Audio slide show of Tennessee-Florida
Audio slideshow UT-UF
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just before Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin disappeared into the tunnel after the game, he looked up into the stands packed with Florida fans.
They booed. Lustily. A woman held a sign above her head.
"Shut Up Kiffin in Ben Hill Griffin," the sign said.
So Kiffin waved.
A cheery wave. A confident wave. A wave hello more than a wave goodbye.
Kiffin's team had been expected to lose to Florida by 30. The game was supposed to be less a contest than a pummeling.
One misguided columnist -- OK, it was me -- said Tennessee would be clubbed like baby seals.
But as Kiffin delivered his farewell wave, the massive scoreboard read Florida 23, Tennessee 13.
"I think we have a powerful message for the country," said Kiffin.
How about them Fighting Seals?
And how about Kiffin, the center of it all, who went into the game as a national punch line and came out as a coach to be reckoned with.
Those Kiffin jokes don't seem so hilarious now, do they? Those Kiffin predictions/taunts don't seem so rash.
"I thought it worked perfectly," Kiffin said. "Our players got to play free. ... They had no pressure on them, 30-point underdogs. I thought it helped our players a lot."
Now, you are free to be skeptical of this bit of rhetoric. The guy really made a false accusation about Florida at a signing day breakfast in an effort to take the pressure off his players in a game seven months down the road?
It sounds preposterous, doesn't it? But to the victors -- or is it the close-losers? -- go the spoils.
Kiffin can say whatever he wants right now. Because Kiffin did something nobody thought he could do.
He walked into Ben Hill Griffin and walked out smiling.
He led a young and shallow Tennessee team against Urban Meyer and his mighty Gators and lived to joke about it.
"There were a lot of F-words that weren't 'Florida' being yelled at me," Kiffin said.
When Kiffin first walked onto the field, he saw a cluster of Florida fans, leaning over the railing.
"A guy held up a picture of Al Davis," he said. "I laughed at that."
And then the game started. Sure enough, Florida returned the opening kick 50 yards.
This would be ugly. This would be hideous.
Except, it wasn't anything like that.
The Tennessee defense repeatedly unloaded on Tim Tebow. Hit him as hard as he's ever been hit.
If you had any questions about how Monte Kiffin's skills would translate to college football, you can forget about them now.
The elder Kiffin studied Florida all summer. Looked at every snap the Florida offense took last year.
"Early on we did exactly what we wanted to do," said the younger Kiffin. "That took a long time to get done."
But even that wasn't as impressive as what happened in the second half, as Florida -- up 23-6 -- threatened to put the game away.
First, Dennis Rogan snapped up a Tebow fumble at the Tennessee 2 and ran it out to the 37. Six plays later, Montario Hardesty slammed 17 yards for a touchdown.
The Tennessee staff went nuts on the sideline. The Florida fans looked on in quiet disbelief.
Everyone came to the stadium to see a slaughter; what they got, instead, was a taut and physical football game.
With two minutes left, Tennessee still had a chance to win the thing. Faced with a fourth-and-six at the UT 49, Jonathan Crompton, well, he threw an interception.
So there are definitely things to work on. Tennessee needs more talent. Tennessee needs a quarterback.
Kiffin will eventually have to start winning these games.
But on this day, a loss was a victory. A public humiliation became a public vindication instead.
And if Kiffin said he wasn't going to be singing "Rocky Top" after this one, he didn't exactly sound like a coach who was about to shut up.
"I'll come back for the basketball game with Bruce (Pearl)," Kiffin said. "He's been 7-1 vs. Florida."
To reach Geoff Calkins, call 901-529-2364 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.