Only a few weeks after accepting the job, Kiffin was already crowing about the coaches he'd stolen from rival schools in the Southeastern Conference. He called it addition by subtraction. "I could've gone to places like Oregon and Michigan and found great coaches to hire, but that's only addition to us," he explains. "By finding them at SEC schools and taking them away, that's addition by subtraction."
"I have to play Alabama every year," Kiffin says. "I basically stole their best guy. I have to play South Carolina. I took their best guy. I took Mississippi State's. Ed Orgeron was going to be LSU's recruiting coordinator. I went and got him. I also got Eddie Gran—he's the coach who recruited players like Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown for Auburn. I like to joke that we'd have the best recruiting class in the country right now if I'd spent as much time recruiting players as I've spent recruiting coaches."
Even so, Tennessee did well on signing day, getting one Rivals.com five-star recruit and eight four-stars in a class of 19. "I think Lane and his staff did a good job, especially considering they didn't have a lot of time to secure those kids who committed when Fulmer was still there and might've been inclined to go elsewhere," says Mike Farrell, the leading football recruiting analyst at Rivals, which ranked Tennessee's class 17th in the country and seventh best in the SEC. The team stole a couple of players away from Florida: wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson of Pahokee, Fla., and athlete Marsalis Teague of Paris, Tenn. But the biggest score might've been the five-star recruit the Volunteers signed. Defensive back Janzen Jackson of Lake Charles, La., declared for Tennessee the day after he postponed a scheduled news conference to announce his decision to join coach Les Miles at LSU.
Such defections are demoralizing to the schools that lose players and galvanizing to those that get them. On signing day Kiffin bragged about his first recruiting class, at a breakfast celebration in Knoxville that was attended by more than 1,000 fans. He might've been ignored by the rest of the conference had he made his remarks about the players only. But he also accused Florida coach Urban Meyer of violating NCAA recruiting rules by calling Richardson while the player was on his official visit to the Tennessee campus. "I love the fact that Urban had to cheat and still didn't get him," Kiffin told the raucous crowd.
Kiffin issued an apology the next day, after Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley accused him of slander and pointed out that there was no NCAA rule like the one Kiffin described. (The SEC reprimanded the coach.) What Foley didn't say was that Kiffin needed to memorize the SEC's invisible handbook on manners, which promotes Southern football virtues such as false humility and self-deprecation and provides this instruction: A coach in our conference should never run his mouth unless he expects to have it bloodied.
TWO WEEKS before, it was Alabama that wanted a piece of Kiffin. Once again he'd been bragging about stealing people, in this case Crimson Tide super-recruiter Lance Thompson. Kiffin referred to Thompson as "Saban's righthand guy going back to when he was at LSU," a dig that seemed to bother everyone in Alabama until news broke that Stacy Lynn Thompson had filed for divorce from Lance Thompson on Jan. 8, the week before he bolted for Knoxville. Would a noisy, ill-mannered upstart like Lane Kiffin have been able to steal Thompson away if not for his marital woes? Judging from comments left on website message boards dedicated to Alabama football, not a soul in the state thought so—even though Tennessee would be paying Thompson $350,000 a year, $125,000 more than Alabama had paid him.
"Lane has that USC arrogance," says Rivals' Farrell. "He's already gone after two coaches, Urban Meyer and Nick Saban. But this is something I like about him. Lane Kiffin is not afraid to ruffle feathers, and he really has put an impressive staff together. Give them some time and they'll get it done."
Houston Nutt, the Ole Miss coach, thinks Kiffin is on the right track. "You just can't go wrong by bringing in quality coaches who can recruit," he says. "And this is something Lane's probably figured out by now: When you're the coach at Tennessee, you won't find 25 players a year in your home state. You'll need to go outside the area to find them. There's never any slowing down for a coach in the SEC. You can never let up."
Kiffin is making $2 million a year, a salary that ranks him seventh or eighth among the 12 SEC head coaches, says Mike Hamilton, Tennessee's men's athletic director. Kiffin might've negotiated a wage closer to the $4 million that Nick Saban earns at Alabama or the $3.65 million that Meyer made last year at Florida, but he agreed to accept less if the university budgeted more to pay for his assistants. In fact Tennessee doled out $3.325 million for the assistants and issued a press release noting each coach's salary. "You can't win without the staff," Kiffin says, "and for the staff you've got to have money.
"When I was interviewing, Alabama was 10--0 or something like that, and they had gone above and beyond what anybody had ever done in terms of paying staff. You think [ Alabama athletic director] Mal Moore ever worries about what he's paying Nick Saban and his staff? You don't win championships by having the cheapest budget." (Last year Alabama reportedly paid Saban's assistants a total of $2.4 million.)