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CLEVELAND, Tenn. — So Lane Kiffin walked to the podium at Monday’s Big Orange Caravan stop and said he would get in a battle of wits with Urban Meyer, but he never attacks an unarmed person.
OK, he didn’t. Actually, and this is a little disappointing, Kiffin did not launch any taunts toward Gainesville or Athens or Tuscaloosa. Speaking to an assembly of Tennessee fans at the Cleveland Country Club, absolutely an opportune time to insult your rivals, Kiffin lacked his usual bravado.
The only time he hinted at a bold proclamation was when he said, “I think our first unit on defense is going to be really special. I’ll be shocked if it’s not.”
And that’s it.
“I don’t think I have to say as many things as I did initially,” he said.
Huh? Here’s Kiffin’s reasoning: He doesn’t need to fire any barbs, fire any people or fire any retorts anymore. He did his job. One of Kiffin’s goals was inspiring the fan base. Done. Did you see the enthusiasm during the Vol Walk before the Orange and White game? Kiffin said he briefly felt like he was about to coach the national championship game.
You might recall the column in which I relayed some e-mails from Tennessee fans who frowned at some of Kiffin’s antics. It reminds me of a statistic about Howard Stern’s show — the people who hated him, on average, listened longer than the people who liked him. They wanted to hear what happened next.
I’m not comparing Stern to Kiffin, certainly, but there’s a similarity: Kiffin created a show everyone wants to witness. And that’s great for fan enthusiasm and recruiting.
Kiffin acknowledged that his verbal taunts divided the fan base. Is he regretful? Probably not. But he is cognizant.
“Players aren’t going to be any good unless they have a lot of confidence, and that goes back to a lot of the things that I said that maybe some of you guys didn’t like very much,” Kiffin told the crowd. “But understand that when you go back to your players and you’ve put yourself out there like that, your players feel confidence in you.
“They know the staff has their back and they know they have to work to get our back, so it was really neat to see how confident our players were in that spring game.”
Another goal was, obviously, bringing in the nation’s top recruits. Done. Despite very little time to work, Tennessee landed a top-10 class and Bryce Brown, the nation’s No. 1 running back.
“Unfortunately, you have to do some things that may not be what everybody likes, but it gets you out there,” Kiffin said. “It gets Tennessee in the media. It gets Tennessee in Sports Illustrated and on SportsCenter and in the newspapers. It may sound weird to you guys, but understand, that’s what kids nowadays look at. They need to see Tennessee over and over and over again.”
So after all of that — accusing Meyer of breaking rules, boasting about stealing Lance Thompson from Nick Saban, blaming grandmothers for recruiting failures — you have to say his tactics worked. So far. The fans are intrigued. The recruits are interested. Sure, Kiffin is still awaiting his first college coaching win.
But, at this moment, I’ll admit the joke could be on everyone else, even if Kiffin occasionally sets himself up for ridicule.
“Well,” Kiffin said with a smile, “we did get the No. 1 player in the country. So that’s my excuse.”