963 Lexington Midget baseball team poses for a photo after winning the area tournament. The team won the Class C State Midget title under the coaching of Monte Kiffin.

A roster shakeup. A shrewd play-call. A lot of running. And a lot of winning.

That’s what Mike Araujo remembers about playing for Monte Kiffin.

“He knew we had talent on that team, but he brought it out in us,” Araujo said. “He pushed us hard. At that time, we didn’t like it. But when you look back at it, if he wouldn’t have done that, we probably wouldn’t have done what we did.”

Araujo isn’t talking about the Super Bowl. He’s not even talking about football.

Before Monte Kiffin’s name became synonymous with the Cover 2 defense, before he had a Super Bowl ring and long before he became Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, Kiffin was a championship coach.

And it happened while Kiffin was still playing on the defensive line at the University of Nebraska. Back home for the summer before his senior season, he led the Lexington Midgets baseball team to the Nebraska state championship in 1963. That’s when Araujo, now a 61-year-old letter-carrier in Kiffin’s hometown of Lexington, Neb., knew that Kiffin had a future in coaching.

“He was born to be a coach,” says Araujo, the ‘63 Midgets’ second baseman. “I could never see him doing anything different.”

Despite his baseball roots, Kiffin made his career in football. Starting as a graduate assistant with the freshman team at Nebraska in 1966, he’s spent 43 seasons as a football coach. This spring, he returned to college football for the first time since 1982 after 26 seasons in the NFL.

But, deep down, Kiffin is pretty much the same coach at age 69 as he was when he coached a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds to that state championship some 46 years ago.

He loves the game he’s coaching. He loves being around coaches and players. And he loves watching players improve, whether it’s Pro Bowlers like Warren Sapp or Derrick Brooks in Tampa Bay — or a second baseman like Mike Araujo.

“Everybody coaches differently. I think you’ve got to coach within your own personality,” Kiffin says. “I always got excited, have a lot of fun. I just love it. It’s a lot of passion. I think the thing I get the most bang out of is when I see the players (get better).”

Southern California coach Pete Carroll, who remains one of Kiffin’s closest friends in coaching, knows Tennessee’s players will improve under their new defensive coordinator.

“He’s a great football coach,” Carroll said via e-mail. “And they know, even though he’s only been around a short amount of time, that he’s going to make them better and make them play the best they’ve ever played.”

But players aren’t the only ones who get better by spending time with Kiffin.

*

Joe Barry knows what the rest of Tennessee’s new defensive coaches found out a few months ago: Interviewing for a job with Monte Kiffin is a unique experience to say the least.

“It was grueling,” says Barry, whose father Mike is a former offensive line coach at Tennessee. “It was like no other interview that I’ve ever been a part of.”

Kiffin put Barry in front of a dry-erase board, and then put him through the paces.

“He said, ‘OK, all that stuff that you were just going through on the grease board, how are you physically going to teach Derrick Brooks to tackle?’” Barry said. “Monte was going to be able to see, No. 1, if I knew what the hell I was talking about, but No. 2, he was going to see if I could truly coach, if I could truly teach.”

Barry passed the test and spent six seasons working for Kiffin in Tampa Bay. As it was for others who spent time working with Kiffin, Barry’s tenure in Tampa Bay was more than just a master class in coaching defense. It was a daily lesson in how to teach, something Kiffin places a premium on when it comes to assistant coaches.

“There was not one day in six years where I didn’t wake up and come to work and get better as a coach,” says Barry, who is back in Tampa Bay after a stint as the Detroit Lions’ defensive coordinator. “It’s because of Monte, obviously his knowledge, but his personality. He was very demanding. A lot of times when you say that about guys, they usually do it by being a jerk. Monte did it in such a way that you had so much fun that you didn’t know you were working harder than you’d ever worked before in your life.”

Working for Kiffin isn’t for everybody. In fact, Kiffin encourages potential hires to call others who have worked for him to get a feel for what it’s like before taking the job. Those who don’t share Kiffin’s passion for the game and attention to detail usually aren’t a good fit.

“My philosophy isn’t the only way to do things,” Kiffin said. “I don’t think I’m one bit better than any other coach. I don’t try to put myself on a pedestal. But I just have certain philosophies. You’ve got to have a passion. Every coach coaches different, but I don’t want you watching the clock. You’ve got to really buy in. . . . I just think you’ve got to have tremendous passion for it. You can’t fake that.”

Kiffin’s resume is a testament to his passion for the game. And those who played on one of the first teams he ever coached back in 1963 were first-hand witnesses.

*

Gary White is a 62-year-old farmer in Lexington. But in the summer of 1963, he was an aspiring second baseman. A couple weeks into the season, Kiffin told White he’d be playing center field because Araujo — who wanted to play center like his idol Willie Mays — had quicker hands.

“My heart just sank,” White says now.

It didn’t stay there. In the same breath Kiffin told White how much the team could use his speed and throwing arm in the outfield.

“He just knew how to talk to people. And where to put them,” White said.

White and Araujo both recall the Midgets’ first practice with Kiffin. Thinking the workout was over, players began changing out of their spikes in the dugout. With Kiffin, though, practice wasn’t done until windsprints had been run.

Dash to first. Jog back. Dash to second. Jog back. Repeat. A lot.

One player got sick on the field, White remembers. White also remembers something else from that first practice all these years later.

Midway through the conditioning, Kiffin told his players the sprints would pay off when Lexington reached the state tournament and they needed a runner to score from second base in a tie game.

“Then he ran us some more,” White says, chuckling. “But he planted that seed about us going to the state tournament. Lexington really hadn’t sent a team to the state tournament before.”

After a regular season in which the team lost just two games — one of which came before Kiffin returned home for the summer — Lexington advanced to the state tournament in Hastings.

That’s where Kiffin’s coaching hit another level.

Before one game, Kiffin brought in a surprise for batting practice — Bob Stickels, a 6-foot-6 pitcher from Hastings who was on his way to play for the Huskers that season.

“(Kiffin) had him there pitching us batting practice,” White said. “Can you imagine? We had a hard time hitting him, but when we got into the game it looked like that ball was coming so slow. We just pounded the ball that day. He used all these little tricks to give us an edge.”

One in particular still stands out, even 46 years later.

*

If you know Monte Kiffin, chances are you know the resin bag story. And if you’ve known him for very long, you’ve probably heard it more than once.

“Kiff has a ton of stories,” Barry said. “But he has about 15 stories that are really classic and really good. And he tells you over and over again. Kiff has a way of telling stories. Even if it was a story you’d heard 40 times, you still enjoyed it. You still laughed your (butt) off just because of the way Kiff told it.”

In six seasons working with Kiffin, Barry’s heard the resin bag story so many times he can tell it like he was there.

“We called BS because we thought that would never be legal,” Barry says.

Condensed version: With an opposing runner on first during the state tournament, Kiffin had the first baseman call time out and visit the mound. The pitcher gave him the ball and put the resin bag in his glove. And when the runner took his lead, the first baseman tagged him for the out.

“Oh, it’s true,” White says with a laugh. “It happened.”

Even now, Kiffin lights up as he tells the story.

“The players are still laughing about it,” he said. “I’ve told the coaches I’ve coached with in the NFL about it. They always crack up. All the strategy, I just had always been into that kind of thing.”

That never changed.

Although Kiffin downplays his role in the spread of the Cover 2 defense, many consider him to be one the best defensive minds in modern football.

“People had played Cover 2 for quite a few years,” Kiffin says, pointing out that the Minnesota Vikings ran it when Tony Dungy was defensive coordinator under head coach Dennis Green. “Tony left (Tampa Bay) and Jon Gruden came in, and we won the Super Bowl. I think that if we don’t win the Super Bowl, they probably don’t call it ‘Tampa 2.’ I didn’t invent the Cover 2. I don’t want people to think that.”

Kiffin’s wrinkle in the Cover 2 was often dropping the middle linebacker into coverage. But others aren’t as modest when it comes to Kiffin’s impact on the game.

“It’s a universal defense,” says Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach Greg Olson. “When people think of ‘Tampa 2,’ they think of Monte Kiffin. There’s very few guys in the NFL or in college football that actually have come up with a scheme that was so successful it carries over to other teams or that they actually have their name associated with it.”

In Tampa Bay, that reputation only grew. The Buccaneers finished in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense and points allowed in 11 of his 13 seasons. And in 2002, Kiffin’s defense led the league and helped the Bucs win the Super Bowl with a 48-21 victory over the Oakland Raiders, who had the league’s top offense that season.

Yet minutes before the Super Bowl kicked off, Kiffin was tweaking his gameplan, making a few minor adjustments.

That’s classic Kiffin, says Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who spent five seasons with Kiffin as an assistant in Tampa Bay including 2002.

“If you’re kicking the ball off at 1 o’clock on a Sunday, you’re going to be in the shower with Monte at about 10:30 thinking about potential adjustments and things you could make changes to,” Tomlin said. “His mind is always working. He’s always trying to get better. He never breathes a sigh of relief.”

He doesn’t forget, either.

*

A year after Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl, Kiffin was back home in Lexington for a reunion. Kiffin, who was named the state’s athlete of the year as a senior in high school by the Omaha World Herald, wasn’t there to reminisce with members of the 1957 Lexington High School football team that went 8-0 and only allowed one touchdown all season. That team, which also included future Vikings star Mick Tingelhoff, was inducted into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame.

But, this time, Kiffin was back in his hometown for a cookout at his sister’s home for those 1963 Lexington Midgets.

“I could remember like it was yesterday when we won the state championship (when) they were 15 or 16 and I was 22 or 23. Stuff like that, I get excited by it.”

It’s the same charge Kiffin got a few weeks ago when former Vol J.J. McCleskey, who played one season under Kiffin in New Orleans, dropped by his office to chat.

“I just love that stuff,” Kiffin said.

So did the ‘63 Midgets.

“That meant a lot because to me through the years I’ve noticed he’s never forgotten where he came from,” said Araujo, whose family was Kiffin’s guest for a 2004 game in Tampa to celebrate Araujo’s son’s 21st birthday. “To us, that means a heck of a lot. It meant a whole lot just knowing that he cared about us enough that he would take a little bit of time to come back and spend time with us.

“We got to see his Super Bowl ring when he came back. That was something special for us, too. How many times would we ever be able to see a Super Bowl ring in our lifetime?”

*

Back in the college game, there probably aren’t any more Super Bowl rings in Kiffin’s future. But working with his son, UT head coach Lane Kiffin, and Tennessee’s players has only stoked that passion for football.

After UT’s spring game last month, Kiffin was so excited that he went back on Monday and watched film of Western Kentucky, UT’s first opponent this season. And after minor back surgery a few weeks ago, Kiffin was back in his office two days later, ignoring his doctor’s orders to rest for at least a week.

“I’m just having a blast,” Kiffin says. “I don’t know how to explain it. I just love coming in and watching tape, getting a cup of coffee and talking about new stuff and put on another tape. You could go forever.”

At 69, Kiffin says the desire to keep coaching remains as strong as it did all those years ago. It’s why he occasionally slept on the couch in his office well into his 60s. It’s what prompted him to spend time working with coaches at Lane’s high school in Bloomington, Minn., during the summer and later his son Chris’ high school in Tampa.

And it’s what will keep Kiffin rolling in his new job at Tennessee.

“I don’t know what I would do if I retired,” Kiffin said. “I know my wife doesn’t want me to retire because I’d probably drive her nuts. When I can get up and go to work, it makes life a lot of fun.”

Besides, there’s always another resin bag play waiting to be drawn up, another player to teach and another coach to mentor.

“Whatever team he coaches is going to succeed because he knows how to bring the most out of an individual,” Araujo said. “I could never, ever see him doing anything different.”

Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.

© 2009 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 45

panties4tebow writes:

Glad to have you Monte!

GO VOLS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

bigorangesob writes:

Great story, long as he!! but still a good story, GO VOLS!!!

dvols writes:

long as he can catch a tebow on the toe

i'm just sayin

murrayvol writes:

Drew, I think you have a future in this business.

I've read a lot of columns on GVX. This one gets an 11.

murrayvol writes:

in response to BobbeaVol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Tomorrow is Sunday Naffy. Hopefully lots of folks will be praying for you.

dvhill100 writes:

Keep it up KNS. Good story. I am looking forward to stories on each coach.

ncvol17 writes:

Let's hope he can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. I hope he gets more than the most out of our D this year, we'll certainly need it.
I hope he has the success that old Dude from Bama ( name is escaping me - old age) had when Majors 1st brought him over and he mastered Miami in the Sugar Bowl..

dvhill100 writes:

in response to Book1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I would think so. The thing Majors did was put all his best players on offense and he put his emphasis on that side of the ball.

You just have to believe any defense MK runs would have been better for it.

panties4tebow writes:

A grown man troll wearing panties tryig to convince someone that he has a little sense..............We all know better!

FEAR THE KIFFINS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

GO BIG ORANGE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

txvolsfan writes:

in response to Florrible:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

lil Urbie Cryer better watch out because he will get a full Monty.

dvhill100 writes:

in response to DCflorida1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Not everyone is suited to be a head coach. Just because he hasn't or won't become a head coach doesn't invalidate anything he does as a DC. A perfect example is Ed O. He failed as a head coach, yet is acknowledged as one of the best defensive line coaches in the nation.

If you are willing to give me TN +60 I am more than willing to place some money on the table. I use 60 per your spread in your post.

txvolsfan writes:

in response to DCflorida1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Lil Urbie Cryer will be in South Bend after the full Monty he will receive.

How did it feel to be the lint in the Big NAVALORANGE!!!
Man he schooled you little gurl!!!

dvhill100 writes:

in response to Navalorange:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I know. I have actually had some decent posts with DC in the past, but he has gotten a bit nastier over the last few months. I really don't expect him to bet me or hold his bragging on the line, but I felt the need to at least call him on it.

dvhill100 writes:

in response to Navalorange:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Let's face it, UF is where we want to be. All the nastiness and nonsense spewed is comical. If i was in their place, all you would hear from me is Meyer undefeated against UT and reference scores over the last few years. They have done it, so it isn't bragging. Rubbing it in, but not bragging.

I believe LK and his staff can get us back to the BCS level, we just have to be patient for a few years. Looking at what we have, I actually think we'll have a better record in '09 than in '10. We don't have a lot to start with and lose a lot this next class.

FWBVol writes:

in response to DCflorida1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

FYI, Monte was a head coach at NC State for a couple of years before heading to the NFL.

And by the way, 60-something is about what Florida will get on September 19, that is 60-something YARDS.

OdessaVol writes:

in response to DCflorida1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Wow! Pretty stupid comment. Idiotic. DCflorida1's credibility just did a North Pole......below zero.

keepitreal4vols writes:

“If you’re kicking the ball off at 1 o’clock on a Sunday, you’re going to be in the shower with Monte at about 10:30 thinking about potential adjustments and things you could make changes to,” Tomlin said

"IN THE SHOWER WITH MONTE", WHAT!?!?!?!?

KNS, YOU NEED TO CHECK YOUR INTERVIEW NOTES

rudy123 writes:

in response to DCflorida1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I don't doudt that we MAY lose by 60.
Take in to account our poor offense with Crompton. We will have to rely
on the run game to do our scoring.
Once we get behind, we can't catch up
thru using the run game.
The defense will be on the field alot
and in the fourth quarter, Urban Liar
won't quit. He will score often!! In the 4th quarter, our defense will be worn out and won't be able to stop Florida.
However; this will be Weis's last year
at Notre Dame and Urban Liar will then go to Notre Dame. At that point, Florida will go back to the good ole days of losing like they did before LIar arrived on campus.
At that point, UT will be the "Beast in the East" again. THis will open up
for us the SEC championships and the BCS games again.
Urban Liar DOESN'T want to be at Florida much longer because he knows that U.T. will soon OWN him. He will leave before he starts to take those
ARSE whippings from U.T.

Volition writes:

in response to DCflorida1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

sometimes people lash out when they are afraid.

are you afraid?

Runningangry writes:

in response to DCflorida1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

ROFL...Keep trying to look for chinks in Monte's armor as one of the greatest defensive minds in football ever. There aren't many.

Monte didn't become a head coach because, quite honestly, he didn't want to be a head coach. Why be a head coach and have all that headache when you can be in your element and coach the defense? All while collecting a fat paycheck.

Listen DCFlorida1 or whatever your name is this week. I will take your line on FL putting 60 on us for $100. Lets exchange Palpal info. I encourage other Vol fans on this site to call you out. Put your money where your mouth is or STFU.

UTvols12342000 writes:

Nice Article. This is what I like to read about in the off season, in-depth bios into our coaches and players and recruits.

I hope we get Cam Newton and the Jesse Scroggins guy. One of those guys has to be able to manage the game. If not, then fall back on Rozier, Crompton, and Stephens.

oldorange writes:

Good article Drew

1963volfan writes:

in response to dvhill100:

Not everyone is suited to be a head coach. Just because he hasn't or won't become a head coach doesn't invalidate anything he does as a DC. A perfect example is Ed O. He failed as a head coach, yet is acknowledged as one of the best defensive line coaches in the nation.

If you are willing to give me TN +60 I am more than willing to place some money on the table. I use 60 per your spread in your post.

I will take some of that action, call me. GO VOLS!!

FIELDGOALTN writes:

Great defensive mastermind.......But can he improve Crompton? Wrong side of the ball I know.

ctownvol writes:

in response to DCflorida1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Certainly you can't be this ignorant....or maybe you are.

formerflgranny writes:

Very interesting article and monte seems like such a wonderful person to be around. I hope he has much success with the tennessee team and his players. It is hard to find a coach that really takes an interest in his players and try to make them the best they can be.

dvhill100 writes:

in response to hotrodvol:

Here is a good read.

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/17...

Good article. Thanks for the link.

Bigger_Al writes:

Monte was offered NFL Head Coaching jobs several times, and almost accepted on two occasions. Since that role is more CEO and PR, less hand's on coaching, and since he was happy with his situation where he was, he declined.

I've seen reports and opinions that the first NFL assistant coach elected to the Hall of Fame will be Monte Kiffin.

jack_2222#231746 writes:

If Monte is as good a DC as John Chavis, then everything is cool.

Major_Magilicutty writes:

I need some help here guys. I've been trying to find a song that UT band plays for the longest time. Now, I've found a video with it playing in the background.

Will someone tell me what song is playing at the 2:00 min mark in the embedded video.

http://www.rockytoptalk.com/2009/5/14...

dvhill100 writes:

in response to Major_Magilicutty:

I need some help here guys. I've been trying to find a song that UT band plays for the longest time. Now, I've found a video with it playing in the background.

Will someone tell me what song is playing at the 2:00 min mark in the embedded video.

http://www.rockytoptalk.com/2009/5/14...

The Movie "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe.

dvhill100 writes:

in response to Major_Magilicutty:

I need some help here guys. I've been trying to find a song that UT band plays for the longest time. Now, I've found a video with it playing in the background.

Will someone tell me what song is playing at the 2:00 min mark in the embedded video.

http://www.rockytoptalk.com/2009/5/14...

The Movie "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe. Specifically "The Battle".

RTR writes:

in response to dvhill100:

The Movie "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe.

It was also in "The Last of the Mochicans". Good tune.

RTR writes:

I think you guys put together a great staff. It will be interesting to see if what you and Auburn have done will work. Spend a little less on the HC and go all out on the supporting cast. Even though I think you have put together a nice staff, Monte is the one on the staff that I would want on Alabama's staff. Don't get me wrong, I like all your coaches, but I really like Bama's staff. Sorry to come on here and say things about Bama. Ill try to do better next time.

hueypilot writes:

JJ McClesky. Now that's a story. I vividly remember JJ getting into the lineup as a freshman and Majors explaining on the replay show that J J was a little small but was filling in and next week the starter would be back in the lineup. Somehow, altho JJ probably weighed all of 170, if that, they couldn't get him off the field and he played well for Tennessee for four year and then several years in the NFL.

RTR writes:

in response to Navalorange:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I don't think they have quite the payroll that your assistants have. So I guess it was just close to the same idea, but still the same gameplan IMO. I'm pretty sure they dont have anyone on the payroll that makes what CEO makes, and defiently not what CMK makes. I believe the most they are paying is ~ 375,000 to Ted Roof.

I really like James Willis both as a recruiter and a LB coach. He produced some beasts down on the plains and is well respected across the whole state of Alabama. I will always thank CLT for the great players he has brought to Bama. The man is a great recruiter. He could sell a pinto to a billionare and make him drive it lol. Now he is a good LB coach, but first and foremost a recruiter. He will even tell you that. Maybe thats why he came to UT, to expand his coaching skills under CMK, because he knew he would only be a recruiter for Saban. I felt that our LB's were a big let down in the Florida and Utah game. Could have been because both Steele and Thompson knew they were taking other jobs and their hearts were 100%. Who knows really??? But you guys got a great coach in LT. I just dont understand why he burned bridges with Saban. He got him to where he is today.

Major_Magilicutty writes:

Well that's a bit disappointing I guess. I thought it was a UT song :( Oh well, good song to play nonetheless.

hotrodvol writes:

in response to hueypilot:

JJ McClesky. Now that's a story. I vividly remember JJ getting into the lineup as a freshman and Majors explaining on the replay show that J J was a little small but was filling in and next week the starter would be back in the lineup. Somehow, altho JJ probably weighed all of 170, if that, they couldn't get him off the field and he played well for Tennessee for four year and then several years in the NFL.

Huey, one of my favorite games JJ hit Eric Rhett low behind the line of scrimage, he hurt his ankle and was ineffective the rest of the game. Of course there was a big monsoon and UT rolled, great game in the rain. I believe it was 1992.

Kiffin_fan writes:

in response to Navalorange:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I would say, he can look in the mirror and say, I did all I can for the University of Tennessee today... That is all you can ask...

Hvyhitr writes:

in response to DCflorida1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Get a life!!

Orangeblood13 writes:

in response to DCflorida1:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

i guess tom moore stinks to right? He's never been a HC.

you florida fags all have tunnel vision

gnm53108 writes:

in response to DestinVol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

No sh_t!

massvolfanatic writes:

in response to panties4tebow:

Glad to have you Monte!

GO VOLS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

we are blessed1

GR82BAVOL writes:

Yes, we are

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