Vols Kiffin takes on the coach he's long admired
He loved how those Florida teams in the 1990s came on the field looking like they were going to win, then usually crushed their opponents. And he liked the coach in his visor, so confident he could tweak his opponents with a devastatingly on-point joke.
"It's his personality, and it's how he walks on the sideline. It's how those great offenses and all those great receivers and quarterbacks. They had a confidence about them," Kiffin said Tuesday.
Now, Kiffin gets to take on the coach he watched so closely. Spurrier's No. 21 Gamecocks head to Tennessee on Saturday in a game critical to the Vols' bowl hopes and South Carolina's goal of becoming a yearly SEC East contender.
The 34-year-old Tennessee coach stormed into the SEC, picking fights and speaking his mind since taking over in December. He's been reprimanded twice by the SEC for hinting Florida coach Urban Meyer was cheating in recruiting and, a week ago, suggesting referees might throw a "magical flag" on his team if they tried to get any more yards before a failed field goal attempt to beat then-No. 1 Alabama.
Spurrier was the first SEC coach Kiffin took on. The South Carolina coach suggested Kiffin started recruiting before he passed a necessary test. Kiffin fired back that he passed the test online, missing just one question, and challenged Spurrier to release his score.
The Vols also hired away South Carolina quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator David Reaves, who is Kiffin's brother-in-law. Reaves immediately began calling some of the recruits he had secured for the Gamecocks.
Spurrier hasn't said much this week about the new kid on the SEC block. "That's for all you media people to comment on that. I'm trying to worry about my own team here," said Spurrier, who in the past hasn't stayed away from praising SEC colleagues like the Crimson Tide's Nick Saban or Kentucky's Rich Brooks.
Perhaps the 'ol ball coach said all he needed to several months ago at the SEC spring meetings, when Kiffin complained thatSpurrier didn't apologize for suggesting he cheated by starting to recruit early.
Spurrier caught the Tennessee coach waiting for an elevator, pointed at him, turned to several nearby reporters and told Kiffin he didn't accuse him of cheating. Kiffin mumbled as Spurrier kept talking. The elevator arrived and Spurrier's twang could still be heard as the doors shut.
Twenty seasons ago, Spurrier was the brash newcomer on the SEC sidelines when he took over at his alma mater Florida. He was older than Kiffin - 45 when he started coaching the Gators - and had six years of head coaching experience at Duke and in the USFL.
Spurrier also had a more successful start. Kiffin is 1-3 in the conference, while Spurrier's first Florida team would have won the league title had it not been on probation, and he didn't lose his third SEC game until early in his third season with the Gators. He would go on to six league titles with the Gators - seven if you're Spurrier and count the probation year.
Kiffin watched those teams intently, first as a three-sport high school star in Minnesota and later as a quarterback at Fresno State.
"When I was growing up, he was probably the one guy that I looked at," Kiffin said. "To me, when you watched his teams play and the intensity and the swagger and they way that they walked, I think that they represented him because he was so confident in the way he came across."
Spurrier also spoke his mind. But the biting comments didn't start coming until after he started winning titles.
Kiffin's heard most of them, like Spurrier's jab, "You can't spell Citrus without U-T," pointing out how frequently the Vols had to settle for a second-tier bowl because his Florida teams were in the Sugar Bowl. Or telling a reporter who asked if Florida could be Georgia, "Is Ray Goff still the coach there?" Spurrier was 6-0 against Goff's teams.
"He's hilarious. I think he always has been," Kiffin said. "I think the way that he acts is great for football, and it's great for the league, but that's just my opinion."