The new Tennessee coach and his SEC colleagues gathered in Destin for face-to-face meetings at the annual spring conference. All the coaches individually addressed the media before the sessions began.
In his first few months on the job, Kiffin has taken verbal jabs at several of the SEC heavyweights, including Florida’s Urban Meyer, Alabama’s Nick Saban and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier.
Kiffin called Meyer a “cheater” on signing day in February.
Meyer said before meeting Kiffin on Tuesday that he expected their first contact to be “professional.”
“That’s the way we’re supposed to act in this league,” Meyer added.
If Meyer was looking for an apology from Kiffin on Tuesday, there was none forthcoming. Kiffin, who issued a public apology to Meyer and the SEC almost immediately on signing day, said Tuesday that was it.
“I don’t have a relationship with coach Meyer, but I did ask for adjoining (hotel) rooms,” Kiffin said with a laugh.
Kiffin’s one-liners didn’t stop there Tuesday.
He had told Alshon Jeffery, before the recruit committed to Spurrier and the Gamecocks, that he “would be pumping gas for a living” if he signed with South Carolina.
“I have no problem with coach Spurrier,” Kiffin said Tuesday. “I just saw him in the elevator. He never apologized to me for saying I started recruiting without passing the NCAA recruiting test.”
Saban, who on signing day read Kiffin’s public comments that said, “Nick Saban should have started his press conference by saying, ‘Our great class that we signed ... I’d really like to thank Lance (Thompson) because Lance signed eight of those guys.”
Thompson left the Alabama staff to work for Kiffin.
“Everybody has to have their own way of handling things and heavens knows I’ve made my share of mistakes with the media,” Saban said. “But we try to represent our organization in a first-class way and do it with loyalty and integrity.”
Kiffin’s story, and he’s sticking to it, is that his actions was to create national attention for a struggling program. The result for a school coming off a 5-7 season is a top 10 recruiting class.
“Do I love everything I had to do to get us to this point?” Kiffin said Tuesday. “No, I don’t. But we had to make an immediate impact. We couldn’t have sat back in the weeds and hoped we signed a top 10 class in a couple of years.
“I don’t think if we took a conservative approach there’s no way we would have signed that class and the No. 1 player (running back Bryce Brown) in the country. Kids we’re recruiting have responded to the confidence our staff has shown.”
Bobby Petrino of Arkansas and Houston Nutt of Ole Miss, a couple of the coaches that Kiffin hadn’t insulted yet, are amused by the situation.
“I’ve laughed about it, it has put a smile on my face,” said Petrino, who was on the staff with Kiffin with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL. “Maybe if we want to quit talking about it, those guys (Meyer and Kiffin) can go jump in that Ultimate Fighting ring. That would sell some tickets.”
Nutt said that even though Kiffin was trying to fire up the Tennessee fans, the coaches Kiffin called out have long memories.
“Coaches may not said it affects them, but it is put in the back of their minds,” Nutt said. “And your players know more word-for-word of what was said.”
The one person who hasn’t been amused by the public give-and-take between coaches is SEC commissioner Mike Slive. He said his message to Kiffin and the rest of the coaches at this meeting is clear.
“In 2004, all of our football and basketball coaches passed a set of principles that are still in effect, a prescription our league has for dealing with these matters,” Slive said. “We expect everybody to follow our rules. The best interest of this league is to focus on our student-athletes.
“What’s good for one institution in this league is good for all institutions in this league. We’re all in this together.”
Also at these meetings, Slive is telling SEC basketball coaches to upgrade their non-conference schedules. The SEC got just three teams in this past season’s NCAA tournament and all three were eliminated by the second round.
Slive, who just finished his term as chairman of the NCAA tourney selection committee, said it was clear the conference’s weak non-conference schedule led to the low RPI that kept bubble teams out.
“Playing a strong non-conference schedule gives the selection committee a chance to see how teams would compete against teams in the NCAA field, because many of those teams usually are in the field,” Slive said. “There’s a perception of who you play, how you play and where you play.”