Beginning in 1996, when Meyer was an assistant at Notre Dame, he would travel to Tampa and visit with Kiffin for at least a day. Meyer would glean all he could from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator, picking his brain about defensive philosophy, coverage schemes and blitz packages.
Meyer continued the trips as head coach at Bowling Green (2001-02), Utah (2003-04) and Florida. Meyer even asked Kiffin to come to Gainesville after the Gators struggled on defense in 2007.
Meyer’s relationship with Kiffin, now Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, was good. It also made first-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin’s false recruiting allegations that much more surprising in February.
“Actually, yes it did,” Meyer said Sunday. “That’s one of the only comments I’ll make on it. Just because I was fairly close with his father and I just know the way he is. Like I said, that’s all over with. Coach Monte Kiffin and myself have a very good relationship.”
Meyer and Lane Kiffin might not be so buddy-buddy. It will be a main story line this week as the top-ranked Gators (2-0) and Tennessee (1-1) prepare for their Southeastern Conference opener in Gainesville.
The day after national signing day, Kiffin falsely accused Meyer of a recruiting violation. Kiffin told fans Meyer violated rules by phoning receiver prospect Nu’Keese Richardson while he was on an official visit at Tennessee. The NCAA and SEC, though, say it’s not a recruiting violation to contact recruits while they are on official visits to other schools.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley rushed to his coach’s defense, delivering a quick and harsh response and calling for an apology. SEC commissioner Mike Slive reprimanded Kiffin, who then issued an apology.
The Gators haven’t forgotten about it, either.
“I thought he was a nice guy,” guard James Wilson said Sunday night. “But I don’t know what he was thinking when he said all that. It kind of hit a nerve.”
Offensive lineman Matt Patchan called Kiffin a “bozo” at the team’s media day last month, and receiver Riley Cooper said the Gators were looking forward to playing Tennessee more than anyone else because of all the “trash talking going on and stuff.”
Kiffin also raised eyebrows in Gainesville at his introductory news conference in December. He vowed to end the program’s four-game losing streak against Florida.
Kiffin said he was “looking forward to … singing ‘Rocky Top’ all night long after we beat Florida next year. It will be a blast.”
Florida blew the quote up and plastered it around the team’s facility during offseason workouts. The signs came down when the Gators began fall practice. Nonetheless, Wilson said Kiffin’s comments have been the talk of the team.
“It’s all over our locker room,” he said. “That’s something you don’t forget. We just look at it as another thing to back up and just prove him wrong. That’s good motivation for us. It’s going to be wild. We’re definitely getting ready. It’s going to be a show.”
Although Meyer acknowledged in March that Kiffin’s comments fired him up, he has since avoided the topic. He even told his players after Saturday’s 56-6 win over Troy not to talk about Kiffin or what happened earlier this year.
Meyer wanted them to focus on the importance of the game, which could be critical in the SEC East.
“It’s all about winning the East because if you win the East, you get to Atlanta,” Meyer said. “Look at the 90s and do your homework on this thing. Usually the winner of this game was the team to go to Atlanta. Obviously, Georgia really has a say-so in that now. But the timing of the game and the history of the game has made this rivalry very significant.”
Meyer insisted Sunday that the stakes will overshadow Kiffin’s comments.
“To me, that’s water under the bridge, a long time ago,” Meyer said. “We’re going to try to move the ball against a very good Tennessee defense and our guys understand that. That has nothing to do with this.”
Meyer’s players seemed to get the message, with many of them refusing to comment on any Tennessee-related questions Saturday.
“We have nothing to say,” receiver David Nelson said. “That’s how it’s going to be. We try to do our talking on the field. When they watch film, they can see what kind of team we are, what kind of outfit we put out there on the field.”
On defense, some of what the Gators do might even be attributed to Monte Kiffin.
“He was very hospitable and obviously one of the great coaches in NFL history,” Meyer said. “He came up here, I believe it was a year and a half ago, after our tough year we had on defense. And he was good enough to spend basically an entire day with us in the meeting rooms and talking football with us. We have a good idea of the fundamentals of his defense. He’s a good person and a great coach.”