TAMPA — On the night before the first game each season, Monte Kiffin takes center stage at the team meeting.
A recording of James Brown begins to pulsate from the speakers and the 68-year-old defensive coordinator dances and sings to I Got You (I Feel Good) (you knew that he would) as the place erupts in guffaws, whistles and catcalls.
"In 13 years, he hasn't gotten better at it," linebacker Derrick Brooks said, shaking his head. "That's what we keep telling him, 'Kiff, you're not getting better at the dance, man. It's getting worse.' "
But that's just Kiffin, with a face that looks like it was made by Rawlings, his gray hair awry, the stooped shoulders and that whimsical grin.
Nobody works harder than Kiffin. You don't earn an unparalleled track record of consistency — 11 out of 13 years with a defense ranked in the top 10, including eight in the top five and four first- or second-place finishes — without getting to the office early and staying late.
"He's a night owl," coach Jon Gruden said. "I have a lot of great memories about him. I get choked up thinking about it because I'm going to miss him. He's my friend.
"I remember at (the old) One Buc Place when I first got here. He was a 1 o'clock in the morning guy. I remember once coming into work and trying to find my office, wherever it was. I was having a hard time finding it. It's dark as hell in the hallway, and I heard some sounds. It was Monte Kiffin. He almost knocked me over going to the bathroom, waking up in the middle of the night."
But Kiffin has always approached the profession of football with the realization that it is a game meant to be played for fun.
"Whenever you've been in the game this long, you become a caricature, you have to be," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Just his mannerisms themselves, because he's been doing it for so long, they take on a personality of their own.
"The way he carried himself, it'll be missed, obviously. It feels like he's bigger than the game when he's here, for whatever reason, because of his knowledge and the reputation and what the name carries with it. Yeah, you'll miss that part of him being gone."
This afternoon, Kiffin could coordinate the Bucs defense for the final time, against the Raiders. Tampa Bay needs a win today and a loss by Dallas at Philadelphia to earn the final NFC wild-card spot.
It's somehow fitting that an era that began when Tony Dungy hired him in 1996 ends against that team in silver and black.
Beating the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII was the pinnacle of Kiffin's career. The architect of the NFL's No. 1 defense dismantled the league's No. 1 offense by intercepting quarterback Rich Gannon five times, including three returned for touchdowns.
And it was the short-sightedness of owner Al Davis, who fired Kiffin's son, Lane, as head coach in September, that made Monte's departure possible. When Lane was hired as coach at the University of Tennessee, it was the chance to work with his son that lured the famous father.
Speculation was rampant, but Kiffin said he made his decision the weekend before the Bucs' Monday night game at Carolina. He told his team the following Wednesday before the game at Atlanta.
"I told them this was a tough decision. It was back and forth," he said. "I looked around the room and there are really good fathers that we have on that defensive football team. … It was hard."
Unfortunately for Kiffin, news of his departure coincided with the worst three-game stretch in the history of his defense. Tampa Bay yielded 1,207 yards, 92 points and a third-down conversion rate of 57 percent in losses at Carolina, Atlanta and against San Diego.
"I just look at that as a coincidence," Brooks said.
Coincidence or not, it's not the way to send out arguably the greatest defensive coordinator in NFL history. On Christmas Day, the team announced defensive backs coach Raheem Morris will take over for Kiffin in 2009.
It must be noted that Kiffin refused to take a walk down memory lane with reporters before today's game. It's the circle of life in the NFL that you never reflect on a season — or a career — when it's still taking place.
And Kiffin's attention to detail is hard to match. Football is his life. He doesn't golf or fish and has never been a social animal. "I've seen him maybe five times socially in 13 years, and three of those were probably at team Christmas parties," Barber said. "He's football 24 hours a day."
Kiffin went to work immediately after games. "You'd always see him drawing stuff up when you were traveling," former Bucs linebacker Shelton Quarles said. "He'd have a DVD of the game on the plane and would watch it right after we finished the game and would know immediately who messed up. He would walk back to you and say, 'What were you thinking on this play?' "
It's Kiffin's interaction with players — the ability to solicit and accept feedback — that separates him from other defensive coordinators in the league.
"It's just his passion for this game of football," Brooks said. "The passion to teach. It's different. I hear other players that come from other defenses telling me how other coordinators coordinate. Well, with Kiff, it's more about teaching. 'This is why I called this defense. This is why I do this. This is why we're running this.' He'll ask a player, 'What do you think?' It's genuine."
Something else to marvel at is Kiffin's eye for young coaching talent. Along with Dungy, he helped assemble some of the best defensive staffs in the NFL, and many of his assistants — Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli, Mike Tomlin — went on to become head coaches.
"Not that you have to have the same personality as Monte, but you have to have the type of personality where the game is serious but it's not life or death," Barber said. "Mike T is one of the most serious guys I know, but the guy had fun. Raheem is one of the brightest guys around, but he's a clown. I think that Monte reflects on guys like that. (Linebackers coach) Gus (Bradley), who is straight and narrow, but just tells the funniest damn jokes in our team meetings. Guys have to have that type of personality to be around Monte. Because he works so hard, you've got to have some area of silliness to you."
And maybe some of the lyrics in that 1965 hit by the Godfather of Soul applies to Kiffin. So good, so good …
"All change is unknown, but that's the beauty of change, man," Brooks said. "When it happens, let's embrace it. Let's see what happens."
Sunday, December 28, 2008, Section C * * * *