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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.