KNOXVILLE — It’s become crystal clear that the University of Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin isn’t intimidated by the Southeastern Conference’s older, more accomplished football coaches.
He’s cleared that up by lobbing verbal grenades in several directions.
Kiffin claims that he doesn’t intend to be disrespectful, but his “call it like I see it” philosophy has made him few friends on the recruiting trail.
The number of highly touted players he took away from SEC peers the last few weeks probably hasn’t helped, either. That list grew Thursday morning, when five-star defensive back prospect Jenzen Jackson ended his yearlong pledge to home-state LSU and signed with the Volunteers.
Jackson is nation’s No. 17 overall prospect and No. 2 cornerback, according to Rivals.com.
“When I saw Tennessee’s coaching staff and Neyland Stadium, I just couldn’t say no,” Jackson said. “Who could?”
Kiffin caused another commotion Thursday morning, telling a group of nearly 1,000 fans at a downtown Knoxville recruiting celebration that Florida coach Urban Meyer “cheated” while trying to keep former Gators commitment Nu’Keese Richardson in state.
According to Rivals, Kiffin told the crowd that Meyer repeatedly called Richardson’s cell phone while the recruit officially visited Knoxville, which Kiffin called an NCAA infraction.
“Just so you know, when a recruit’s on another campus, you can’t call a recruit on another campus,” Kiffin said, according to the Web site. “I love the fact that Urban had to cheat and still didn’t get him (Richardson). Great job, man!”
UF athletic director Jeremy Foley released a sharply worded statement early Thursday afternoon that claimed Kiffin, not Meyer, broke a rule.
“There was no (Florida) rule violation, and we have confirmed this with Southeastern Conference,” Foley’s statement said. “It is obvious that Coach Kiffin doesn’t know that there is not a rule precluding phone contact with a prospect during an official visit on another campus during a contact period. His allegations are inappropriate, out of line and, most importantly, totally false. It is completely unfair to Urban Meyer, our coaching staff, our football program and our institution.
“The appropriate action at this time in my opinion is for Coach Kiffin to make a public apology. His comments not only slandered our coach, but he violated SEC rules by publicly criticizing another coach and institution.”
Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive released a statement hours later confirming that Kiffin “violated the Southeastern Conference Code of Ethics.
“SEC Bylaw 10.5.1 clearly states that coaches and administrators shall refrain from directed public criticism of other member institutions, their staffs or players,” Slive’s statement continued. “The phone call to which Coach Kiffin referred to in his public comments is not a violation of SEC or NCAA rules.
“We expect our coaches to have an understanding and knowledge of conference and NCAA rules.”
Kiffin released an apology through UT early in the evening.
“I’ve been made aware by the Southeastern Conference that my comments this morning at a breakfast with our donors violated a conference policy,” Kiffin’s statement said. “In my enthusiasm for our recruiting class, I made some statements that were meant solely to excite those at the breakfast.
“I apologize to Commissioner Mike Slive and the SEC, including Florida AD Jeremy Foley and Coach Urban Meyer. My comments were not intended to offend anyone at the University of Florida.”
Slive didn’t release a statement on South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier’s early December comments questioning Kiffin’s recruiting ethics. Spurrier wondered aloud to local media whether Kiffin had taken the NCAA’s mandatory recruiting test before calling South Carolina recruits (Kiffin claimed he had, and scored 39 out of a possible 40).
“Looking at both statements from the two coaches, we felt that Coach Spurrier’s comments did not rise to the level that Coach Kiffin’s did,” SEC spokesperson Charles Bloom said Thursday night.
UT defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said Richardson, a versatile, 5-foot-9, 155-pound speedster, was “the best (high school) player in America” last season. Richardson committed early to Florida and didn’t visit anywhere else until late January — days after UT hired former Auburn running backs coach and ace South Florida recruiter Eddie Gran.
Lane Kiffin said two members of Richardson’s family faxed his national letter of intent from a local middle school around 7 a.m. Wednesday, and he kept it in a drawer to let Richardson keep his news-conference spotlight. He wanted the fax as early as possible, though, because he said “funny things happen in Pahokee” when anyone tries to recruit a player Florida wants.
“When you think about what Eddie Gran did with Nu’Keese ... that doesn’t happen,” Lane Kiffin said. “Pahokee kids don’t come to Tennessee. Pahokee kids that Florida wants go to Florida, and that’s happened for a long time.”