Members of the Tennessee defense were fiercely loyal to prior coordinator John Chavis. Kiffin’s reputation as an NFL coordinator gives him plenty of credibility as he re-adjusts to the collegiate game, but it helps just as much that he appears to be well-liked by his new pupils.
“He’s just a good person in general,” safety Eric Berry said of Kiffin. “You can pretty much talk to him about anything. He’ll probably just stop and talk to a random person on the street like he’s known them for years.”
Kiffin is 68 years old, but walks and talks with the energy of a man less than half his age. Listening to the venerable coach with 26 years’ experience as an NFL assistant, and 13 seasons as coordinator in Tampa Bay, and the elder Kiffin speaks as if affixed to a permanent caffeine drip.
“You have to control what you’re doing out there. You can’t just be running around out there,” said Kiffin, the architect of the “Tampa 2” scheme. “Our scheme’s very important. We’ve got to understand what we’re doing. It’s a whole new deal, a new staff.
“With all that being said, they better hustle. Eleven guys going to the football. Not eight, not nine, not 10. But 11. Not 12, because then we’ll be in trouble.”
Kiffin’s energy has rubbed off on those Vols who don’t even play defense.
“You really can’t understand what he’s saying until, like, the last two words, and I love it,” receiver Gerald Jones said. “I love every single bit of it, because he loves that coffee, and it just gets him running.”
For Jones, thinking about going against Kiffin’s defense every day in what has been guaranteed to be an extremely physical spring inspires less warm and fuzzy feelings.
“His defense is very good, and they haven’t even put everything in yet,” Jones said. “I’m scared to see what they’ll put in later on in the spring.”
The departure of Phillip Fulmer jarred the entire roster on Rocky Top. Still, players on offense had grown accustomed to change with three different offensive coordinators in the final four years of Fulmer’s tenure. The defensive staff, however, had remained intact for more than a decade. Bringing in a coordinator of Kiffin’s name value certainly helped ease the transition.
“I mean, come on. If you can’t do it right for him, who can’t you do it right for?” linebacker Rico McCoy said.
There have been questions as to how Kiffin will adapt to coaching younger players after more than a quarter century away from college. His last job at this level was as N.C. State’s head coach from 1980 through 1982.
“I think in coaching, when you coach the players, it doesn’t matter if they’re high school, college or pro, if a guy feels like he’s getting better, it makes you feel good as a coach, because that’s what we should do,” Kiffin said.
Improvement isn’t just restricted to the players, either. Linebackers coach Lance Thompson said he learns something every day from his new boss.
“Anytime you work with somebody that’s recognized as the best in their field, that’s great,” Thompson said. “It’d be like, if you’re a musician, learning from Mozart. If you’re a philosopher, learning from Aristotle. You get a chance to sit there and pick the brain of one of the greatest minds in football.”