To taunt or not to taunt? Lane Kiffin's waffling only helped the other side 

Lane Kiffin poked the bear—or in this case, the Gator—and got away with it. Oh, the University of Tennessee lost last Saturday in its annual hate-fest with the University of Florida. Yet the final score (23-13) was nowhere near the romp so many expected in the wake of Kiffin's numerous attempts—well-calculated or accidental, you decide—to agitate the Gators, their coach and their fans.So was it ultimately a mistake for Kiffin to talk about singing " 'Rocky Top' all night long after we beat Florida next year" at his introductory press conference in December? Was it wrong that he erroneously noted to a gathering on national signing day in February that Urban Meyer "had to cheat" and still could hang on to a recruit the Volunteers stole away? Was it unnecessary to buy a billboard ad in the middle of Florida country last week?

No. Absolutely not.

Where the first-year head coach went awry was when he backed off the incendiary rhetoric last week. Especially when, in the days leading up the contest, he repeatedly referred to Florida as possibly the greatest college football team ever.

He suddenly turned deferential. He and his staff coached that way. And as a result, his players played that way.

Looking at the final score, it seems possible that just a few more days of piss and vinegar might just have given the Volunteers that little extra edge they needed. Instead, they came away with a moral victory.

As a useful comparison, consider a funny thing that happened a day later in the NFL. The New York Jets upset the New England Patriots 16-9. First-year Jets coach Rex Ryan—like Kiffin, the son of one of the NFL's all-time great defensive coaches—had seized upon numerous opportunities to stir up that rivalry throughout the summer.

Only he didn't stop as the contest approached. In fact, one of his captains for the pre-game coin toss was Kevin O'Connell, a fourth-string quarterback who was cut by the Patriots on Sept. 1 and acquired five days later by the Jets in a trade. Think he held a grudge?

Kiffin is still young (34, to be exact) so maybe this is part of the learning curve. One of the most important aspects of coaching—any sport, any level—is consistency. Your players must know what to expect from you, so they can understand what's expected of them.

That he backed off the tough talk as the contest approached could have been construed as a sign of weakness or fear. Worse, it could have created doubt in the minds of those who look to him for leadership. By the time kickoff arrived, Kiffin's players probably did not know whether to stand up to the big bad Gators or offer to shine their shoes.

It's simple: You're either Steve Spurrier or you're Lou Holtz.

Their South Carolina connection aside, Spurrier and Holtz are two of the more well-known college coaches of recent decades. Each ran some sensational football teams back before the turn of the century.

Yet they could not have been more different in their approach to sizing up opponents. Holtz always made the other team sound like one of the best ever, and the greater the talent advantage for his side, the more he pumped up the other guys. Spurrier, on the other hand, never missed an opportunity to take a shot at UT, particularly while he was coach at Florida.

Eventually, it was not so much what they said but the attitude with which they said it that told you all you needed to know about the upcoming game.

One of the most interesting sports debates this town ever had was back in 1999, when then-Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor insisted his team was better than the Tennessee Titans. He did so after the Titans won by one point in Jacksonville in the third week of the season. He did so again when the Titans won by 27 in Nashville on the next-to-last Sunday of the regular season. He even stood by that assertion after the Titans won by 19 in the AFC championship game and earned the right to play in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Fans here were incensed. Yet over the years Taylor grew into one of the most respected opposing players ever to enter LP Field, in part because his belief in himself and his organization was never in doubt. He played it the way he talked.

Kiffin has to decide on his public persona and stick with it. And if he decides to try and stick it to the Gators again next year, he must stick it to them all the way up until kickoff.

Tootoo much?

Now from tough talk to tough guys...my athlete of the week is Tommy Sestito. The Columbus Blue Jackets forward was knocked out by the Preds' Jordin Tootoo in a fight late in the first period of Saturday's preseason game at Sommet Center. He had the back of his head split open when he fell to the ice.

The incident should renew the debate about whether fighting actually belongs in the NHL. Strong feelings have existed on both sides of this argument for decades. This time, however, there were those in the arena who thought Sestito died from his fall. He didn't—but maybe that's what it will take to settle the matter.

Email dboclair@nashvillecitypaper.com

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