Dad Kiffin 'walking, talking legend'

Dad Kiffin 'walking, talking legend'

The reputation of the Vols' defensive coordinator resonates throughout pro and college football.

August 14th, 2009 by Wes Rucker in Sports - College

Tennessee football defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin go over notes during Tuesday practice on Haslam Field at the University of Tennessee campus.

KNOXVILLE -- Chick-fil-A didn't invent chicken, and despite what its commercials say, it probably didn't invent the chicken sandwich.

Americans didn't invent democracy.

Monte Kiffin didn't invent the "Tampa 2" defense, either.

Big deal. None of that changes what comes to mind when people think about chicken sandwiches, democracy or the Tampa 2.

That's why Kiffin has gone from the highest paid coordinator in NFL history last year to the highest paid college assistant in history, at $1.2 million per year. He and his brand of defense have become synonymous with success.

"The man is a walking, talking legend," Volunteers All-America safety Eric Berry said. "He created the defense that basically everybody tries to copy in some way, shape or form.

"What more can you say? It's a honor to play for him and learn from him."

"He's the best defensive coordinator in the game, at any level, period," UT head coach Lane Kiffin said. "And I'm not just saying that because he's my dad. A lot of people who aren't related to him say the same thing."

The Tampa 2's origins have never been officially documented. Monte Kiffin and several others label former Tampa Bay and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy as the architect, but Dungy said he derived much of the scheme from the dominant 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. Dungy was a defensive back in coordinator Bud Carson's scheme.

But the elder Kiffin is consistently credited with, at the very least, being the scheme's curator. He's continually tweaked and polished it to keep it innovative, and the results have kept his defense among the sport's most mirrored.

The most commonly cited devout disciples include Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, former NFL head coaches Herman Edwards and Rod Marinelli and Southern California coach Pete Carroll.

Several NFL teams use variations of the scheme, as does first-year Auburn head coach Gene Chizik.

"Coaches always look good when they have good players," Monte Kiffin said. "It's a good scheme, obviously, but you need the players. No scheme is anything without good players running it."

And "speed," he said, is the main ingredient needed.

That's the primary reason Tampa 2 players are traditionally smaller. It's an aggressive defense that relies on speed and sure tackling. It's a Cover 2 defense, meaning two safeties drop back with responsibilities to each cover half of the field. The middle linebacker -- often smaller than the norm -- often drops back to give it a Cover 3 look. And smaller linemen swarm the passer before holes form on the back end.

"The secret to the Tampa 2 system? There really isn't one," ESPN.com's Michael Smith wrote in 2005. "Less is more in this case. The brilliance of the scheme lies in its simplicity. What the Tampa 2 teams have figured out is that it isn't what they're doing as much as it is who is doing it and how."

Someone must pull the strings, though, and few have a better motivational reputation than the relentless Monte Kiffin -- who often stays up until 2 or 3 a.m., even in the offseason, working on typed-out tutorials that greet his assistants when they enter the complex at 6.

"Everybody talks about how my dad coaches players, but I think the way he coaches his coaches is another huge part of his success," Lane Kiffin said. "Look around the NFL. Look around the college game. Look at all those top teams, and a lot of them have coaches who learned from Monte Kiffin."

Ordered by Lane earlier this summer to finally take a vacation and spend time with his wife in the Tampa area, Monte called in favors to his old Buccaneers co-workers and had them set aside space for a temporary office. He ate breakfast with his wife every morning, but she usually didn't seem him again until the sun set over Tampa Bay. He had video streamed to Bucs headquarters, where he broke it down all day.

"What can you do?" Lane said, laughing. "It's impossible to make him stop working. He just loves this game, and he loves competing, and he never stops."

Monte Kiffin's reputation helped UT corral a list of coveted defensive coaches. Former Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron left the New Orleans Saints. Linebackers coach Lance Thompson left Nick Saban's kudzu-fast growing empire at Alabama. Some of UT's new offensive assistants admittedly relish the opportunity to test their schemes against Monte Kiffin.

"Lane Kiffin is our leader and our head coach, and the buck stops with him, no question," Thompson said. "But how many defensive coaches in the country would turn down an opportunity to work for Monte Kiffin?"

Added UT defensive backs coach Willie Mack Garza: "Writing 'worked for Monte Kiffin' on your resume makes it look a lot more impressive. Everybody in football knows how big of a deal that is."

Tomlin spent two days with the Vols this spring, and the Super Bowl champion coach said he still picked up pointers from his former Bucs boss.

"You guys know my close personal relationship with the Kiffins, specifically Monte," Tomlin said. "I worked with that man shoulder to shoulder for five years, had the experience of a lifetime, grew big-time as a coach and as a person. I owe a gig debt of gratitude to Monte, so when Monte picks up the phone and calls and asks me could I come, the answer's very easy."

Asked for the biggest lesson he learned from Monte Kiffin, Tomlin hardly hesitated before saying, "The hay is never in the barn.

"A lot of times people ask me about what makes Monte a great football coach. You know, he's always searching for the cutting edge. His mind is always working. He's always trying to get better. He never breathes a sigh of relief. ... He never relaxes, never takes anything for granted, and he's always looking for the winning edge."

Monte Kiffin, who still jogs several miles most days, said that inner drive leaves him feeling like a "39-year-old trapped in a 69-year-old's body."

As for setting a retirement date ...

"Are you kidding me?" he said. "Give this up? Not a chance. I plan on doing this for a long time. ... Well, I've already done this for long time. But let's make it longer. What do you say?"