Critics' Worst Nightmare: Kiffin Keeps Talking, Vols Start Winning

Ben GarrettCorrespondent INovember 1, 2009

TUSCALOOSA - OCTOBER 17:  Head coach Steve Spurrier of the South Carolina Gamecocks reacts to a call during the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 17, 2009 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The Crimson Tide beat the Gamecocks 20-6.  (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Steve Spurrier is longing for Florida.

Not Gainsville, although you could certainly understand why the Ol' Ball Coach would wish he were back in Gator country after failing to recreate his success at South Carolina.

No, Spurrier is longing for Destin. It was there, at an elevator inside the Sandestin Hilton, that Spurrier supposedly put Tennessee's Lane Kiffin in his place.

As it turned out, that moment outside the elevator at the SEC's spring meetings—where, according to various accounts, Spurrier confronted Kiffin over comments the rookie Vols coach had made—is all Spurrier has. At least for this year.

The old Mouth of the South was supposed to shut up the new Mouth of the South at Neyland Stadium Saturday night. After all, Kiffin had insulted Spurrier's dignity. He supposedly told South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery that Jeffery would wind up pumping gas for a living. And, as everyone knows, Spurrier is at his best when he's offended.

It didn't take Spurrier (who made a career out of getting under the skin of his rivals in the 1990s) long to set his sights on Kiffin when Kiffin arrived in Knoxville last December. Spurrier dipped into his old bag of tricks, accusing Kiffin—albeit in a round-about way—of committing a recruiting violation by calling on prospects before he had passed his NCAA-mandated compliance test. It was vintage Spurrier, who in 1994 said Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer was making excuses for not winning and nicknamed Georgia's Ray Goff, Ray "Goof."

But in Kiffin, Spurrier found a coach who refused to sit idly by as he had his fun. Kiffin fired back that he had scored a 39 out of 40 on his test, and asked to see Spurrier's score. He later said that Spurrier hadn't apologized for accusing him of a recruiting violation. That drew the ire of Spurrier, and led to the confrontation at the elevator bank in Destin. And what we learned was that the Ol' Ball Coach is pretty good at dishing it out, but not so good at taking it.

Virtual high-fives were exchanged on Internet chat forums in Gainsville and Tuscaloosa after the wily veteran showed up the boy wonder in Destin. And rival fans were still living vicariously through Spurrier when the Gamecocks rolled into Knoxville for Saturday's Halloween clash with Kiffin's Vols.

After all, Spurrier was the last opportunity for the SEC to shut up Kiffin. Other coaches had tried, and failed.

Kiffin accused Florida's Urban Meyer of cheating. Using the best quarterback he'll ever have, Meyer was supposed to humiliate Kiffin in The Swamp. Instead, Florida had to settle for grinding out a 23-13 win that didn't even halfway cover the spread.

Kiffin had supposedly insulted Georgia's Mark Richt by saying that Memphis recruit Marlon Brown's grandmother made him sign with the Dawgs instead of the Vols. Georgia rolled into Knoxville on Oct. 10 and was smacked in the mouth, 45-19, as Kiffin picked up his first conference win.

But surely Alabama could do it. Playing at home as the nation's No. 1 team, the Tide had also been on the receiving end of some of Kiffin's smack talk, after the Tennessee coach crowed in February that he had stolen Saban's best recruiter, Lance Thompson. As it turned out, the Tide needed two blocked field goals to escape with a 12-10 victory over Tennessee.

So, it was all on Spurrier. The hopes of Gators, Dawgs and elephants and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive (sorry, Mike; don't fine me!) were heaped on the shoulders of Spurrier as the cocky old coach led his Gamecocks into Knoxville. Final score: Tennessee 31, South Carolina 13. For Spurrier, who—without calling him by name—said Kiffin was "stupid" for holding physical pre-season practices, it was his most lopsided loss to a Tennessee team since 1990, his own rookie year in the SEC.

All of this from a first-year coach who may have the least-talented team he will ever have at Tennessee.

Therein lies the source of rival fans' hatred of Kiffin. It isn't so much his mouth--though Kiffin does tend to be loose-lipped and, frankly, should learn when to talk it and when to zip it. It's the direction in which the program in Knoxville is headed.

Critics scoffed at Kiffin's losing record in the NFL. They proclaimed that he would fall on his face at a big-time college program. And when Tennessee was shocked by UCLA  19-15, at Neyland Stadium in early September, they sat back with satisfied smiles and said, "Yep. Told you so."

Less than two months later, rival fans who haven't stopped laughing or scoffing aren't paying attention to what's going on in Knoxville, or they're ignoring the obvious. When Kiffin joked to reporters in December 2008 that he looked forward to "singing Rocky Top all night long" after beating Florida this year, it sounded ridiculous. When he told ESPN's Erin Andrews Saturday night that Tennessee is "building a championship program," it didn't sound ridiculous at all.

And that scares rival SEC fans. The evidence isn't hard to find. Listen to what they say. Read what they write. And understand: They have seen the writing on the wall, and they don't like what it says. The SEC had become all about Florida and Alabama over the past two years. Tennessee is about to be factored into that equation in a big way.

While some are being distracted by Kiffin's talk—going so far as to proclaim that the SEC's tougher penalties for coaches who criticize officials was all about Kiffin, despite the fact that Kiffin was but one of four coaches in the league to lash out at officials over the last three weeks—Kiffin is quietly going about the task of doing exactly what he said he was doing on ESPN Saturday night.

There was a Top 10 recruiting class in 2009. A heavy dose of discipline within the program, with players' grades going up and zero off-the-field incidents since Kiffin arrived on campus. Tennessee's defense has given up just one offensive touchdown in its last three SEC games. The stage appears to be set for the Vols to run the table and finish with an 8-4 record in Kiffin's first year. And the 2010 recruiting class may wind up in the Top 5 nationally by the time the ink has dried on the letters of intent come February.

The foundation has been laid, and no amount of rival fans' squawking and calls for Kiffin to be suspended can undo it.