Monte Kiffin says little about Tennessee Vols rumors
On the most miserable afternoon you could imagine, the old man looked perfectly at home. Underneath his feet, the turf had turned into swampland. Over his head, the dark clouds never seemed to empty. The hard rain streamed from the top of his head, and the stiff wind blew into his face, and for once, that familiar, high-pitched voice of his seemed tested by the elements.
Yet, as Monte Kiffin hobbled down the same sideline he has traveled for roughly a dozen seasons, he seemed delighted by his surroundings. This is Kif, after all. Where else would he rather be but on the sideline watching his Bucs defensive players fly around? Where else? And when?
Today, these are the burning questions. No one is asking about Sunday's game, when Kiffin's defense finally slowed the high-powered New Orleans offense. No one wants to know about the interceptions that stopped the marvelous Drew Brees in the late going. The questions about the Monday Night Football showdown (Dec. 8) against Carolina can wait.
Suddenly, everyone wants to know if Kiffin knows all the words to Rocky Top. That, and whether the Monte Kiffin dynasty is coming to an end soon.
As for Kiffin, he isn't saying. An hour after Sunday's game, he stood in a corner of the Bucs locker room and stepped around every question that dealt with the reports that he would join son Lane, the new coach at the University of Tennessee, as defensive coordinator.
"It's all just speculation," Kiffin said. "That's all it is. I can honestly tell you that. It's just like what came up with the Raiders two years ago and again last year."
Of course, referring to a news report as "speculation" doesn't mean it isn't true. And when it was pointed out to Kiffin that he could end the speculation rather easily by saying he wasn't interested, he declined. "It isn't fair to the players," Kiffin said. "Tonight isn't about Monte Kiffin. It's about the Bucs."
In another town, with another defense, perhaps that would be true. Here, it isn't. Here, Kiffin has been successful enough to become a celebrity. Yes, there is a reason people are interested. Besides, and Kiffin has to know this, news like this does not keep. Soon enough, we will know. Once Tennessee starts recruiting, the linebackers are going to ask who the defensive coordinator is going to be. And it will be out, whether it is fair to Bucs players or not.
Gut feeling? At the very least, Monte wants to see how this plays out. This is a different situation than last year's speculation about the Raiders, which grew largely because Kiffin's contract was expiring. This year, Kiffin has two years left on his deal with the Bucs.
In other words, something else is tugging at Kiffin. Perhaps, at age 68, he is intrigued by the prospect of coaching with his son. Who could blame him? Perhaps he isn't too old to want something new. Still, can you imagine someone trying to fill those shoes with the Bucs?
For so long now, this has been Kiffin's place. He has been here longer than tourists, longer than fish, longer than heat. He has been here so long his whistle has tenure and his office has a homestead exemption. He is the most trusted coach in the history of Tampa Bay, and if he hangs around a few more years, they will name schools after him. How does Tampa Two Elementary sound? "No matter what he decides to do," cornerback Ronde Barber said, "he's the guy who built this defense into one of the greatest in the history of football."
And if Kiffin leaves? "It's like thinking of John Lynch in a Denver Broncos jersey," safety Jermaine Phillips said. "You see Tampa and you see Monte. You see Tampa and you see John Lynch."
No matter when Kiffin leaves, that is his legacy. He has been an impact player. He has not slumped; he has not surrendered. Who has given more solid performances than Kiffin? "He's the best defensive coordinator I've ever been around," nose tackle Chris Hovan said. "It's 90-95 percent Monte. He's the architect. He puts his players in the best position to make plays. That's how you tell a great coach from an average one."
More than anything else, Sunday's game was another bit of evidence to Kiffin's importance. Throughout the game, his defense constantly tinkered, constantly adjusted. In the end, it managed to win the crucial plays. In the chess game that is game-day coaching, Kiffin was Bobby Fischer one more time. Alas, who knows how many times are left?
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1 December 2008