GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Ninety minutes after Tennessee had lost to Florida, in the gathering dusk behind Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, dozens of Volunteer fans were waiting for the boy hero. Once Lane Kiffin exited the locker room – wearing a sharp suit and sunglasses on his head even though the sun was long gone – they swarmed the coach.
They wanted autographs and photos and, most of all, they wanted to share this moment of victory in defeat.
Perhaps not since 1968, when the Harvard Crimson declared "Harvard beats Yale, 29-29" had the final scoreboard mattered so little to the postgame perception.
Florida had won, 23-13, yet the UT faithful out back hardly cared.
Oh, they wanted to upset the No. 1 team in the country, the defending BCS champion with Heisman winner Tim Tebow at the helm.
The spread was nearly 30 points though. Kiffin's mouth had the Gators seeing white and promising revenge. And UT lacked talent; it had a quarterback who can neither pass nor run.
So the faithful had traveled here anticipating a fourth quarter of Urban Meyer mercilessly running up the score. Instead they watched the stadium get nervous as the Vols pulled close and their fans sang "Rocky Top" over and over.
So, yeah, this would do.
This would do fine.
It was more than enough to stand around for a glimpse of Lane Kiffin because now they believe, they absolutely believe, that this is the start of something big at Tennessee. And forever they could say they were there the day it became so clear.
"I think we have a powerful message around the country about what's going on in Tennessee football," Kiffin said, speaking directly to the five-star recruits of America.
"I think there is a real strong message about Tennessee football out there right now. And people who follow recruiting have noticed that."
In the end that was what this was about – recruits. Kiffin makes a lot of noise, seeks a lot of attention, but he's the first to admit that it's mostly about the players. In this game Florida had Tebow and Tennessee didn't. Put No. 15 on the other side and who knows.
"We have to find a Tim Tebow in recruiting," he said.
From Day 1 he's chirped about this and that, made headlines and waves and bulletin boards as the Mouth of the South. He claims he did it all to get Tennessee's name back out there with high school kids, get them to pay attention so he can rebuild this mammoth program as fast as possible.
Still he had to show there was substance behind the smirk, that he could handle the heat of being hated. The guy is 34 years old and a first-time college head coach (after a season and a half of losing with the Oakland Raiders). He had to answer.
They had waited for months for Kiffin here. A record crowd of 90,000-plus worked him over, too.
He never got rattled.
Over and over Kiffin claimed, "I didn't come down here to cover the spread or have a moral victory." And it was true. His defensive coordinator and father, Monte Kiffin, had watched every snap of the Gators offense for the past two seasons to prepare a special game plan. "Don't give them a big play," Monte said.
It had worked – the vaunted UF offense was held to its lowest point total since 2007. Tebow and the Gators were still able to grind it out though.
"It drives me nuts," Monte said.
So no, this wasn't all about moral victories. If one happened though, well, Kiffin wasn't going to complain.
"I would think in the other locker room there's some frustration because of the expectations of what they would do today," Kiffin noted dryly.
Indeed, Meyer bristled when questioned about not blowing out Tennessee. He was forced to remind everyone that his team is, after all, top-ranked, 3-0 and just defeated one of its archrivals for the fifth consecutive season.
The coach of the unranked, 1-2 team no doubt enjoyed that. Until Kiffin can win these games, getting under their skin is at least something.
He claimed one of his goals was to draw the venom of a record crowd of Gator fans away from his players and onto him.
"Any time you come out of the tunnel at a place like this, No. 1 team in the country, and everyone is yelling at you and your team is behind you and no one is yelling at them, I think [it's] good," he explained.
Kiffin's got an answer for everything. He claimed his talk last winter – from promising victories, mistakenly claiming Meyer cheated in recruiting, making gas station jokes about South Carolina, etc. – was just a plan to get Tennessee front and center with recruits.
It probably wasn't. It was probably the public stumbles of an inexperienced speaker. Kiffin landed a strong recruiting class on short order though. And since lately he can't seem to go a week without picking up a couple more top prospects, he can plausibly claim it worked.
It's what has most infuriated rival fans; that this guy isn't going away, he's only getting stronger, only being emboldened. What happens to this series when the talent begins to even out?
"It'll be interesting to see," Kiffin said with excitement.
So long after so many Gator fans shuffled out in frustration, with a 10-point victory that didn't taste like one, a bunch of orange-clad Volunteers waited and waited for a glimpse of their leader.
Finally Lane Kiffin emerged and the cheers went up. The winner had bristled on Saturday, the loser had smiled and yes, Florida defeated Tennessee 23-13. Yes, it really did.