KNOXVILLE -- Football was Lance Thompson's first love since childhood, and the former Citadel Bulldog has coached at such college powers as Georgia Tech, LSU, Alabama and Tennessee.
"I've got a good life -- a better life than I ever thought I'd have -- because of the game of football," Thompson said between staff meetings Wednesday afternoon at the UT football complex.
But the Volunteers' first-year linebackers coach had other plans as a teenager.
Like so many boys his age, Thompson was borderline obsessed with the movie "Top Gun." Unlike most of his peers, though, Thompson started on the proper path to reach that elite level. He attended West Point (N.Y.) Prep and received an appointment to the Army's main academy.
"I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I wanted to fly jets," Thompson said. "But I couldn't pass the physical."
A chronic knee injury never derailed Thompson's football career, but the military's "zero defect" policy prevented him from becoming the next Maverick or Iceman.
With those dreams dashed, Thompson chose a football opportunity at The Citadel over the West Point appointment.
"I'm born and raised in the South, and I'm comfortable in my skin as a Southerner," Thompson said. "I like warm weather. I like Southern people and traditions. I have a real fond appreciation of the way football is played and taught in the South.
"(West Point Prep) will be the only time I will live outside the South. I do not like cold weather, and I don't particularly care for some things up there."
Those traits have endeared Thompson to Southern football recruits and their families through his 20 years as an assistant coach. And those relationships have landed several schools the building blocks for success. That's what caused Lane Kiffin to wine, dine and sign a linebackers coach he wasn't aware of when taking UT's top job in December.
"When we first started getting out there and recruiting, we just kept hearing Lance Thompson's name," Kiffin said. "It seemed like every coach and every player and every family knew him and liked him ... and eventually, it got to the point where I said, 'OK, I've got to meet this guy.'"
UT defensive assistants have to get through two lines of Kiffins before joining the staff, though. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Lane's father, has plenty to say about who works on his side of the ball.
Thompson, a former defensive coordinator at Central Florida, met with the elder Kiffin and wowed the legendary NFL mastermind with his schematic knowledge.
"I called Lane immediately and said, 'We've got to get this guy,'" Monte said. "If he recruits like you say he does, and he knows football like he just showed me, we've got to have him."
The last hiring hurdle was a big one, though. Thompson already had a well-paid job under Nick Saban at archrival Alabama.
A significant salary bump and chance to work for Monte Kiffin turned the Tide coach.
"Tennessee's a special place with special tradition and history," Thompson said. "And over the last 15 years, it could be argued that it's one of the best five programs in the country. That was an allure, but to be honest with you, the opportunity to work with Monte on defense -- and that's in no way a slight to Nick or Alabama, because they've been great to me -- but I just had an appeal to the Kiffins.
"Then, once I talked to several friends who went to Tennessee or lived in the Knoxville area, I really liked the area for myself and my family."
Opportunities aren't always easy, and Thompson's new role has presented him new challenges.
He recruited the Mobile area for Alabama, the New Orleans area for LSU, the Atlanta area for Georgia Tech and the Miami area for Central Florida. UT casts one of the nation's widest nets in recruiting, though, so Thompson's new primary area is massive: All of Alabama, Atlanta, South Georgia and the Gulf Coast from Mobile to Jacksonville, Fla.
"We've got such a vast recruiting area that we should have a quality depth board in terms of character and intelligence," said Thompson, Rivals.com's 2008 national recruiter of the year. "My impact has been being a guy that pulls in a lot of guys, but I don't know if I'm going to have that opportunity, because we've got a lot of great recruiters on this staff."
The Vols landed a top 10 Class of 2009 (per Rivals) despite a complete coaching overhaul.
"Tennessee's always had an outstanding reputation as a national recruiter," Thompson said. "That's a credit to the school. The school has a national and international reputation, and I think that attracts guys and attracts interest.
"I think with our staff, it's just going to be about making the right selections -- making sure we get the right kids."
Developing them is the second step, and Thompson is confident in that area as well. Linebacker was never a weak spot at UT under defensive coordinator John Chavis, and Thompson expects to uphold that tradition. That would take a gargantuan effort this fall, though, because All-SEC weaksider Rico McCoy is the only linebacker with meaningful experience.
"At the University of Tennessee, it's my belief and my vision that we shouldn't recruit a linebacker unless he has the physical ability to play at the next level," Thompson said. "Every kid that comes through here at any position, he should have the opportunity to be developed and have an opportunity to at least be a free agent (in the NFL).
"For us to get where we want to go, we want the Al Wilsons of the world. We want the Raynoch Thompsons, the Jerod Mayos. That's what my expectation is for us, and I think that's going to be the thing for every position."