Photo by David Luttrell
After living in Knoxville only a few short weeks, it sure didn't take Layla Kiffin long to find a favorite place to eat.
"Litton's, for sure," Layla said. "I love desserts, and they gave us a big box of desserts to take home. It was awesome. It's definitely high on my list."
Layla, wife of new University of Tennessee's head football coach Lane Kiffin, has already found many reasons to call Knoxville home. It wasn't long after her husband was hired in November as UT's 21st head coach that the Kiffins began making plans for their move to East Tennessee. While Lane wasted no time beginning his work on Rocky Top, the rest of the family waited until May to make the trip from Oakland, CA to Tampa Bay, FL then finally to Knoxville. As far as Lane was concerned, it was about time.
"Sometimes when [the family's] gone, you appreciate them more," admitted Lane. "It's very special to have them back and in our new home."
Married almost nine years, the Kiffins met when Layla worked in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' office in 2000. Lane's father, Monte, coached for the Bucs, so it was no surprise that Lane and Layla eventually crossed paths. "Lane came into the office and started small talk," Layla said. "I thought, 'It's Monte's son, so I better show him around.' Three months later, we were engaged."
The Kiffin clan has since grown. The couple's two daughters, Landry, 4, and Pressley, 2, welcomed a baby brother a month into Lane's position at Tennessee. Layla gave birth while still living in Oakland, CA. His name? Monte Knox Kiffin. "[Knox] is just a coincidence," Layla laughs, referring to the name's relevance to their new home. "I saw it in a book months before and didn't think Lane would go for the name, but he loved it. We figure we're embracing our new home." Ask Landry and Pressley their new brother's name. "It's Knoxy boy!"
The change of pace and scenery has hardly been run-of-the-mill for the Kiffins. From offensive coordinator at the University of Southern California to head coach for the NFL's Oakland Raiders, the two have lived a West Coast lifestyle for nearly a decade. But the landscape and slower pace of East Tennessee have hardly disappointed them.
"I love Knoxville, I really do," said Layla. "I feel like I'm kind of back home being in the Southeast after spending most of my life in Florida. I haven't met a person who isn't just so nice and welcoming. Two people brought us dinner the first night. I don't think we received one meal in our entire eight years in LA."
"You feel [Knoxvillians'] love not only for Tennessee football but for the city of Knoxville," Lane adds. "It's been unbelievable how people have embraced us. The support is unreal."
After Lane's introductory press conference in November, it was clear fans were on the UT bandwagon . . . and Layla's bandwagon. After joining her husband on stage nine months pregnant for an introduction and photo, Layla became one of the highest Google searches on the internet that day.
"I really had no idea about it. All I ever watch is Nickelodeon or the Disney channel," Layla said laughing. "My youngest brother called and said, 'Layla, you're on the internet!' and I said 'for what?' I got a kick out of it. It was very flattering."
The family is just starting to settle into their home on the water in West Knoxville. With boxes still to unpack, they've at least gotten to enjoy a little time on the lake as the summer starts to heat up and Lane has a break from recruiting. "This is fun for me. It's so gorgeous here," Layla said. "I entertain all the time, which was a big factor when buying the house. There are always people coming in and out."
Uprooting a family is never easy, but, frankly, Layla has known little about any other way of life. Growing up the daughter of former Florida assistant coach John Reaves, a constant change of address came with the territory. "I'm used to the moving," Layla said. "I went to five different high schools. It's a little harder when you have kids, but they're so resilient."
For the first time, the Kiffins will have family around them. Obviously, Lane's parents are now in the same city and soon Layla's mom will be making the move to Knoxville to be close by. "We're not used to having family here," Layla said. "But my mom's moving from South Carolina, and it will be the first time we're all together."
Moving so often, also makes close friends hard to establish, but for Layla, who admits she can talk to a wall and loves meeting new people, says the coaches' wives are like family. "I try and get everyone involved and plan activities," she said. "For me that's really important."
There is truth to the adages, "all things happen for a reason" and "timing is everything." While many coaches look to the NFL as the top rung on the coaching ladder, Lane's dream job was to coach a big SEC team. The water was warm after Raiders' owner, Al Davis, and Lane didn't see eye-to-eye and Lane left Oakland. Tennessee came calling, and Lane jumped in with both feet. Now was his chance to form his coaching "A team" and get back in to recruiting.
"College and the NFL are drastically different," Lane said. "The recruiting aspect, I really love it, but some coaches don't."
Maybe that's because some are better than others, and despite the tasks of assembling a coaching staff and settling into unexplored territory during recruitment, Lane was able to snag the nation's 10th rated recruiting class for 2009, including the No. 1 rated overall player in the nation, running back Bryce Brown, for the first time in UT's history.
But the players aren't the only new faces Lane has lured to Tennessee. His hand-picked coaching staff is considered by many to be the best bunch of recruiters in college football, including, of course, his father, Monte Kiffin, who many say, as an NFL defensive coordinator, was simply legendary.
"Recruiting is so competitive. Not a day goes by that we don't try to enhance our chances of getting great recruits," Lane says. "It's such a challenge, but to put together a great staff and the Top 10 recruiting class in such a short period of time is quite powerful. We've accomplished a lot in the past six months. We have an incredible amount to be proud of."
When asked how he would rate himself as the Fresno State quarterback he was to a Vol quarterback he's now coaching to mature, he remarks, "I wasn't very good. I was third string and knew I was interested in coaching all along. That's when Coach Jeff Tedford encouraged and let me start sitting in on all the meetings. I learned a tremendous amount."
In spite of the discipline issues that have plagued UT's players over the years, Coach Kiffin deserves another applause for his team ending the school year with the highest semester GPA in over five years. "There was a lot of running at 5am when I first arrived for being late and missing curfews," Lane said. "We've seen that drop off a lot. You can't just show up on Saturday and be accountable. You've got to be accountable Monday through Friday as well." Rumor has it, too, he makes his players sit in the first three rows of all their classes, and when they least expect it, he'll pop his head in just to make sure they know he's paying attention.
But Lane's tenure so far with the Vols hasn't been free of blemishes. He ruffled some feathers in the SEC and was called upon to make apologies to Florida's head coach Urban Meyer and other SEC coaches. Lane makes clear it was strategy versus off-the-cuff comments to get Tennessee's name in the ears of recruits as an end that justifies the means.
"When you take a job, you have to have a specific plan for that job," Lane said. "Have I loved everything I've had to do? No, but we had to do something unique."
With Spring practice at a close and the Volunteers entering the final turn getting ready for Coach Kiffin's inaugural season, Lane has only one answer as to whether his team is ready. "We've got so many things going on, we don't have much time to sit back and reflect. We've just got to find a way to get better every day."
As for the fans? "The fans here are definitely the most passionate of any place we've been," Layla said. "I welcome it. I love being around the fans and getting to know them. It's always been a positive thing for us."
Layla's first and only experience in Knoxville before moving here was, well, when she went to school in The Swamp as a Florida Gator. "I had a great time. We left in the 3rd Quarter like you do when you're in college and went to O'Charley's to watch the rest of the game," she says, pointing out the skybox window trying to get her bearings.
So with a history of rooting for Tennessee's archrival, should UT fans fear seeing their new head coach's wife cheering for the Gators?
"Absolutely not," Layla said. "I'm a Volunteer."