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December 8, 2009
During the season, Kiffin, 34, continued to trade verbal jabs with coaches and was critical of SEC officials. In the end, he backed up his bravado with a strong debut season.
Tennessee got off to a 2-3 start, but the Vols won five of their last seven games to finish 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the SEC. Tennessee came within an eyelash of toppling Alabama, losing 12-10 after Tide nose tackle Terrence Cody blocked two fourth-quarter field-goal attempts, including a 44-yarder on the final play of the game.
Kiffin arrived in Knoxville after a short, drama-filled stint as coach of the Oakland Raiders. His dad, former NFL defensive guru Monte Kiffin, joined a star-studded Tennessee staff that includes Ed Orgeron, Lance Thompson and Jim Chaney.
Rivals.com talked with Kiffin as he gears up for Tennessee's trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl as well as recruiting.
Did Tennessee exceed expectations this season?
We never talk about wins and losses because there are too many variables involved in that. We had season-ending injuries and 14 players who either left or were removed from our program. We didn't put expectations as far as wins and losses go on the season. We just wanted to play really well and wanted to improve and wanted to play physical and smart football. I think we ended up with the least penalties in the SEC, and we were able to run the ball and play physical. I am proud of our players for that. And we played a lot better at the end of the year than we did in the beginning.
What was the high point this year?
I think when we drove down on the last drive and put ourselves in position to make a field goal to beat the No. 1 team in the country in our first year. If you told me we would go to Alabama our first year and they would be No. 1 and they would not score a touchdown in any phase of the game, we would score a touchdown and we both would line up and attempt four field goals in a game, I would have felt pretty good about our chances.
What was the low point this year?
The next kick.
How did Jonathan Crompton become such a good quarterback?
He played great. I think he could have played this way all year long. But our three top receivers in training camp and at the end of the year were all out for an extended amount of time, and he was forced to have a bunch of different guys in there so we really couldn't get him in a rhythm where he was used to playing those guys. After about the fourth or fifth game, those guys were healthy. And over the last half of the season, he played as well as anyone in the conference. That was the biggest thing, them being healthy. I thought he played great in the spring when they were healthy and then they got banged up in camp and missed a bunch of time. I think that was a big deal.
Was there anything done mechanically to help him?
Not really. We just coached him from a mental standpoint. We tried to do the things around him that he does best. I just wish we had him for another year.
How long before you win the SEC?
I don't know. There are too many variables. We have to go out and sign another great class after the one we signed last year. We need to put a couple of classes like that together so you can deal with injuries. It is hard to deal with injuries in the middle and end of the season when you don't have much depth, when you haven't had a chance to put together three or four classes like Florida and Alabama. It is a lot easier for them to deal with adversity as far as injuries or suspensions because of the depth they have built.
How many scholarships short of 85 were you this year?
Someone told me at one point, with the season-ending injuries and people who had left and we had put some walk-ons on scholarship to fill up some spots ... someone told me at one point that we were 23 short.
What are the needs in recruiting?
Quarterback, obviously losing one that played extremely well. There are only two quarterbacks on our roster, period, one of whom has played a little bit and one has never played. Really, everywhere. Offensive line, we lose five seniors. And we have to get fast. We need speed. We need game-changers. We did not hit many home runs this year in the return game or on offense. ... We have to get faster.
What was it like having your dad on staff?
It has been an exciting year to have him here and to see our coaches develop under him and how much our players do. We lost three linebackers to season-ending injuries, so we had to keep plugging in new guys, some guys who never played before, had never played the position. We were playing some walk-ons. To see them improve under him. ... And the defensive highlight of going to Alabama and not letting them score a touchdown the whole day. We played Georgia, a team that had put up some big numbers vs. Tennessee the last few years, and Georgia did not get past our 34-yard line all game. It was really exciting to see those guys develop under him.
Compare the SEC to Pac-10.
I think the SEC is deeper. The bottom of the conference, especially now. ... People have brought it up, and people who know about the history of the conference more than me, but just studying it and looking at it, the SEC is as deep as it ever has been. There are some teams that used to kind of be blowout games for the upper-echelon teams, and that's not the case any more.
What was the best team you played this season?
The best team on that day was Ole Miss. They were cranked up that day. [Dexter] McCluster had been rested. They had not played him the week before. And their defense was healthy and cranked up, flying around, and they were at home. They played the best of anyone we played that day.
Now, taking the whole season into account, studying games and watching teams, I think Alabama is the best team because of their discipline. They are coached so well schematically. Florida has some gaudy numbers, but they also have 'Superman' back there. I think Alabama schematically is the best-coached team we played.
When you took the job last year, you stirred the pot and rattled some cages with the things you said. Do you regret any of that?
I think your plan always has to have timing, when you do things and how it changes. There are things I did that I necessarily didn't want to do that needed to be done to get us on the national map, to get us attention, to get kids putting Tennessee in their top five again. You look around the country at a lot of great players -- their top four or five schools are USC, Florida, Texas, and all of a sudden you see Tennessee in there. Those schools have been going to national championships the last few years and having 12- and 13-win seasons. We have put ourselves back up in that category as far as with recruits, so that stuff needed to be done. Once you get there, now you can focus more on the football and you don't have to necessarily say as many things because you can show the facts because we have played games and we can show improvement of our players and we can show all the numbers of what our guys were able to do in one year in our system and how much we have helped their draft status.
Is it safe to say that you have a rivalry with Urban Meyer and Florida?
I hope someday that people are coming after us and trying to catch us. They have had a great run, and maybe the greatest player of all time taking the snaps for them. They have a ton of great players and a ton of speed and are the most talented team in the country. We have a long ways to go to catch them.
Do you and Meyer have any relationship at all?
Do you still follow the NFL?
The NFL is great. I read the paper and catch the highlights on Sunday night. There are so many great players, and the speed of the game, the Xs and Os at such a high level. There are a lot of great things about it. I do love college. We need to go out and build our team and get stronger and stronger. In the NFL, the more you win, the lower you draft. In college, I do like that you can keep building and not be penalized for success.
What is wrong with USC?
I think people forget that almost every program, when they have made a run like SC has made, there comes a point where things don't go your way. You lose, I believe, 22 players to the draft over two years. There are some schools that haven't had 22 players drafted in their history. That's a lot of great players and a lot of production. Everybody loves Matt [Barkley,] but you have to remember that he is a true freshman. They will be back.
What was your first reaction to the arrests of three Tennessee players in November?
I was disappointed. We had made such a great run for so long with our players doing things right. When you have 120 players, eventually some things are going to happen. I was very disappointed, especially kids who were so young, being true freshmen. It was a very difficult situation and one that was very saddening.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.