HOOVER, Ala. – Lane Kiffin is still a number of weeks away from his first football game, which is why he has spent the last several months playing mind games.
Outlandish comments, breaks from coaching protocol and even an early Heisman Trophy campaign on behalf of defensive back Eric Berry all were well-conceived attempts to attract attention by the University of Tennessee’s new coach.
That was his stance Friday in his first appearance at Southeastern Conference football media days, and – he added – mission accomplished.
“Do I love everything that I’ve done?” Kiffin said. “No. But it needed to be done, in my opinion.
“We’re creating interest and it’s shown. … Now we need to go out and win some games.”
Kiffin pointed to a highly regarded initial recruiting effort (top 10 by Rivals.com, top 20 by SI.com), which included the likes of running back Bryce Brown out of Kansas and wide receiver Nu’keese Richardson (initially a Florida commitment) as evidence of success.
He talked about limited recruiting opportunities within the state and a losing record in 2008 as obstacles that needed to be overcome quickly.
Plus, he stressed that the football team made a significant jump in collective GPA in the first semester and has not had a single player arrested since he was hired.
“I think we’re as disciplined a program as there is in the whole country,” he said.
Still, he and members of his staff have stepped outside of the rules. Violations of NCAA codes, six of them (all secondary violations), to be exact, were not a part of his public relations plan, though.
The former assistant at USC at Fresno State spent most of the previous two years in the NFL. Nearly half of his coaching staff also came from the NFL, which, Kiffin said, was a contributing factor to the infractions.
“We probably weren’t as educated on some of the little rules as people at some other schools,” he said. “But I assure you it’s not or plan to continue in that way.
“We’ve had a number of violations, but I don’t think it’s a crazy number compared to other schools, and I don’t think any of them gained us any advantages in recruiting.”
Apparently, none of his actions have cost him any credibility with is new players either. In fact, they have had the exact opposite effect.
“Coach Kiffin has our backs, no matter what,” Berry said. “That’s all we could ask and all we could expect. We were 5-7 last year and we felt like we were in it by ourselves and didn’t have anybody on our side.
“It’s unfortunate that he stepped on a lot of toes, but it did a lot for us.”
Now the goal is to create a buzz with the more traditional contests.
“We couldn't wait till the season to win games,” Kiffin said. “When you win games, that's the easiest way to get recruits. We didn't have time to wait for that. We had to put Tennessee in the national media.”
• Kiffin was enthusiastic about the renewed connection of former UT coach Johnny Majors to the program. He called Majors’ presence at and input following a spring practice “powerful.”
“I tried to get coach Majors back around,” he said. “… He’s a huge part of our tradition. He’s not just a great coach, he was a great player.”
• He said that Volunteers’ fans should not expect to see Berry playing at quarterback this season. It’s not because he does not think the junior defensive back is not talented enough but because Berry is focused on trying to learn a new defensive scheme.
“If you take all that practice time away from Eric, it’s not fair to him,” Kiffin said. “And you’re not developing other guys.”
• Kiffin did not shy away from the expectations at UT or the challenge of trying to regain a competitive advantage in the SEC.
“We know what conference we’re in and what school we’re at, and the people around us expect us to win,” he said. “… I love that our fan base thinks that way.”
• Berry said athletic department officials made him aware of their plans for a Heisman campaign before they launched it.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “It’s pretty cool. I like it.”