Commentary

Defense-minded

Lane Kiffin grabbed the headlines, but it's dad Monte who has insiders talking

Updated: April 22, 2010, 3:27 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Monte Kiffin mapESPN.com IllustrationTracking the 40-plus years of coaching of Monte Kiffin. His career began as a graduate assistant at Nebraska in 1966, and he's now the defensive coordinator for his son, Lane, at USC.

LOS ANGELES -- Monte Kiffin turned 70 a few weeks ago, but it sounds as if he plans on doing this for a while.

"I'm going to coach forever," Kiffin said the other day, looking like he could, in his USC windbreaker, black slacks and tennis shoes. "I don't hunt. I don't golf. I don't fish. I don't bowl. I love coaching."

[+] EnlargeLane & Monte Kiffin
Jim Brown/US PresswireLane Kiffin convinced his father, Monte, to leave the NFL and join his at Tennessee last season.

When you think about it, why wouldn't he bask in this moment for a while? Kiffin appears to be in the ideal place for a man of his years, enjoying a lion-in-winter period few coaches are fortunate enough to experience late in their careers.

One of his sons, Lane, is his boss, the head coach at USC. The other, 28-year-old Chris, is on USC's staff as a graduate assistant. The trio might have united a year ago, but Lane didn't want to ruffle any feathers (at least not back then) at Tennessee.

"Two Kiffins right off the bat, it looks like a family picnic or something," Monte said.

If his kid hadn't suddenly become football's next wunderkind -- Lane is working in his third major head-coaching gig before the age of 35 -- Monte Kiffin wouldn't be sitting in his second-floor office at Heritage Hall looking at film on a wall-mounted flat-screen TV, as he was the other day.

This is a man who turned down chances to be the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams because he was so comfortable with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their owners and the reported $2 million per year they were paying him.

"I wouldn't have gone to college just to do it," Kiffin said, between sips of coffee. "It was about my son. If it was a middle-of-the-road college, with all due respect, I probably wouldn't have gone."

The coach

When USC introduced Lane Kiffin as Pete Carroll's successor two months ago, most of the attention and virtually all of the questions gravitated toward the young coach and his fiery recruiting coordinator, Ed Orgeron.

Monte Kiffin sat quietly in the corner at that press conference. You wouldn't have known it at the time, but he might have been USC's biggest acquisition that day.

Carroll On defense, there's not a better coach in the world than Monte Kiffin.
You really can't get any better than that.

-- Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll

Kiffin puts together fast, ball-hawking defenses that bend but don't break, yielding yards but not points, the kind that have shoved their way into the Super Bowl more and more often in recent years. His protégés are a who's who of the coaching industry.

"On defense, there's not a better coach in the world than Monte Kiffin," Carroll told ESPNLosAngeles last week. "You really can't get any better than that."

The defense Kiffin devised with Tony Dungy for the Minnesota Vikings and then transported to Tampa was the ultimate antivenin to West Coast-style offenses. It wasn't until the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in 2002 that people gave it a name: Tampa 2.

By then, the Buccaneers had fired Dungy and replaced him with Jon Gruden, so Kiffin drew much of the praise. He sustained the success, with the Buccaneers posting top-10 defenses year after year, even as other coaches came and went and players broke down and retired, replaced by fresh bodies.

'Tampa 2'

The details might be complicated, but the gist of Kiffin's defense is delightfully simple. Two safeties divide the deep part of the field shading toward the sidelines; the cornerbacks crowd the receivers at the line, working to reroute them; and the middle linebacker runs down the middle of the field to cover up the soft spot of a traditional Cover 2.

[+] EnlargeMonte Kiffin
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI It wasn't until the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in 2002 that people gave Kiffin's defense a name: Tampa 2.

Converting it to the college game has been the challenge. The hashmarks are farther apart in college, the practice time a fraction of what it is in the pros. NFL teams, with $10 million quarterbacks, rarely run the option. It's everywhere in college.

That's when Carroll entered the picture again. Kiffin and Carroll met in 1977 on Lou Holtz's staff at Arkansas. When Monte Kiffin got the head job at North Carolina State, he hired Carroll, then a graduate assistant, as his defensive coordinator.

Thirty years later, the relationship flipped. After 26 years in the NFL, Kiffin had some things to learn about the college game, so he hopped on a plane for Los Angeles to watch the way Carroll adapted concepts he had once taught him. He spent two days around Carroll's practice field at USC.

"I was his mentor, and he turned and was mentoring me," Kiffin said. "After a while, Pete got more experienced and he was his own guy, and I would use things he was using."

Kiffin, a native of Lexington, Neb., speaks in a raspy whisper, the words coming out in short bursts. He seems particularly stumped when the topic of discussion turns to him. He doesn't offer much when someone asks him to describe his contributions to the game.

"Oh gosh, you'd have to ask somebody else that," Kiffin said.

Son also rises

His son was there each step of the way, at North Carolina State and with seven NFL teams thereafter. He ought to know as well as anybody what his father's legacy is.

"I would like to think he'll go down as one of the most successful assistant coaches ever to coach in the game," Lane Kiffin said.

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But the father-son dynamic can be a challenging one, particularly when the son is in a position of authority. In the Kiffins' case, the roles are reversed from what the Bowdens and Spurriers had.

"It's really not strange, because of his personality," Lane Kiffin said. "He's so easygoing and gets along with everybody. I love it from that standpoint, not because I'm related to him, but because he's such a phenomenal coach and teacher of our players and coaches."

So now, at an age when many coaches are looking to retire, Monte Kiffin dives into a whole new set of challenges, in a city he's never lived in. He jokes that if he'd known he would be in Knoxville only one year, he wouldn't have bothered to buy a house.

"I wish Lane had told me," Monte said. "I would have rented."

Puzzle pieces

Maybe it's the head coach part of his personality, but Monte Kiffin's not entirely sure he has the personnel to put together a dominant USC defense this fall.

He points out the exodus of linebackers to the NFL two years ago and the emptying of the defensive backfield this past winter, the two serious injuries to blue-chip linebackers Frankie Telfort and Jarvis Jones. Then he thinks about all the offensive skill players the Trojans landed in this past recruiting class.

"Hopefully they keep us off the field a lot," Kiffin said.

Mark Saxon covers USC for ESPNLosAngeles.com

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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