DESTIN, Fla. — Media members who came to the SEC spring meetings looking for fireworks from new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin were not disappointed.
But it was another coach famous for his sharp tongue and ability to rile opposing schools who provided the excitement at the Sandestin Hilton.
Steve Spurrier might not be as cocky or outspoken as he was when collecting SEC titles at Florida in the 1990s, but the South Carolina coach let Kiffin know his place Tuesday during an entertaining exchange in front of reporters and several coaches.
Earlier in the day Kiffin was asked whether he intended to apologize again to Urban Meyer for accusing the Florida coach of breaking NCAA recruiting rules. The 34-year-old Kiffin responded by pointed out he never heard from Spurrier after Spurrier questioned whether Kiffin had taken the NCAA recruiting test before calling prospects at Tennessee.
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“I’m still waiting for coach Spurrier’s apology for calling me out on the first day I was there, saying I didn’t take my test,” Kiffin said. “I haven’t gotten that yet, either.”
Told of Kiffin’s comments, Spurrier shook his head, paused and spun around and faced Kiffin, who was waiting to get on an elevator.
“I didn’t accuse you of cheating,” Spurrier said, pointing toward Kiffin. “I said, ‘Is it permissible to call recruits before he’s announced as head coach, before you take the test?’ ”
As Kiffin turned red in the face, Spurrier told reporters he did not realize coaches could take the test online before arriving at their new school, as Kiffin did.
After Kiffin, Kentucky’s Rich Brooks, Auburn’s Gene Chizik and Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino filed into the elevator, Spurrier stepped on and again said: “I didn’t say he broke the rules.”
All the while, Kiffin remained silent — for one of the few times in his six months as the Vols’ coach.
Kiffin insists his brash public remarks were part of a grand plan to bring exposure to a program whose star had faded in Phil Fulmer’s final few seasons.
“As you look at this job, you have to have a national presence. We’re not fortunate enough to be able to just sit and go through our state and sign 20 to 25 players from our state to get it done,” Kiffin said.
The former Southern Cal assistant, who had a short-lived stint as the Oakland Raiders coach, said Tennessee “needed to have a spark immediately as far as national exposure.”
But that spark turned into a flame that burned Kiffin when Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley demanded an apology from Kiffin for wrongly accusing Meyer of breaking NCAA rules by calling a prospect on his recruiting trip to Knoxville.
Kiffin issued the apology and was reprimanded by SEC commissioner Mike Slive. But Kiffin was not done.
He gigged South Carolina by telling Calhoun County receiver Alshon Jeffery he would end up “pumping gas” if he signed with the Gamecocks (Kiffin denied saying it), and took a swipe at Alabama by suggesting he had stolen the Crimson Tide’s best recruiter when he added Lance Thompson to his high-priced coaching staff.
Kiffin had to face the music — or Muzak — on Tuesday when he came face-to-face for the first time with the coaches whose programs he jabbed. But other than Spurrier’s 40-second, one-sided exchange, it was business as usual.
Kiffin, who twice broke secondary NCAA recruiting rules by discussing prospects publicly, showed the ability to laugh at himself.
When asked how his 2010 recruiting class was coming along, Kiffin said: “Obviously, that would be another violation (if talking about players) specifically. I’m trying to go one week without that.”
In the wake of Kiffin’s comments and those by Spurrier (mentioning the Meyer-to-Notre Dame talk during an Alabama radio interview), Slive will address the coaches today and remind them about exhibiting sportsmanship, or as Meyer put it, professionalism.
“I think it’s important for the Southeastern Conference for everybody to be first-class, a big-time, best conference in America,” Meyer said. “Do they have to get along? No, not at all. But do they have to represent something bigger than them? Absolutely.
“This is the first year I’ve answered more questions about other schools than my own school, and that bothers me.”
Kiffin and Meyer found one subject they could agree on: It is not imperative that coaches be friends.
“I never said it was. You guys act like it is,” Kiffin said. “They didn’t hire me.”
But a couple of days in the Florida sun, and who knows, maybe the ice will thaw in the coaches’ room. Kiffin jokingly told reporters he asked for a hotel room next to Meyer.
Talk about strange bedfellows.