ATLANTA—After Tennessee started the season 1-1, including a devastating 19-15 loss in Knoxville to UCLA, Volunteers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin knew he'd have to prepare himself for the resulting sky-is-falling mentality of Southeastern Conference fans.
He's no stranger to that kind of knee-jerk reaction. Neither is Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who successfully navigated with coach Frank Beamer through an ultra-lean first six seasons in Blacksburg when Tech went 24-40-2 from 1987-92, but Kiffin truly has seen it all.
"On defense, you've got to play fast," Kiffin said.
"There comes a time you've got to let the guys go play."
Coming off a 2008 season in which the Volunteers had the nation's third-best total defense (263.5 yards per game), and still finished 5-7 in what ended up being coach Phil Fulmer's final season, Kiffin might've been able to forgive his defensive unit if it didn't have the greatest amount of confidence in the new coaching staff after a shaky start this season. Fortunately, Kiffin wasn't about to panic. He'd been in much worse starting positions.
In '96, he was in his first season as defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, working under first-year head coach Tony Dungy. After Tampa Bay got off to an 0-5 start, Kiffin leaned on veteran defensive players such as Hardy Nickerson and John Lynch, and younger players such as Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp.
The Buccaneers finished 6-10 in '96, and went to the playoffs in '97. Kiffin used the same earnest approach early this season with a Tennessee defense that includes eight junior or senior starters.
"(Tampa Bay's players) said 'We're going to hang with this staff,' and we went to the playoffs the next year," said Kiffin, who went on to be Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator for 13 seasons and who also held the defensive-coordinator roles with the Minnesota Vikings ('91) and New Orleans Saints ('95). "It's your veteran leadership. ... That's what these (Tennessee upperclassmen) did (with the younger players) right here. It's been awesome. The new recruits are going to buy in because of our senior leadership."
Tennessee (7-5), which has won four of its last five games, has bounced back this season with a defense nearly as impressive statistically as last season's unit. The Volunteers are 10th in the nation in passing defense (166 yards per game), have given up the fewest number of touchdown passes (five) in the country and are 18th in total defense (309 yards per game).
"I know when we found out he was getting the (defensive-coordinator) job, all the guys were really excited," said Tennessee defensive end Chris Walker, who leads the team with six sacks. "We followed what he did in the NFL. ... Just coming in and installing what he did with the players that we had, it really fit our defense, especially I know up front (on the line)."
While Foster hadn't had the opportunity to meet Kiffin as of Tuesday afternoon — Foster hoped to eat dinner Tuesday night with Kiffin — there's still a healthy respect for what Kiffin has accomplished. Though Foster doesn't often use the defensive philosophy, he said earlier this season he has employed Kiffin's famed "Tampa 2" defense, which requires a speedy middle linebacker to drop in to pass coverage in the middle of the field along with two cornerbacks and two deep safeties.
"He's one of the legends of all football," Foster said. "It would be a tremendous honor to be able to sit down — not that we'd talk shop and pick each other's brain, but I'm going to try to (do that) to see what drives him."
Foster brought about a similar attitude adjustment of his own defense this season after it gave up too many big plays early on. In the last four games, Tech surrendered a total of just six points in the second half. Tech enters Thursday's game sixth in the nation in passing defense (161 yards per game), 11th in scoring defense (15.75 points per game) and 14th in total defense (300 yards per game).
When Kiffin was brought in by his son, head coach Lane, to lead Tennessee's defense this season, Monte knew he'd have to make adjustments, which included not using the Tampa 2 as much. A defense with a middle linebacker dropped in to coverage won't be effective against college teams that run option offenses.
Of course, there also was the inevitable oddity of a 69-year-old coaching veteran working for his 34-year-old son. Lane spent two seasons as coach of the Oakland Raiders and six as an assistant coach at Southern California — including two as offensive coordinator — before coming to Tennessee. That setup was a bigger deal to outsiders than it was to the Kiffins, according to Monte.
"People ask what it's like, and I say he's the head coach and I'm the assistant, so I call him coach," said Monte, whose last stint in college came from '80-82, when he compiled a 16-17 record as North Carolina State's coach. "As long as he calls me 'dad,' we'll get along fine.
"Some people that don't know Lane Kiffin might think that he's a little bit arrogant or whatever. I just know that I've known him for 34 years. I was there the day he was born. He is my son. If he was a jerk, I'd still love him — but I wouldn't necessarily come work for the guy."