Kicking it with Lane Kiffin, Part I

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- For the first time in nearly 35 years, one of Tennessee’s own won’t be in charge of the Vols’ football program.

The Lane Kiffin era begins Saturday at Neyland Stadium amid the kind of energy, intrigue and curiosity that has made him one of college football’s hottest stories over the past nine months.

He’s called out Urban Meyer. He’s bashed the entire Pahokee community in Florida. He’s bragged about stealing coaches away from rival schools, and he’s been accused of saying and doing some things that he says simply aren’t true.

Has there ever been a more polarizing figure in the SEC who’s yet to even coach a game in the league?

One thing's for sure: They love him on Rocky Top, which has been a rocky place to be for much of this decade. The Vols have suffered through losing seasons twice in the past four years and are just 11-16 against rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia since the start of the 2000 season.

Kiffin's mission is clear: to make Tennessee relevant again in the SEC.

I had a chance to sit down with the 34-year-old Kiffin earlier this week in his office. He was relaxed, pumped about the way the players have bought into the new regime and equally excited about where Tennessee football is headed.

Despite his reputation, he’s not making a bunch of brash predictions. Yes, he loves the freshmen in the program, loves the coaching staff he’s assembled and loves the passion of the fans.

But he’s not ready to put a timetable on how long it will take the Vols to get back to the SEC championship game.

He’s been pleasantly surprised by senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton’s play, especially after hearing what he supposedly could and couldn’t do. Kiffin said Crompton has been on a par with most of the quarterbacks he coached at Southern California and wouldn’t be shocked to see Crompton get drafted if he stays healthy and performs this season the way he has during preseason camp.

Depth in the offensive line concerns Kiffin the most, but he thinks the Vols have a chance to be as good at running back as anybody in the SEC.

And when he talks about the freshmen, namely Bryce Brown, Marsalis Teague, Janzen Jackson, David Oku and Nu’Keese Richardson, he can’t quit talking about what fast learners they are.

Here’s Part I of my Q&A with Kiffin:

Do you grasp how historic Saturday will be for Tennessee football, somebody from outside the Tennessee family leading the Vols through that “T” for the first time in more than three decades?

Lane Kiffin: I have great respect and appreciation for that history, but I don’t really think about it. We are so busy, so driven and so focused on this team. Every day, there are so many things to do to put together this team. So as much as I respect the unbelievable tradition here and the fabulous job Coach Fulmer and Coach Majors have done here over the last 35 years, I don’t really have much time to sit around and think about it. There’s just so much to do.

Given how eventful and how controversial this offseason has been for you, how anxious are you just to play and to see how ready this football team is to compete in the SEC?

LK: I am and I’m not at the same time. I am because I’m so excited for our players because they’ve worked so hard to finally play. I’m so excited for our coaches because they’ve put everything together. But at the same time, every day I have this fear of what more can we do. There’s got to be something more we can do to prepare our guys, whether it’s schematically or their mind being right. We’ve got 100 and some guys out there, and I’ve never played a game with any of them. As much as I’m ready to play, I’m not ready to play. Until 12:21 Saturday, we still have a ton of work to do. The saying that the hay is in the barn is never going to be used around here.

Why is that?

LK: One of the great things that was done at [USC] was the intensity of the coaching until the last second of the game. It was never just let ‘em roll. It was nonstop between every series, recapping every play to make sure the same mistake was never made twice. The intensity never let up from that first meeting four hours before kickoff. It’s an emotional, draining process, but it’s a blast at the same time.

You delivered the all-star coaching staff you proposed while interviewing for this job. Now that you’re on the eve of your first game at Tennessee, has the chemistry been what you hoped it would be?

LK: It’s been even better. The fear when you’re putting a staff together is the egos and the personalities. We have so many people who’ve been at successful places and have done a great job whether it’s been as coordinators or position coaches. You’re worried you might have ego issues. The reality is that we have five or six guys who’ve been recruiting coordinators. A number of guys have been offensive or defensive coordinators, and half the staff came from the NFL. But they’ve really meshed together well and put egos aside to come together for a common goal, which I think is a product of a number of guys leaving very good jobs to come here. When you do that, you better make sure you’re here to do it right and not here to collect a check and clock in and clock out. We’ve got a lot to prove.

You’ve referred to Ed Orgeron as the passion of the program. He’s obviously a former head coach in this league. How much say does he have in what’s going on right now?

LK: I lean on Ed a lot. One of the biggest reasons is my comfort level of being with him for four years. We were together for four years at SC. He knows how I am and what I want. We spend so much time on the road recruiting, and he understands my plan. So that allows me to go do things that need to be done around here, and when I am away, having him here means that everything doesn’t have to go on hold. I can give him things to handle, and he knows the way I want them done. He’s been extremely valuable.