That's due in large measure to growing up the son of one of the game's greatest defensive coaches, but he's also a product of football itself, having experienced his own share of success and setbacks. He enjoyed remarkable success as an assistant and offensive coordinator at USC and went on to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a 20-game stint as Oakland Raiders head coach, a position also known as Al Davis' whipping boy.
That experience as the youngest head coach in NFL history may have served as "crisis management" as KIffin described it, but it also serves as a strong motivator. With a chance to be captain of his ship instead of first mate for a Pirate. Yes Davis is also the man who hired him but until Al fires himself the Raiders won't be back in black much less silver and black. As they say Davis does know football but it's 1970s football. When it comes to playing for the Al Davis of 2008 the more you listen the longer you stay. It's no coincidence Davis was ready to fire Kiffin four games into his NFL coaching career.
However Kiffin's resolve in not being bullied into resigning, earned him chips with many of the Raider players. The fact KIffin wasn't allowed to hire his own staff was a recipe for disaster, but then the same thing can be said about Al Davis' ongoing day-to-day micromanagement of a once proud franchise. An innovator no doubt he's been stuck in the 70s and is today a better candidate for a stroke than a stroke of genius.
In short it wasn't the way Kiffin wanted to go out and so he requested conditions coming in that would give him the best chance of success at Tennessee. Soon he will have the other half of his staff in place. Yet he is already off to a good start and eager to prove himself in the toughest conference this side of the NFC East.
If the experience in Oakland wasn't enough of a wake-up call, replacing a coach who compiled a 152-52 record and was Volunteer to the core, had to appear a daunting task. But he was confident in himself as a professional and in his plan to reformulate Tennessee football and restore its prestige.
He understands he is being hired to turn the program around, and time is his greatest enemy at this point. He realizes anything he does that doesn't directly improve his team is a lower priority. When the smoke clears from the recruiting range wars, he'll be well on his way to installing a new offense, a new defense, new terminology and decidedly different philosophy.
When you're playing catch-up you have to run faster than your competition just to draw even. It's not the same as taking over a well established program. UT has had two losing seasons in the last four years and hasn't won an SEC championship in over 10 years. Tennessee fans have seen recruiting slip while the lack of big wins at home left many disenchanted. The magnitude of Kiffin's challenge is difficult to overstate.
Against this background Kiffin has managed to keep the greater part of UT's recruiting class intact and managed to make headway with some prospects the Vols weren't recruiting until he arrived. At least nine prospects UT is still involved are participating in the Under/Armor High School All-Star Game Sunday in Orlando. The game which will feature such players of interest as: five-star wideout Marlon Brown, running back Montrell Conner, safety Darren Myles, offensive lineman Pete White, offensive guard Quinton Washington, defensive end Sam Montgomery, lineman Antwan Lowery.
Also appearing is former UT commitment Jarvis Giles, a four-star running back who denounced his commitment after Fulmer was forced out, and later gave his verbal to South Carolina. Speculation has Giles still considering his options, and Tennessee could be a player for his services yet again. If Kiffin able get Giles away from the Gamecocks, Spurrier will be madder than an old wet hen.
The irony is that Steve Spurrier never missed a chance to tweak Phillip Fulmer and gleefully became a burr under the big man's saddle. Now it's Spurrier crying foul after KIffin raided the Gamecocks recruiting coordinator in the middle of recruiting season. The "'Ol Ball Coach" likes to dish it out but isn't nearly as good at taking it, especially from somebody half his age.
The difference is the use of such psychological tactics are fun and games for Spurrier. For KIffin, it's strictly business.