Lane Kiffin is that rare college football coach that keeps on giving. Even he doesn't believe half of what comes out of his mouth.
He's Steve Spurrier 'Lite' _ not as sharp nor sharp-tongued as the ol' ball coach in his heyday, but the closest thing to a court jester the increasingly uptight Southeastern Conference has seen since. Even before playing a game that counted, Tennessee's new hire wrongly accused Florida of cheating, told gas station jokes about South Carolina and gleefully stole a recruiting coordinator out from under Alabama's nose.
So just imagine how much fun Kiffin is going to have if he ever starts winning.
It didn't happen Saturday at Gainesville, Fla., unless moral victories count. The Gators beat the Vols 23-13, but considering how much yapping Kiffin did about Florida coach Urban Meyer before and even after the loss, just about everybody expected it to be much worse.
So much so that Meyer made a point of saying the next day it would have been _ if only his squad wasn't weakened by the flu and Tennessee had taken a risk or two instead of playing to hold down the score.
"I didn't feel like they were going for the win. They wanted to shorten the game," Meyer said. "I think that was the plan. I remember looking out there and there's 10 minutes left in the game and there's no no-huddle, they are down, I think it was 23-6 and no urgency on Tennessee's part."
When those comments were relayed to Kiffin on Monday, he initially passed up a chance to respond. But a moment later, someone asked whether he was worried about the flu bug descending on Tennessee.
"I don't know," he cracked. "I guess we'll wait and after we're not excited about a performance, we'll tell you everybody was sick."
Turns out Meyer wasn't kidding about the flu. Three Florida players were isolated ahead of Saturday's game because of flulike symptoms and even though there were no confirmed cases of swine flu, the entire team was vaccinated Sunday. But a half-dozen other players missed practice Tuesday and receivers coach Billy Gonzales, who was sent home the day before because of a fever, returned wearing gloves and a mask.
As for Meyer's dig about playing too conservatively, Kiffin said, "It's not fun to play that way, but that's what we had to do in that situation, in that stadium, versus that team, at this stage of our team. ... Like I said when I was hired, you're going to see different offenses every week, depending on what we think we need to do to win."
But he still found time to get in a dig at his predecessor, Phil Fulmer _ "we've been scared of (Florida) in the past. I think it was obvious Saturday we weren't" _ and put his current quarterback, Jonathan Crompton, on notice that he's one of several Vols who "needs to have a very good game this week."
Somebody in orange is going to have to step up, since Tennessee is already 1-2 and the one-liners seem less funny the more the Vols lose. It's one thing to overreach at your introductory news conference, or in front of a room packed with boosters in the dead of winter.
It puts Tennessee in the headlines, keeps Kiffin's name front and center on recruiting Web sites, and paid off by drawing one of the most talented incoming classes in the nation to Knoxville next season. But nothing will kill that buzz faster than underperforming week after week in the fall.
What made Spurrier so funny his first time through the SEC was that he almost always got the last laugh. When he was at Florida, someone asked whether the Gators would beat Georgia yet again and Spurrier answered with a question of his own: "Is Ray Goff still the coach there?" Even better was his response to news that nearly two dozen books were burned during a fire in a football dormitory at Auburn: "The real tragedy was that 15 hadn't been colored yet!"
Yet even Spurrier eventually met his match. After seven SEC titles and a national championship, he left Florida for the Washington Redskins and was asked upon arrival if he thought it would be tougher to win in the pros than college.
"Yeah," he deadpanned, "because there are no Vanderbilts in the NFL."
Spurrier left the Redskins after two seasons and a 12-20 record. Since 2005, he's been back at South Carolina, where his reduced diet of jokes reflects his team's inability to deliver a punchline.
Kiffin is at the other end of that career arc. He was the offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll for several of Southern California's record-breaking squads, then became the youngest NFL coach in the modern era when he was hired by Oakland in 2007 at the age of 31.
Like Spurrier, he got humbled in a hurry _ fired by owner Al Davis just four games into his second season after a 5-15 record. Kiffin didn't have to wait long for his second chance, but he knows how shtick can get old in a hurry.
"Some of the stuff I had to do, I didn't like it," he said.
And if Tennessee's return to respectability doesn't materialize in a hurry, Kiffin is going to like it a lot less.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org