Donahue requested permission from Tampa Bay officials on Tuesday to speak with Kiffin, and he had Kiffin and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, on the phone by the next day. The interest in Kiffin is the latest example that the Niners are leaning toward a defensive mastermind to become the new head coach that will lead the team into the future.
Kiffin certainly qualifies. Behind his leadership this year, Tampa Bay ranked first in the NFL in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense. The Bucs then shut down the Niners in the NFC divisional round - limiting San Francisco to season-low totals of 228 yards and six points in a 31-6 loss - before setting a Super Bowl record by intercepting Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon five times.
While shutting down Oakland's top-ranked offense during a 48-21 blowout that gave Tampa Bay its first NFL championship, Kiffin's defense returned three of those interceptions for touchdowns. That typified the attacking, play-making style of Kiffin's unit, which accounted for five of Tampa Bay's 35 touchdowns in 2002.
The Bucs also have recorded at least one sack in 63 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the NFL. The Niners' pass rush lagged badly during the stretch run this season and finished with just 32 sacks for the second consecutive year.
Kiffin will be the fourth defensive coordinator Donahue has interviewed. He finished interviewing New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell on Wednesday and already has interviewed Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and current 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr.
Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia, who at first expressed shock and dismay when Steve Mariucci was fired as head coach on Jan. 15, expressed excitement from the Pro Bowl in Hawaii about the possibility of Kiffin becoming the Niners' next coach. Garcia will start at quarterback for the NFC in Sunday's game.
"That's the way the NFL seems to be going these days, and maybe that's the way we need to go,'' Garcia said from the Pro Bowl. "Look at Tampa Bay and Baltimore. Great defenses give you a better chance to win championships. Just looking at what Monte has done there in the past six or seven years. They've had such great defenses.
"Obviously, you have to have good players in there, but the scheme that they play, what he does with those players, they're such great tacklers, they fly around to the football, they make plays, they create turnovers, they create points. And a lot of that has to go right toward him. I think for him to be mentioned as a potential candidate, I think that's something they have to be excited about. Obviously in San Francisco, I think certain areas are ready to move forward. But defensively, we've kind of been on the bubble. We've played well at times and we've suffered a little bit at times, basically because of youth. And I think if he can come in, or a defensive guy could come in with an emphasis on getting that defense better and allowing the offense to continue to grow, I think that would be a great addition."
Defensive tackle Bryant Young, the veteran leader of San Francisco's rising young defense who will be playing in his fourth Pro Bowl, agreed with that premise.
"If they're looking at the defense as something that can improve, then I'm all for it,'' Young said. "A defensive coach could be great. We have good defensive coaches now, but if somebody came in and gave the defense a jump-start, that could help the whole team.''