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Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer 27d

Trash talk, mattress fires and a flying projector: Lane Kiffin's year at Tennessee

College Football, Tennessee Volunteers, Alabama Crimson Tide

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Team meetings at the Birmingham Marriott were winding down the night before Tennessee was set to take on top-ranked and unbeaten Alabama in 2009, and Ed Orgeron wanted everyone's attention.

To get the Vols pumped up, the fiery defensive line coach took an overhead projector and hurled it into a wall, where it shattered into pieces. Then it was Lane Kiffin's turn. The brash young head coach had an announcement.

"He gets up there and says, 'I've already called back to the University of Tennessee and told them that we're going to stay an extra night after we beat Alabama tomorrow, and we're going to go eat some of those Dreamland ribs and hang out at their bars,'" recounted Marlon Walls, then a freshman defensive lineman.

The whole room went wild, including Kiffin's father, Monte, the Vols' 69-year-old defensive coordinator.

"I believe Monte even picked up a chair and threw it," then-senior defensive lineman Wes Brown said. "Whatever we could get our hands on, we were throwing.

"It was total chaos."

It was a fitting description of Kiffin's 14-month tenure in Knoxville, which saw the 34-year-old SEC newcomer in a league full of future Hall of Famers embrace his role as college football's biggest heel, taking on Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier and just about anyone else. It was a season filled with big wins, humbling losses, constant controversy and one mini-riot.

The 2009 Vols flew high and crashed hard -- much like that overhead projector -- before Kiffin bolted after just one year for his dream job at USC. And they had a lot of fun along the way.

Ten years later, ESPN caught up with many of the key figures in what was one of the wildest, most entertaining 7-6 seasons in recent college football history.

'It's going to be a blast, so get ready'

Kiffin was talking a big game from the time he landed in Knoxville for his introductory media conference on Dec. 1, 2008. As part of his opening comments, he talked about embracing some of the great traditions at Tennessee.

Right there at the top, in his words, was "singing Rocky Top all night long after we beat Florida next year. It's going to be a blast, so get ready."

Never mind that the Gators had just won their second national championship in three years under Urban Meyer or had beaten the Vols by a combined 63 points the previous two seasons. Kiffin was hell-bent on instilling a different kind of edge with the Tennessee players and fan base.

"I remember thinking, 'Either this dude can coach ball, or we're going to get our heads beat in,'" said then-junior defensive end Chris Walker, now the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) director at Tennessee. "But that was the beauty of playing for Lane. He had a swag about him that was real and didn't mind stepping on toes."

Case in point: A few months after being named the Vols' coach, Kiffin appeared at a Tennessee recruiting breakfast in Knoxville (with television cameras present) and bragged about signing a prospect named Nu'Keese Richardson out of Pahokee, Florida, whom the Gators really wanted. Kiffin gloated, "I love the fact that Urban had to cheat and still didn't get [Richardson]."

Kiffin was referencing Meyer making recruiting calls to Richardson while Richardson was visiting Tennessee, which Kiffin claimed was an NCAA violation. The only problem was that it wasn't a violation.

(Meanwhile, the NCAA committee on infractions found that during his year in Knoxville, Kiffin and his staff committed 12 minor violations, but the committee did not find enough evidence to support "findings of major violations." Kiffin did not face any sanctions.)

During that same breakfast, Kiffin told fans Nick Saban should thank UT defensive line coach Lance Thompson for Alabama's No. 2-ranked recruiting class that year because Thompson was one of the Tide's best recruiters before Kiffin persuaded him to join the Vols' staff.

"So much of that was me trying to give our players and our fans a reason to believe," Kiffin, now in his third season as Florida Atlantic's head coach, told ESPN last month. "If I was worried about Lane Kiffin, then you don't do any of that stuff because you're worried about your national image and worried about your next job, and I've never been that way. Maybe it hurt me from a national perspective and people's opinion of me, but it helped our team's confidence and helped us in recruiting."

After a few months, one of Tennessee's most prominent boosters, Pilot Corporation founder Jim Haslam, pulled Monte Kiffin aside.

"He said, 'Listen, I like Lane a lot. I really do and think he's going to do big things here, but could you get him to zip it up a little bit?'" Monte recalled. "Well, here we are 10 years later, and he still hasn't zipped it up."

Mike Hamilton, the Tennessee athletic director who hired Kiffin, said there were some restless nights during Kiffin's short-lived tenure with the Vols.

"But what I remember most is a tremendous new level of energy created around the program in a very short period of time," Hamilton said. "There were days when I was frustrated, but the reality is, on scale, he asked good questions and was always respectably pushing the envelope."

Kiffin was also accused of pushing the envelope with recruits. Alshon Jeffery, a star receiver from Calhoun County, South Carolina, and his high school coach, Walter Wilson, both said Kiffin told Jeffery in a late-night phone conversation that he would be "pumping gas for the rest of his life" if he stayed in-state and signed with the Gamecocks. (After a heated recruiting battle with the Trojans and Vols, Jeffery indeed signed with the Gamecocks and went on to have a long NFL career.)

Kiffin has always denied making that comment but is now willing to fill in the blanks -- some of them, anyway.

"I can guarantee you that I did not say that. Now, I did hear that being said on a speakerphone with a lot of people in a conversation with Alshon," Kiffin said. "But it was not me, and I'm not throwing anybody on my staff under the bus."

To this day, Kiffin claims his verbal playbook was copied from that of former Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.

"A lot of the things I was saying, that's straight out of Steve Spurrier 101, and people loved Coach Spurrier, taking a shot at someone else and making a joke," Kiffin said. "That's who I grew up idolizing, Steve Spurrier. That's why I wear a visor and why I run a wide-open offense. I grew up wanting to be Steve Spurrier.

"And that's why it was so cool to beat him that season."

Spurrier doesn't want any of the credit (or blame) for Kiffin's scorched-earth approach.

"Oh, no, don't blame it on me," Spurrier said. "I wasn't doing and saying some of the stuff he was. I know they clobbered us pretty good that year in that night game. How many years was he there -- one or two?"

When told just one, Spurrier said, "Seemed longer. I guess a lot happened in that one year."

'Screw it. Let 'em fire me'

The buildup surrounding the Florida-Tennessee game that year was pretty simple: The No. 1-ranked Gators were going to shut Kiffin's mouth once and for all. But even though the Gators never trailed in the game, they could never completely shake the 30-point underdog Vols in a hard-fought 23-13 win that saw Tim Tebow held without a touchdown pass for the first time in 30 games.

More importantly for the Vols, they walked away from The Swamp feeling their best football was ahead of them and that they had a coach who was bold and brazen enough to hold his own in the SEC. At the time, the conference was in the midst of having four schools combine to win seven consecutive national championships.

"He knew he was going to piss people off, but he also knew that he was going to instill confidence in us that had been lacking and made us believe that we could play with anybody," quarterback Jonathan Crompton said.

Crompton had thrown nine touchdown passes and nine interceptions in his first three seasons, but he passed for 2,800 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions as a senior under Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. He ended up being drafted in the fifth round that April by the San Diego Chargers.

"I just wish I would have had Lane the whole time," said Crompton, now the quarterbacks coach with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts. "He helped develop a lot of guys that weren't developed previously. That's a fact. He did a phenomenal job. Now, people may disagree with me, but I don't really care. I was there."

Kiffin so defied convention that players were always guessing what he was going to do or say next. He was known for jogging, usually shirtless, throughout campus with students walking to and from class.

"He'd tell us he was working on his tan, and I told him he needed to get in the weight room if he was going to do that," joked Montario Hardesty, who rushed for 1,345 yards and 13 touchdowns that season, played four seasons in the NFL and worked with Kiffin at FAU before joining the Charlotte 49ers' football staff.

But what players loved most about Kiffin was the way the team improved. After throttling Georgia 45-19, the Vols went into their game two weeks later against Alabama brimming with confidence.

And they nearly made good on Kiffin's prediction, coming closer than anyone to beating the Tide in a season that ended with Saban's first national championship in Tuscaloosa. Alabama escaped 12-10, sealing the victory on the final play when mammoth nose guard Terrence Cody blocked Daniel Lincoln's 44-yard field goal attempt.

Lance Thompson remembers walking past Kiffin on the sideline just before the kick. Lincoln had already missed one field goal and had another one blocked, and he was nursing a painful quadriceps injury. But make or miss, Kiffin was relishing the stress he was putting on his future boss.

"Lane comes up to me and says, '[Lincoln] is hurt, and this is a long kick. It's going to be tough for him to make it. But look across the field at [Saban]. Just look at his face. That in itself is almost worth whatever happens,'" Thompson said.

After the game, Kiffin strolled through the mass of crimson and orange on the Bryant-Denny Stadium field to find Saban for the postgame handshake and said, "Hey, good game, but that's the last time it's going to happen."

A decade later, Kiffin shrugs. "It was the last time it happened. It's the last time he beat me, so I guess that part is true.

"Like a dumbass, I also didn't know I was going to need a job from him in five years, either."

The next week, Tennessee routed Spurrier and No. 21 South Carolina 31-13 on Halloween night, when the Vols wore black jerseys for the first time since 1921.

There were rumblings that Tennessee might wear black jerseys for the game, but even the players gave up hope after not hearing anything by the middle of the week. Little did they know Kiffin was working behind the scenes, and Hardesty and Eric Berry, two of the captains, went to see Hamilton to plead their case.

Veteran equipment manager Roger Frazier was able to get the jerseys printed on Wednesday night, even though it was too late in the week to have names on the backs. The players didn't find out until Friday night at the team hotel.

Kiffin told the team, tongue in cheek, that he'd been told by the UT administration that black jerseys weren't going to fly, and if he tried to go over their heads, he'd be fired.

"Screw it. Let 'em fire me," Kiffin said.

The next thing you know, Berry bursts out from behind a door wearing one of the black jerseys.

"At that point, we knew the game was over. South Carolina didn't have a chance," Crompton said.

It was a reminder that amid all the noise, things were looking up for the Vols. They won four of their last five games to close the regular season and finished 4-1 against SEC East foes, sweeping Georgia and South Carolina. Since Kiffin's departure, the Vols have had a winning record against the SEC East only twice and swept the Bulldogs and Gamecocks once.

"Lane generated a buzz that you really haven't seen at Tennessee since he left," Hardesty said. "You've just had guys shuffling in and out, and you see the results."

'That's when it got ugly'

The Vols were riding high, and Kiffin was starting to get used to the adulation that comes with being a head football coach in the SEC.

"I remember my agent Jimmy Sexton saying the day I was hired, 'Tomorrow morning, you're going to be the second-most famous person in Tennessee besides Dolly Parton,'" Kiffin said.

Kiffin replied, "Well, there is this guy named Peyton Manning, too."

But things were about to change in a hurry. When the Seattle Seahawks' head-coaching spot became open after Jim L. Mora was fired, all signs pointed to Kiffin's mentor, Pete Carroll, leaving USC and returning to the NFL. Hamilton met with Kiffin and asked him if he would be interested in the USC job.

"Sure, I would be, but I'm so far down their list. They're not going to hire me," Kiffin told Hamilton.

A few days later, as Kiffin attended an SEC head coaches meeting in Orlando, the Trojans did call, and he couldn't say no. Word began to leak out that he had accepted USC's offer, and many of the Tennessee players got the news when they saw it on ESPN. It was around that time that players started to get text messages about a hastily called team meeting.

It didn't take Kiffin's SEC coaching counterparts long, either, to figure out what was going on.

"Yeah, I remember we're all sitting in there in that meeting, and he got a call and went outside and came back, and word started to spread that he was headed to Southern Cal," Spurrier said.

Kiffin had wanted to meet with the players and explain everything upon returning to campus, but it quickly escalated to the point that he didn't get to say very much. What really incensed a lot of the players was Orgeron, the defensive line coach who was joining Kiffin at USC, calling some of the midterm enrollees who had yet to start classes and telling them that if they didn't go to class the next day, they could follow Kiffin and the staff to USC.

A few of those players put Orgeron on speakerphone, and Walker said he quickly grabbed the phone.

"That's when it got ugly because I was trying to calm the guys down and telling them to let Lane say what he wanted to say," Walker said. "But when Ja'Wuan [James] put [Orgeron] on the speakerphone, that's when I grabbed it, told O not to call our players anymore and hung up. I love O and loved playing for him, but that should not have happened."

In hindsight, Kiffin agrees.

"It wasn't like we were recruiting kids on Tennessee's roster. They were still recruits because school was starting that week," Kiffin said. "That happens all over the place. But I get the players and the Tennessee fans being mad over that, and I probably would have been, too, at that point. That one's on us."

David Blackburn, who was Tennessee's senior associate athletic director at the time, was the one trying to orchestrate the team meeting because Kiffin was on an airplane returning to Knoxville, and most of the other staff members were out of town. Blackburn said UT officials ended up turning off the coaches' phones after Orgeron's calls to the midterm enrollees, and Orgeron apologized the next day.

"It's one of the damnedest nights I've ever seen," said Blackburn, now a senior associate AD at Middle Tennessee. "We had to get Lane out the back door and down a hallway to that press conference, which was just as crazy."

While everyone was waiting for Kiffin, it was announced the coach would only read a statement and not take questions on camera, which led to a yelling match between some reporters and Tennessee officials.

"The media in Tennessee had been good to me, and I didn't think it was fair to answer a lot of questions about USC when their press conference to introduce me was the next day," Kiffin said. "But the whole thing blew up."

So did the scene on campus, with students and fans burning mattresses and shouting obscenities directed at Kiffin while he barricaded himself in his office at the complex before he could finally be escorted by police to his home in Knoxville sometime around 4 a.m.

Longtime equipment manager Max Parrott, who remains close with Kiffin, walked around with a fire extinguisher, putting out one mattress fire after another. Parrott later decided he was going to leave campus and get a beer to unwind, but a UT police officer tapped on his window as he was driving out of the parking lot.

"He told me, 'I wouldn't leave right now. They'll think you're trying to sneak Lane out of the building and will bust all of your windows out,'" Parrott recounted. "So I went back inside, waited it out and put out a few more mattresses [that were] on fire."

Kiffin, meanwhile, sat up in his office with one eye looking out the window and another eye on the television, where all of the local affiliates were going live.

"It was like watching a movie, and you're in the middle of it," Kiffin said.

'We should have never left'

All these years later, Monte Kiffin has regrets.

"We should have never left, but you can't see into the future, and there's no way you know we were going to be hit with the sanctions we were hit with at USC," Monte said. "I still give Lane a hard time. I'd just bought a beautiful new home there in Gettysvue on the golf course [in Knoxville, Tennessee], and while we were trying to sell it, golfers would come by and throw cigar butts up on my porch.

"Maybe we deserved it."

Kiffin remains thankful for his time in Knoxville and talks about how much he learned in just one year.

"I compare it to childhood actors or actresses or singers. You get so much early, so fast, and a lot of times it doesn't really work out well," said Kiffin, who landed head-coaching jobs with the NFL's Raiders, Tennessee and USC all before he turned 35. "A lot of the stories don't work out well because you get too much too fast. I know that happened to me because you start listening to everybody telling you how great you are and that you're the youngest this or that, especially when you get to a place as special as Tennessee.

"But I'm a lot better -- and not just as a football coach -- for everything that I experienced there."

Things didn't work out for Kiffin at USC, where he went 28-15 despite heavy scholarship reductions by the NCAA before he was fired, infamously, at the airport following a game midway through his fourth season. He was part of one national championship and three College Football Playoff appearances while offensive coordinator at Alabama before he landed the FAU job. There, he went 11-3 his first season -- the most wins for the Owls as an FBS program -- but has struggled to a 6-9 record since.

Through it all, many of those same fans rioting during Kiffin's 2009 departure were clamoring for Tennessee to hire him back during its most recent coaching search. That process featured unparalleled levels of dysfunction, as the Vols attempted to hire Greg Schiano, faced a fan revolt and backtracked, and then were turned down by numerous candidates before settling on Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. In the middle of it all, AD John Currie was fired and replaced with former coach Phillip Fulmer. Yes, the same Hall of Fame coach who was fired at the end of 2008 and replaced with ... Kiffin.

"I always say that it's like that relationship where there's a breakup and then people are mad at each other, and then years later, they start remembering the good things instead of the bad things," Kiffin said. "I have a lot more good things than bad things I remember about my time at Tennessee."

Kiffin is convinced that the Vols would have won championships had he stayed. Walls agrees but was unable to avoid taking a playful shot at his former coach.

"Oh, yeah, we were going to win some championships, no doubt," Walls said. "We might have had to give some of them back, but we were going to win some."

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