Kiffin’s Tennessee Put Up Quite a Fight
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - In the tailgate parking lot, there were wanted posters of Lane Kiffin taped on Florida SUV windows.
On the street that leads to the stadium, there was a bed sheet hanging with a printed warning. "RIP Lane Kiffin. 5-9-75 to 9-19-09."
In the stands, the T-shirts were everywhere. On the front: "Memo to Lane Kiffin." On the back: "Be scared. Very scared. The beatdown is near!"
When he ran onto the field, someone in the stands was holding up a picture of Al Davis, the Oakland Raiders owner who fired and publicly scolded him.
That one, Kiffin would say later, made him laugh.
"They were non-stop," the new Tennessee coach said of the hostile crowd awaiting him Saturday. "A lot of F words that weren't Florida were being yelled at me."
Gator Nation had assembled to see him humiliated, this man who had the audacity last winter to vow he would beat Florida and sing Rocky Top all the live-long night afterward. He would pay for being so foolish in front of a microphone. He would learn how life works in the SEC.
The point spread was more than four touchdowns Saturday, and they expected it to be more than that.
But Saturday in the Swamp must honestly be called a wash. Tennessee lost. Lane Kiffin won... sort of.
The Volunteers were beaten by No. 1 Florida 23-13, but it was the Gators who left the premises with more questions. If they are to be as great as advertised, where is the passing game that used to light up the day? What happens in the alarming moments when Tim Tebow turns human? How was it a younger, less talented Tennessee team physically stayed with them much of the game?
The questions all week had been if the Gators would back off at the end, or run up the score to teach the upstart a lesson. Instead, there was Tebow taking a knee, protecting a 10-point lead. This after an interception, fumble and three sacks.
As for Kiffin, he was neither folded, shredded, nor mutilated. He did not leave Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with his head down and his lips zipped. He came with a game plan short on risk and long on patience.
The event often had the ambiance of two fighters refusing to leave the ropes. Tennessee had to be cautious. Otherwise, Kiffin said, "You'd have seen the point spread covered, I promise you." Florida played along. Tebow ran the ball 24 times.
Kiffin's father, Monte, the defensive coordinator and football lifer, had watched every Florida play from the past two seasons and produced a scheme to slow down the Gators, harass Tebow, annoy Urban Meyer.
As for brash verbal red flags Lane Kiffin had waved in front of Florida's enraged faces - that worked out great, he mentioned afterward. It took the heat off his young players.
"Put it on me, I'm the coach. I don't have to play the game," he said. He knew the upside, when the Volunteers took the field before the game, and the venom poured down.
"Beautiful. Everybody's yelling at you, nobody's yelling at them."
It wasn't good enough to win, but it was good enough to be a warning. Tennessee is 1-2, and there is much work to do, but it will be a long time before the Volunteers are a 29-point underdog again.