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Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is worthy of fame

The impressions are endless. Across the league, there are dozens of players and coaches who mimic Monte.

They start with stiff hips and slouched shoulders, and the voice begins as a low mumble. Then they shuffle about, laying it on thick, and the voice quickens and rises into a shrill, piercing sound. The hair wisps skyward, and the energy runs away. By now, Monte Kiffin has been impersonated as much as George W. Bush.

When you think about it, isn't that fame?

The influence is endless. Kiffin's fingerprints are all over the defenses of the NFL.

Everyone knows the Tampa 2. No, it was not Kiffin's brainchild, but over the years, he has done a pretty good job of nurturing it. Hey, Johnny Appleseed didn't invent the apple, either.

Across the league, defensive coordinators are trying desperately to echo the way Warren Sapp used to play defensive tackle in the Tampa 2, or the way John Lynch used to play safety, or the way Derrick Brooks still plays linebacker or Ronde Barber still plays corner.

And really, isn't that fame, too?

The accomplishments are staggering. Of all the great defenses this league has seen, few have had the lasting power of his.

Before Kiffin arrived 13 seasons ago, the Bucs defense had ranked 21st or worst in yardage five out of six seasons, and it had given up 300 points or more 14 years in a row. By comparison, this is almost assured to be Kiffin's 11th season in the top 10, and if the Raiders score seven points or fewer, it would be the 10th time his defense has given up fewer than 300 points.

Once more, it bears asking: Isn't that fame?

If you are thinking of Kiffin and the NFL Hall of Fame, the answer is "probably not."

In the NFL, it is all about the head coach. The very best ones get streets named after them, or statues built or busts carved. All the victories are credited to the head coaches. All the titles, too.

The assistant coaches? The guys who do the dirty work? Not so much.

To the Hall of Fame voters, an assistant coach seems to be merely a coach who didn't succeed enough to get his own team, or if he did, wasn't good enough to mold it into greatness. In the NFL, no one gets an Oscar for being a supporting actor.

Yes, it's a shallow approach, and it has left a lot of great assistants — Bud Carson, Ernie Zampese, Bill Arnsparger, Dick LeBeau and Bobb McKittrick among them — short of recognition. It's like being a backup singer. Assistant coaches don't make the Hall; they make the men who make the Hall.

Perhaps Kiffin will be different. Perhaps his resume will finally convince the voters that excellence can be found at the right hand of a head coach, too. Perhaps the voters will finally recognize that a coordinator is as important as, say, a guard or a safety or, heaven forbid, an owner. (Honestly, can we get a recount on Charley Bidwill?)

Oh, head coaches know. There was a time when Don Shula was a secondary coach for the Browns. There was a time when Bill Walsh was an offensive coordinator and when Bill Belichick was a defensive coordinator. There was a time the Giants had Vince Lombardi as an offensive assistant and Tom Landry as a defensive assistant. Yeah, those guys did some pretty good work in those days, too.

And, really, isn't that what the Hall of Fame is supposed to recognize? Oh, you can throw the word "fame" around all you want. But Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson have fame. Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have fame. Tom Cruise and Amy Winehouse have fame though, thankfully, not together.

Put it this way: If the Hall of Fame was really there to celebrate the famous, why is Shorty Ray there? Why is Red Badgro? Why is Link Lyman or Jimmy Conzelman or Wayne Millner? Nothing against any of those guys, but they don't exactly teach their names in schools.

No, the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about achievement, about impact and durability, about success and strategy.

All of which brings us back to Kiffin, who will walk onto the field today as the Bucs defensive coordinator for the final time. If he had not already been replaced, you might suggest he is irreplaceable.

Around here, Kiffin has become an icon, an impact performer of uncommon consistency. Counting playoffs, the Bucs have won 216 games in their history; Kiffin has been the defensive coordinator for 116 of them. There have been 46 Pro Bowl slots for defensive players; Kiffin has coached 36 of them. For years now, Kiffin's defense has propped up the offense.

Now, he is leaving.

You can only imagine how strange today must feel for Kiffin. After all this time, he is finally leaving home. His defense is in a three-week swoon, and the playoffs are on the line, and the opponent is the team that fired his kid. All around him, the eyes that have trusted him will be looking to him once again for answers.

Once more, Kiffin will walk onto the field today. Perhaps the Hall of Fame voters will not notice, but those who appreciate achievement will. One more time, they will call his name. One more time, they will cheer his work.

If that isn't fame, it sounds close enough.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is worthy of fame 12/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 29, 2008 11:37am]

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