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Rocking Old Rocky Top
February 16, 2009
Brazen coach Lane Kiffin is winning few friends in his new job at Tennessee—raiding SEC foes for assistants, running off staffers and accusing a major rival of a recruiting violation
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February 16, 2009

Rocking Old Rocky Top

Brazen coach Lane Kiffin is winning few friends in his new job at Tennessee—raiding SEC foes for assistants, running off staffers and accusing a major rival of a recruiting violation

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WHEN LANE KIFFIN first met Layla Reaves, he didn't court her so much as recruit her. They were both 24. Layla was working as the special events coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lane, an offensive line assistant at Colorado State, had come to Florida to see his father, Monte, the Bucs' defensive coordinator. � One day Monte showed up at the building where Layla worked. He had Lane with him. "I had to be nice to him," Layla recalls. "I mean, he was Monte Kiffin's son. I thought he was a nice guy, but I might've had a different impression had I known he'd been scouting me for a while."

As it happened, Layla was the daughter of John Reaves, a former All-America quarterback at Florida who'd played in the NFL and the USFL. Lane liked her football pedigree, but she was also good to look at. Layla's parents had named her after the girl in the Derek and the Dominos song.

"You never want your dad to introduce you to a girl," Lane says, "but I have to give it to Monte. He's a pretty good talent evaluator."

Three months after the introduction, Lane's recruiting blitz complete, he and Layla were engaged. Married since July 2000, the Kiffins have three children, the youngest a son born in January, some six weeks after Lane was named head coach at Tennessee.

"When Lane sets his mind on something, he gets it," Layla says. "He can coerce you into anything. And he can charm anybody. This man ... trust me when I tell you this, he can get you to jump off a cliff."

KIFFIN, OF COURSE, was the coach of the Oakland Raiders until the team's owner, Al Davis, fired him in September just four games into his second season. Coaches are inured to such treatment, but Davis added to the insult by refusing to pay out Kiffin's $6 million contract "for cause," claiming that Kiffin had violated the terms of his contract. Davis further assailed Kiffin in a press conference that remains as memorable for the old man's appearance as for the lengths to which he went to discredit the coach. Except for his voice, which projected strength and conviction, Davis was a frail, tissue-thin approximation of his former self, wrapped this day in a black-and-silver coat that sagged from his shoulders like a pup tent on a pole.

Accused of insubordination and labeled a "flat-out liar," Kiffin absorbed Davis's remarks with bemusement, later saying he "felt bad" for Davis and was "embarrassed to be associated" with such a spectacle. Whether the spectacle was the press conference or Davis himself, Kiffin never made clear.

Kiffin, now 33, has never suffered from a lack of confidence, and he'd managed to put his Raiders experience in perspective even before Davis had completed his harangue. Before his time in Oakland, where he produced a 5--15 record, Kiffin had coordinated Pete Carroll's offense and recruiting program at USC, and he'd always planned to return to college football. Even as a high school quarterback in Bloomington, Minn., where he called his own plays, and later as a seldom-used backup at Fresno State, where he surrendered his last year of eligibility to help coach the offense, Kiffin had dreamed of leading a big-time college program. Davis might or might not have succeeded in raising questions about Kiffin's character, but hiring him in the first place allowed him to include head coaching experience on his r�sum�, a prerequisite at some schools.

"Lane took that job because, as he told me, it's hard to get a good college job unless you've been a head coach somewhere," says Monte. "He'd been spoiled at Southern Cal, and the only job he wanted was a head job at a big school. He didn't have any interest in working his way up at small schools."

Kiffin interviewed with Clemson, Syracuse and Washington before landing at Tennessee after Phillip Fulmer was forced into retirement. Kiffin had been the youngest coach in the NFL when Davis hired him at age 31. Now he holds the same distinction among college coaches at major programs.

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