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Rocking Old Rocky Top
JOHN ED BRADLEY
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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Given these hard economic times, Kiffin's attitude might seem callous if the university's expectations weren't so clear. Like other big-time football schools Tennessee funnels money from its athletic department to its academic side, which adds to the pressure on the football program to win. Under Fulmer last year home attendance slipped as the Volunteers endured a 5--7 season. For the first time the school charged students for tickets to home games in 102,037-seat Neyland Stadium, and while around 10,000 of them were sold, "the number still fell slightly short of our allocation," says Chris Fuller, Tennessee's associate athletic director for sales and marketing.

THE UNIVERSITY introduced Kiffin as its new coach on Dec. 1, but he'd begun to court assistants even before the announcement, and he did so with the same determination he once showed in courting his wife. The first coach he went after was his 68-year-old father, widely considered the best defensive coordinator in the NFL. Monte was making $2.1 million a year in Tampa. Tennessee got him for $1.2 million this year and a $300,000 retention bonus to be paid on Dec. 31. The $1.5 million total makes him the highest-paid assistant in college football, and he earns more than at least one head coach in the conference, Mississippi State's Dan Mullen. Hamilton, the Tennessee athletic director, considers Monte's deal a bargain. "We essentially have two guys [Lane and Monte] in the $3 million to $4 million range, which is what other schools are paying for one coach," he says.

Monte had spurned opportunities to interview for NFL head-coaching positions over the years, and today he's as well-known for the coaches he has mentored ( Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Raheem Morris) as for the All-Pro players he worked with ( Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Warren Sapp). "I didn't want to get paid too much," he says. "I just want to be a ball coach with my kid. I would've come even if the money hadn't been there."

Orgeron, who had worked with Lane at USC, was a more difficult hire. Although Ole Miss fired him after the 2007 season, his reputation got a boost last year when players he'd recruited handed national champion Florida its only loss and dominated Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Orgeron, 47, was working as a defensive line coach for the New Orleans Saints when Kiffin approached him. Orgeron turned him down, so Kiffin started recruiting the coach's wife, Kelly, and three kids: 10-year-old twin boys and a 16-year-old stepson. He sent the boys text messages. Then he sent them Tennessee caps. "It's the same thing I always do in recruiting: identify the champion," says Orgeron. "Who's going to help the young man make the decision? Find out and recruit that person. Lane was doing this to me."

Kiffin might've had an easier run at Orgeron had not Miles, the LSU coach, also wanted him. Orgeron grew up in a small town in Louisiana's Cajun country and often fantasized about coaching at LSU. The school's offer, which would balloon to $900,000, showed how much Miles coveted his talents as a recruiter.

To help make up his mind, Orgeron retreated with his family to a beach house in Destin, Fla. They weren't there long when Kelly said, "Lane called, and he wants the address here."

"He's coming," Orgeron told her. "I'm telling you, I know him. He's coming."

"Nah," she said. "I think he wants to send us something."

"I walk outside, and there are Lane and Monte," says Orgeron. "They've flown down, and they're dressed from head to toe in orange."

Lane could pay Orgeron only $650,000 a year, but by now the money was secondary. Orgeron wanted to study under Monte, and he wanted Lane to stop pestering him. Says Orgeron, "I told him, 'O.K., I'm going. You don't have to recruit me anymore. I'm tired of this. You hear me? You can stop now.'"

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