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May 13, 2009

Kiffin tackles bevy of subjects in exclusive Q&A

John Brice
Rivals.com College Football
CINCINNATI - Prior to Wednesday night's Big Orange Caravan stop at a riverfront hotel here, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin sat down with VolQuest.com for an exclusive question-and-answer session.

And the candid Kiffin didn't hold back in addressing the Daniel Hood signing, the mind-numbing Pahokee soap opera, recruiting and more.

VolQuest.com: This really is your first public appearance since signing Daniel Hood. Can you shed some more light on that process and how it came about?

Lane Kiffin: I was not very familiar with the situation when it was first presented to me. I was going by Knoxville Catholic and doing the rounds as soon as we got here, the first month we were here. I wanted to make sure we hit some of the local schools, and it came to my attention at that point and my first reaction was to stay as far away as you could, like I'm sure most people were. But the coaches there were trying to sell it, and I really just didn't think much of it.

But as I kept hearing around the community, different people talking about 'I've known this guy this long,' or people were talking about, 'I lived with him,' as you continued to gather information, it became apparent to me that I really needed to investigate this further. And I couldn't find anybody to say anything except for wonderful things about him, completely positive. How he's been there, his remorse for the situation. So I brought him up there. I didn't want anybody else there. I spent probably an hour with him, and he probably talked 58 of the 60 minutes. It wasn't about me talking; I wanted to know the story, as bad as it gets. Tell me the whole thing from start to finish. And he went through it. He didn't try to hide anything. Like anything, his story is a little bit different than the story that's out there, I'm sure. But to see it in his eyes, his remorse for the situation was very powerful. Anybody can have remorse immediately. But to do it for six years and have that remorse and it's hard to go six years without getting something wrong, no matter what, especially under those circumstances being in different homes and things. It would have been very easy for him to give in and give in to different temptations and screw up. Go down the wrong path and do what he did academically at Knoxville Catholic. For people to talk about they'd put the reputation of the school on him is a very powerful statement.

I love the fact we're giving him a second chance just like Knoxville Catholic did. And it's really more than football. This is about someone who deserves a second chance in this situation, about somebody who if it wasn't for us was accepted into the school and a partial academic scholarship. Most of these situations you read about, it's the football coach talking the school into taking him because student affairs doesn't want to deal with it all. That wasn't the case. He was coming. He was accepted regardless, whether he played football or not. I think it's going to be a great story.

VQ: When that meeting concluded, did you know at that moment that you wanted to find a way to make Daniel Hood a part of your Tennessee program?

LK: I really did. When I left that meeting, I still had to go back and cross-examine the things he said of what was going on. It was obvious to me that this was a bad decision that he was involved in, a bad situation that he's showing remorse for. And that he's really done the things to do. At that age to be able to go through everything he's gone through and stay basically perfect, that doesn't happen. At that point, he's set up for failure. He's set up for failure because he's in different places and doesn't have a family structure around him and most people in that situation don't make it. And they sure don't make it with a 3.8 GPA at Knoxville Catholic. So I think he's proven himself.

VQ: Now that you've signed Hood and seemingly brought your inaugural signing class to a close here three months after National Signing Day, are you surprised - and I know you had high expectations and set a really high standard - but are you surprised with how you closed given the challenges and obstacles that stood in your path?

LK: Well, I think every time we think we're done, we're not. So don't be surprised. Maybe we're not done. (laughs) You never know. I'm not surprised. I think you being around us, I think you realize our expectations are so high and I talked about it on signing day. As excited as everybody was about the class, I had to make sure people understood we weren't jumping up and down about the class on signing day. We were excited about some things, but it's nowhere near the expectation level that myself and our staff and myself is used to and what we're here to do. I think the additions have brought us a lot closer to that, but I still look back on the guys we missed. On a few key people we missed and why it's not the No. 1 class in the country. So, our guys are working unbelievable right now. I can't imagine a staff working as hard or even as close to as hard as our guys are right now. They're just staying at every high school as long as they can, every scrimmage as long as they can, every practice and turning over every leaf. And I think it will pay off for us.

VQ: I've spoken with high school coaches across the state who have indicated a noticeable difference in this staff's renewed emphasis to keeping the homegrown talent at home, from Memphis and beyond. Have you started to blanket Tennessee with your coaches in order to convey to everyone your goal of keeping in-state talent at Tennessee?

LK: Yeah, we really are. It's so important to make sure that we don't miss out on anybody in the state. And it's not as heavily a recruited state as the rest of the conference for the most part. Over the last 10 years, first-round NFL draft picks, only Kentucky has less first-round draft picks than the state of Tennessee amongst SEC schools. It's not a state that everybody is here recruiting, so we have to make sure we get to as many places as we can and get as many of those guys to camp as we can and make sure we don't miss anybody.

And yet at the same time, we're not going to use that as an excuse to be out of the state all the time. We want to make sure our people feel us.

VQ: Have your coaches given you a sense of whether or not there were a lot of broken relationships across the state that needed to be repaired?

LK: I'm not really here to talk about the past and what was done here before. I just know that we're doing everything we can to make sure the state of Tennessee and the people in the schools and the coaches and the athletics directors feel us.

VQ: I don't want to dwell a lot on the past, but this Pahokee situation seems to not want to go away. Are you surprised that three months after signing day, it's still somewhat inexplicably in the headlines?

LK: It's unfortunate, especially to talk to [Pahokee] coach [Blaze] Thompson earlier this week and for him to feel the same way, and to have communicated with some of the players down at Pahokee and for them to feel the same way. I immediately explained it as fast as I could to Coach Thompson once I realized it went public and got outside of that setting. I believe he understood at that point and accepted the apology. We've not seen it affect recruiting at all there, not one bit. So, we'll continue to try to reach out to the people who are still upset there, as we have from the beginning. Just continue to compete to make sure everybody feels good about Tennessee football.

VQ: So you've reached out to Pahokee High School's principal and had those overtures rebuffed?

LK: Yeah, I've reached out, going way back and even last week. But that's all I can do and that's all I can control. Some people's allegiances are to the college they graduated from.

VQ: A lot of players have indicated during this break that they're going to spend as little time away from campus as possible in order to jump-start preparations for the 2009 season. How important is it that, even though they don't have to be there, that you've got guys like Montario Hardesty and others getting back to campus as quickly as possible and working and buying into the system and setting that example and laying the foundation for your program?

LK: It's very critical. To see, today alone, just walking out on my way here and walking by one time earlier in the day, to see Jonathan Crompton throwing to Bryce Brown on their own. We can't do anything, we can't structure anything. Or to see Eric Berry and Prentiss Waggner doing drills there before I left. Hardesty was out there, Toney Williams, Ben Martin, Chris Walker. To see those guys showing up when they don't have to, it's very powerful about what's going on.

VQ: Can you give me a health and status update on Brent Vinson, his shoulder and how he's otherwise doing?

LK: I spent some time with him today. Brent's in mini-term and really working hard at his class. He had a field trip today. But he seems to be doing well. I know he had rehab today and he had the field trip today. We made sure he was there.

VQ: You're going to SEC spring meetings in a couple of weeks. I just wonder if you've given much, if any, thought to that and what you expect it to be like interacting with the league's other coaches?

LK: I really haven't. There's so much more to worry about that's going on. I'm really kind of not a future worrier. We'll deal with it. I can't imagine there will be any issues. I think that everyone understands that in this profession there are things you need to do to inspire your fan base and your school and the people you were hired to please, which is the Tennessee people. I can't imagine that there would be any issues at all.

John Brice, the senior writer for VolQuest.com, has covered University of Tennessee athletics for nine seasons and has seen his writing honored in both state and regional competition. Brice also co-hosts a weekly high school sports show in Knoxville.
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