TAMPA — You remember the tufts of gray hair, more reminiscent of Doc Brown than Paul Brown. He had a signature walk, shoulders slouched and hound dog eyes peering from under a cap. But it was the voice that unmistakably belonged to Monte Kiffin.
It began slow and soft as a church prayer before rising in tempo and octaves until it became an ear-splitting screech. The former Bucs defensive coordinator could be as excitable as any coach to walk a sideline.
At one time or another, Kiffin would use that voice to call out players and they knew they deserved it.
It didn’t matter if it was Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch or Ronde Barber. He had no shortage of Hall of Fame talent, but it was Kiffin who put them in the right positions to ascend as one of the best defenses in NFL history.
“It’s not just he succeeded with the talent, but I think the talent succeeded mostly because of him,” Barber said. “Certainly, that was the case for me. I give all my credit to him for putting me in positions to have the career I had. And it wasn’t as if Monte was doing genius, revolutionary things. It was the way he approached coaching us with this attitude that if we all just did our job, the simple things, we’ll succeed.
“His genius with us was basically letting us express ourselves in this defense. ... And you talk about the character that he was, he made coming to work fun, man. He was very demanding on us. And he did it in a self-deprecating way that he made us all really enjoy being in the office and on Sundays. We just let it loose.”
On Sept. 19 at halftime of a game against the Atlanta Falcons, the 81-year-old Kiffin, who led the Bucs defense for 13 seasons, will become the first assistant coach inducted into the Bucs’ Ring of Honor. The team surprised him a year ago on his 80th birthday with his selection, but due to COVID-19 his enshrinement was delayed by a year.
Kiffin will be introduced during a news conference at the team’s training facility Wednesday.
“It’s rare for an assistant coach to be selected for a Ring of Honor, but Monte is so deserving,” former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy said.
Under Kiffin, the Bucs put together one of the best defenses in league history. Eleven times in 13 years, it finished ranked in the top 10 in total defense, including eight times in the top five. They were ranked No. 1 overall during the 2002 season, winning Super Bowl 37.
Dungy had a long history with Kiffin, dating to the time Dungy was an 18-year-old quarterback making his first start for the University of Minnesota.
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The year before Dungy took over the Bucs in 1996, Kiffin left to become the Saints defensive coordinator under coach Jim Mora. Dungy figured Kiffin was untouchable, so he attempted to hire Saints linebackers coach Jim Haslett.
“(Mora) said, ‘No, I know how close you guys are,’ and he let Monte out of his contract. It was just phenomenal. That was the start of a special time.”
Kiffin didn’t revolutionize defensive football. In fact, the simplicity of the Tampa 2 was its strength.
Dungy brought those principles to Minnesota from Pittsburgh, where he coached and played under Chuck Noll. But Kiffin was the maestro and motivator, the guy who set the standard and held everyone accountable. He brought energy and preached execution.
“Now Monte put things together, and how do I want to say it? He had his personality,” Dungy said. “His approach was the signature of the defense. That was the stamp to me. Everybody had input and everybody coached their position. But Monte’s — just character and charisma and energy and enthusiasm and the way we practiced and all of that — that was his stamp on that defense.
“He was special and one of the best defensive coordinators of all time. When I think about what that defense did in the late ’90s and the early 2000s, it was phenomenal and really a testament to him.”
A few quick stories about Kiffin.
Barber was in 12th season when Aquib Talib was drafted in the first round out of Kansas. In Week 12, Barber had yet to record an interception.
“(Kiffin) told me, ‘You’re not starting this week. You’re just going to play nickel. Aqib is going to play corner,’” Barber recalled. “I had started I don’t know how many games in a row. And to be fair, I hadn’t really had the year yet that I normally have had. I hadn’t had any interceptions, maybe only one or two sacks. He probably thought I was near the end.
“At the end of the week, after having been the third cornerback all week, I sat down with Monte in my office and we hashed it out, man. It was not like a fun hash. There were some choice words being thrown around. The next day, he comes up to the whole group and says, ‘I just can’t do it. You’re starting this week. We had a great conversation.’ It wasn’t a great conversation. ... We go to Detroit. He starts me and I end up having two interceptions, one for a touchdown. He’s just like, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking.’ It was just the way he managed us that made it good for our defense.”
As for his personality, Dungy remembers when they went to Japan for a preseason game.
“Monte always had the red plastic jacket, no matter how hot it was,” Dungy said. “And they told us, ‘It’s super hot out here. You just can’t do that.’ So he wears it to practice and then he’s going to go for a jog afterwards. Now he’s lost and can’t figure out where he is, nobody speaks English. He can’t remember the hotel we’re out.
“Finally, he gets somebody who kind of understands and he gets a taxi driver who’s panicked because he thinks Monte is going to die. He said, ‘I think this guy belongs to you and I think he’s going to die. Somebody come and get him.’ ... The greatest thing about it, the next day, he’s got the plastic jacket on. That’s the way we did things. It doesn’t matter. We do what we do. And he used that as an example. It doesn’t matter. They know what we’re doing and it doesn’t matter if they know.
“That was Monte.”
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