Star-laden staff in place, but plenty of work in store to turn around Vols
Lane Kiffin hired several prominent assistant coaches when he came to Tennessee
Playing in the loaded SEC, the Vols face an incredibly challenging rebuilding chore
Questions remain on offense, but a top defense and recruiting class bode well
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Watching a Tennessee Volunteers practice this preseason is like being at a coach's convention. Everywhere you look, there's someone else you recognize.
As the defense recovers a fumble during a goal-line drill, a slightly hunched 69-year-old in a black T-shirt and orange cap rushes over to a group of celebrating players and excitedly delivers a first-down signal. That man is Monte Kiffin, the NFL's most renowned defensive coordinator during his decade-plus tenure with the Tampa Bay Bucs.
As the two sides come to the line for another snap, a loud, bellowing voice rises above all others to pump up the defensive linemen. It's the unmistakable roar of Ed Orgeron, the former Ole Miss head coach, USC recruiting coordinator and central character from the 2007 book Meat Market.
All the while, a thin man in spectacles keeps the offense moving, shuffling different running backs on and off the field. As a longtime running backs coach under Tommy Tuberville, Eddie Gran's backfield stable included Deuce McAllister, Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown.
But when practice comes to a close, these three decorated assistants -- who between them make more than $2 million -- stand amid a circle of 100-plus bodies and listen to closing remarks from their 34-year-old boss: Lane Kiffin.
"My relationship with Lane is special," said Orgeron, a native Louisianan who turned down an offer from his dream school, LSU, to join his former USC colleague in Knoxville. "I believe in him. He's a genius on offense, a great recruiter and a championship coach."
Across the Internet, and in locker rooms across the SEC, Lane Kiffin carries a less flattering reputation. A Florida offensive lineman recently called Kiffin a "bozo," and anonymous Web trollers regularly call him far worse than that. Having yet to coach his first game for the Vols, much of the public knows Kiffin primarily for his ugly parting just four games into his second season as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, the series of controversial jabs he threw at several SEC rivals last recruiting season and his penchant for committing NCAA secondary violations.
"Maybe there were times he's come off to the public as a little bit arrogant, but believe me, he's not that type of person," said Monte Kiffin, who returned to the college ranks for the first time in 27 years to work for his son. "He's got a lot of confidence in what he's doing, but I know the kid better than anyone else and he has tremendous respect for the coaching profession.
"I promise you, if I thought my kid was a jerk, I wouldn't have come here."
He's not alone. A whole bunch of highly respected coaches thought highly enough of the younger Kiffin to join him in what figures to be an incredibly challenging rebuilding chore.
Tennessee, once a fixture on the national scene, has gone 11 years since its last SEC championship and suffered losing seasons twice in the past four years. The Vols' talent level has fallen far behind that of conference rivals Florida, Georgia and Alabama. At the height of Fulmer's tenure, in the spring of 2002, the program produced 10 NFL draft picks, including first-rounders Albert Haynesworth, Donte Stallworth and John Henderson. Last spring, Tennessee had just one player selected the entire draft, linebacker Robert Ayers.
In tapping the as-yet unproven Kiffin as Phillip Fulmer's successor, Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton trumpeted a "new model" for coaching hires. Rather than spending $4 million a year on a big-name head coach (the type of dollars Pete Carroll, Charlie Weis, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer now command), Hamilton gave Kiffin a $2 million salary -- and another $3.3 million to lure his dream staff. Tennessee didn't hire a coach -- it hired a package of coaches.
In addition to Monte Kiffin, Orgeron and Gran, Tennessee's staff includes linebackers coach Lance Thompson, formerly Saban's ace recruiter at Alabama; Jim Chaney, longtime offensive coordinator to former Purdue coach Joe Tiller (he spent the past four seasons with the St. Louis Rams); and quarterbacks coach David Reaves, formerly Steve Spurrier's recruiting coordinator at South Carolina.
"You have a lot of guys on this staff who left really good jobs," said Lane Kiffin. "They're not here to collect checks. They're here to do something special and prove their decisions right."
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