Lane Kiffin vs. Urban Meyer: SEC's Premier Coaching Rivalry

Ben Garrett@benwgarrettCorrespondent INovember 18, 2009

GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Lane Kiffin of the Tennessee Volunteers watches the action during the game against the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 19, 2009 in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Woody Hayes vs. Bo Schembechler. Bear Bryant vs. Robert Neyland. Steve Spurrier vs. Bobby Bowden. Lane Kiffin vs. Urban Meyer?

It's too soon to include the Kiffin-Meyer feud with those classic coaching rivalries of bygone eras—unless vehemence determines a rivalry's worth—but the budding rivalry between the freshman coach at Tennessee and Florida's two-time national champ is one of the best things going for the Southeastern Conference.

Modern football has bequeathed us a few coaching rivalries that are classics in the making: Texas's Mack Brown vs. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops; Southern Cal's Pete Carroll vs. UCLA's Rick Neuheisel.

But in a conference where half the coaches have been on their current job less than three years (Alabama's Nick Saban is in his third season, Arkansas's Bobby Petrino and Ole Miss's Houston Nutt are in their second season, while Kiffin, Auburn's Gene Chizik and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen are in their first season), coaching rivalries haven't had time to bud.

Saban vs. Les Miles (LSU) has promise in the SEC West. Mullen vs. Nutt is certain to gain traction if both coaches stay with their current gigs long enough.

But Meyer and Kiffin? That's as close to a sure bet as you can get.

Less than one year after Kiffin accepted an offer to succeed Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee, things have gotten so tense between he and Meyer that SEC Commissioner Mike Slive has already stepped in to tell both coaches to cool their heels. Twice.

With two conference and national titles under his belt, Meyer has proven himself at Florida. With a bucket-load of confidence and a loud mouth, Kiffin has proven that he's ready to tackle the task of unseating the SEC's most dominant team since the conference expansion in 1992.

"I'm looking forward to singing Rocky Top all night after we beat Florida next year."

That's what Kiffin said at his introductory press conference as he was introduced as Tennessee's head coach on Dec. 1, 2008.

"I love the fact that Urban had to cheat and still didn't get him."

That's what Kiffin said the morning after National Signing Day, when he lured disgraced recruit Nu'Keese Richardson away from Meyer and the Gators.

There's a method behind Kiffin's madness. In 13 of the 18 seasons since the SEC split into two divisions and began playing a season-ending championship game, the winner of the Tennessee-Florida game on the third Saturday of September has represented the East in Atlanta on the first Saturday of December.

Florida also represents the South's most fertile hotbed of prep football talent. Recruiting, as well as conference championships, go through Gainesville. One of Kiffin's highly-publicized strategies/stunts (depending on whether you're a fan of Tennessee or Florida) since arriving at UT was to purchase a strategically-placed billboard in south Florida.

Gator fans will argue that Kiffin is merely an annoyance; that Florida is more worried about Mark Richt's Georgia Bulldogs and Bowden's Seminoles until Kiffin proves he's ready for serious competition on college football's biggest stage.

It's true that a few sound bytes for the sports segment of the six o'clock newscast and a couple of public battles for coveted recruits does not a rivalry make.

But a cursory glance at Gator-themed Internet message boards finds Kiffin and the Vols dominating the discussion. "CLK's in their heads," Tennessee fans laugh. On the flip-side, Meyer and the Gators command a great deal of attention wherever Vols fans hang out in cyberspace. "They're obsessed with our success," Florida fans say.

Tennessee fans refer to Meyer as "Urban Creyer." Florida fans dub Kiffin "Lame Kittin." It's safe to say that there's no love lost for Meyer in Knoxville, or vice-versa.

And while Kiffin did most of his pre-season jabbing at Florida in the printed pages, Meyer made Tennessee a top priority in a more subtle but no less assertive way: Tennessee orange adorned the Gators' locker room at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium almost as much as Florida orange. Kiffin quotes were enshrined in the facility, along with a countdown to the Sept. 19 meeting between the two teams at Florida Field.

"I think it's a neat thing that Tennessee's logo is all over Florida's locker room," Kiffin said, not about to let an opportunity pass to needle Meyer.

Those verbal jabs at Florida haven't slowed down since Kiffin arrived at Knoxville's McGhee-Tyson Airport last December. Not even a public reprimand from the SEC after falsely accusing Meyer of a recruiting violation at that Feb. 5 recruiting breakfast could muzzle Kiffin.

"I would think in their locker room there are some frustrated guys," Kiffin said in a reference to Florida failing to meet expectations when the highly anticipated Sept. 19 drubbing turned out to be a 23-13 struggle.

But Florida still won the game—making Meyer 1-0 against Kiffin—and Gator fans haven't let him forget it, referring to "moral victories" as Tennessee's losses have mounted during the 2009 season.

Nevertheless, Kiffin hasn't stopped talking, much to the chagrin of Florida fans. After Meyer suspended linebacker Brandon Spikes for one half of a game after Spikes' eye-gouging incident against Georgia—a suspension that was heavily criticized, Kiffin weighed in.

"Obviously, he'll discipline his team...or not," Kiffin said when asked about the suspension.

While Meyer's response to all of Kiffin's chit-chat has been mostly even keel, the Tennessee coach isn't the only one talking.

After the Gators' win over the Vols, Meyer accused Kiffin of playing to avoid a lopsided loss rather than playing to win.

"When I saw them start handing the ball off, I didn't feel like they were going after the win," Meyer said, referring to Tennessee's play-calling in the fourth quarter. He added that his team had been slowed by the flu.

"I guess we'll wait and after we're not excited about a performance, we'll tell you everybody was sick," Kiffin fired back.

Tennessee wasn't exactly flying below Meyer's radar before Kiffin arrived on the scene. It was well known that there was no love lost between Meyer and Fulmer. In a 59-20 win over the Vols in 2007, Meyer tacked on a couple of late scores to rub it in.

But there's no doubt that the arrival of Kiffin (and his propensity for talking smack) in Knoxville has added a special flavor to the rivalry. And while Kiffin's approach to returning the UT-UF series to its 1990s status—shooting off his mouth before proving it on the field—might not be the most common approach, it's certainly not unprecedented.

It's a path similar to that taken by none other than Florida coach Steve Spurrier when he was helping move the series into the limelight. Spurrier, like Kiffin, chose to approach rival coaches by making every effort to get under their skin. When Tennessee started 1-3 in 1994, Spurrier accused Fulmer of making excuses because he couldn't win games. (He also nicknamed Georgia coach Ray Goff "Ray Goof.")

So far, each coach seems to be enjoying himself.

Kiffin actually cost Meyer $30,000 in a round-about way: After the SEC announced harsher penalties for criticizing officials in the wake of Kiffin's accusations that Slive's reprimands were meaningless and that Florida was getting preferential treatment, the first coach to slip up was none other than Meyer himself.

And Meyer, well, he's undefeated against Kiffin and the Vols.

Kiffin may have won the first battle, albeit a small one and by an indecisive margin, when his 2009 recruiting class finished ahead of Meyer's '09 class, according to recruiting experts. Meyer won round two, with his head-to-head victory to clear the path for a second consecutive trip to the SEC title game. Early indications are that Kiffin may claim yet another recruiting victory on National Signing Day 2010.

As for Round Four, when the Vols and Gators meet at Neyland Stadium next September? Yet to be determined.

But this much is clear: the two coaches' highly publicized showdown at The Swamp this season was no flash in the pan. With Kiffin and Meyer set to do battle on the gridiron each September and on the recruiting trail each February, this is likely to be the hottest topic in the SEC, if not in all of college football, as long as these two are coaching at their respective schools.

Respect, like Woody had for Bo and The General (Neyland) had for The Bear, makes for a good rivalry. But a healthy dose of disdain and loathing makes for a memorable rivalry, too. And these coaches and their respective fan bases certainly have enough of those key ingredients to make this rivalry just that: Memorable.


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