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For former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, it's still game on

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.

For those who might wonder if there is still any fight left in the old man, the answer was in the bulging veins on the sides of Monte Kiffin's neck. Kiffin stood in a theater-style meeting room at the University of Tennessee football center, his eyes consumed by fire and his voice by brimstone. "Just shut up," Kiffin roared at his players. "I coached in the NFL for 25 years, and I've never seen (stuff) like this. We talk about team. What is team? This is bull(stuff)." Only a few minutes before, Kiffin was sitting quietly among his players in the darkened room and watched tape of the team's morning practice. It was a routine meeting, but it was about to disintegrate into the kind of scene few outsiders ever see.

After watching a few plays, all clearly won by the offensive line, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron stood and griped loudly about the selection of the plays shown to the team. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney shot back that he thought the plays were typical of the way the offense had dominated the practice.

Suddenly, the two men were in each other's faces, shouting and gesturing. The players spilled onto the floor to separate the men, some of them bouncing up and down from the testosterone and the adrenaline.

And now Kiffin was in front of the room, yelling loud enough to make the players retreat back into their seats and look on in stunned silence at his volume. Kiffin's jaw was thrust forward, his fists were clenched, and his words bounded around the walls until the room felt small.

"And one more thing," Kiffin shouted.

He paused, the mischief flashing across his face.

"You guys have just been punked."

As it turns out, there is still some fun in the old man, too.

It had all been staged, from Orgeron's outburst to Chaney's response to Kiffin's blowup, a slice of comic relief designed to break up the monotony of a training camp. The players, and most of the coaching staff, had been unaware of the routine.

Lane Kiffin, the Vols' head coach, had been a bellboy back in Minnesota when his father and defensive tackle Keith Millard once faked a fight on the roof of a building overlooking the Vikings' practice. That one ended when Kiffin threw Millard — or, rather, a mannequin wearing a Millard jersey — over the edge. Sometimes, a football team has to laugh. Sometimes, it's worth inviting an out-of-town reporter to the team meeting.

"Now," Monte yelled among the cheering and the laughter. "Who wants to skip practice and go bowling instead?"

And that is how the Tennessee football team found out that Friday night's football practice had been canceled.

• • •

At age 69, Monte Kiffin has gone back to school. From the looks of it, he's going to fit in just fine.

Kiffin the elder moves around the Tennessee practice field in that familiar fast-hitch hobble of his, wading in and out of drills, looking as frisky as the world's oldest freshman. His voice is still as shrill as the brakes of a nearby train.

For the past 13 seasons, this was the look, and the sound, of the Bucs' defensive coordinator. There has never been a Tampa Bay assistant coach quite like him.

After a few weeks, it's fair to say there haven't been many Tennessee assistants like him, either.

"I'm having a blast," Kiffin said, sitting in his office. "This isn't just about being with my kid. I know the kid pretty good. I didn't come here to get to know the head coach. I've known him for 34 years.

"This is Tennessee. From 6 in the morning until 8 at night, all they talk about around here is the University of Tennessee. There are two seasons: football and recruiting."

Watch him work. One minute, he is in a three-point stance, simulating the tight end going into motion. The next, he has his hand on the shoulder pads of a safety to remind him you don't blow up a receiver in a seven-on-seven drill. You could suggest Monte has been rejuvenated since taking over as Tennessee defensive coordinator, but if you know him, well, he was never unjuvenated.

"It's good to work with my dad, but to tell you the truth, that's really second," Lane Kiffin said. "The reason it's special to me is that he's so good at what he does. He's phenomenal at teaching the players, but I've seen coaches who can do that. I've never seen anyone who can coach the coaches the way he can.

"He's like some dinosaur, but everyone gets older, and he doesn't. He doesn't get tired, he doesn't run out of energy, he doesn't have ups and downs."

Yes, his players are younger, and yes, there are classes, and no, they won't play for him for a decade like some of his Bucs. But Kiffin says it's the same. It's teaching. It's football.

Want to know how this team feels about Monte? Midway through the practice, there was a play when it seemed everyone on the field was shouting. Some of it was encouragement, some of it was criticism, some of it was profane. Monte, too, began to yell, because one of his linebackers had blown a blitz assignment. And suddenly, everyone else fell silent until all you could hear was Monte's voice. It was like one of the old E.F. Hutton commercials.

"The respect level the players have for him, and especially the coaches, is unbelievable," Lane said. "Not because he won a Super Bowl. Not because his defense was in the top 10 all those years. It's because they've been around him. It's like the president speaking."

As much as the Kiffins downplay the father-and-son business aspect of Tennessee football, make no mistake: Monte is here because of Lane, who he said recruited him. And so Kiffin left the Bucs, and immediately, things began to unravel. The Bucs lost four in a row, and in three of them, the defense was awful. After the season, coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen were fired. After that, veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks was released.

Kiffin speaks slowly, carefully about the purging. There are mixed loyalties at work.

Yes, he was surprised by Gruden's firing. "I called Jon and told him it was like a corner blitz," Kiffin said. "He always hated the corner blitz, because it came from the blind side."

Yes, he thinks Brooks can still play. "I was surprised, but I wasn't there," he said. "All I know is that Derrick is a special guy. To me, he's the face of the franchise."

If you are wondering, Kiffin is also a Raheem Morris fan. Kiffin has always prided himself on having an eye for young coaches, and he thinks Morris is ready to take over a team.

"People always say he relates well to the players, but you have to be able to do more than that," Kiffin said. "Raheem is smart. He knows his X's and O's. We missed him when he left (in 2006), and he helped us when he came back.

"He has a good feel for things. Sometimes, you have to have a knack for knowing how to deal with this problem, what to do about this situation, how to deal with ownership. I think Raheem has that."

Kiffin has no mementos of his Bucs years in his office. They haven't made it to Knoxville yet. Except for photos of his children and grandchildren, he doesn't have a lot of personal touches. Still, the Bucs are a part of Kif. How could they not be?

"I had a great run," he said. "I would have liked to have written a little better script at the end, but you can't always do that.

"What you do is coach. What you do is treat a game the way you treat, say, oxygen."

"He cannot stay away from football for one day," Lane said. "There is something in his clock that has to have football. He ain't going anywhere. He isn't ever going to retire."

Not Monte. There is football to coach, players to make better.

For instance, it was only a few months ago when Tennessee was celebrating win No. 1,000 for women's basketball coach Pat Summitt.

"Just think, Lane," Monte told his son, "she has 1,000 wins, and you don't have any."

Yeah, there is still work to do.

For former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, it's still game on 08/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 8:46am]

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