KEARNEY — Monte Kiffin is a soft-spoken and humble storyteller.
He’s 80 years old but can detail events that happened in the late 1950s when he was a star athlete at Lexington High School.
Kiffin received his first football coaching opportunity as a graduate assistant with Nebraska in 1966. He worked his way up the coaching ranks and is considered one of the greatest defensive coaches in NFL history.
It was his father, Monte, who inspired him to embark on a coaching career.
"My father was a high school coach at Lexington way back in the 1930s," said Kiffin in a phone interview from his home in Tampa that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. "In 1940, he went into the service and then came back and went into real estate. It’s kind of been in the family for years. Then my boys just got going with it. It’s been a lot of fun."
Kiffin currently works as a player personnel analyst under his son, Lane, who’s the head coach at the University of Mississippi.
His other son, Chris, is the defensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns.
Despite coaching for over 50 years, Kiffin isn’t in any rush to retire. He enjoys breaking down film and studying the game. He doesn’t envision stepping away from the game anytime soon, even if his wife, Robin, who he met at Nebraska and has been married to since 1973, tries to convince him to retire.
"Well she doesn’t have much choice with that," said Kiffin jokingly. "She would like me to. But I just really enjoy it. I have my computer here and watch tape every day to get ready for the season coming up. I’m sharp enough to do it and my health is good. I’m blessed my health is good. I still enjoy it so much."
Kiffin’s history with the game of football started in south-central Nebraska as a youngster growing up in the city of Lexington.
He was one of Nebraska’s best high school athletes during his career. He also was a starter on the Minutemen’s 1957 undefeated Class A state championship team, awarded by the Associated Press.
The 1957 Lexington football team was special. They won all eight of their games and were unscored upon until their last game of the season when North Platte scored on a screen pass in the first quarter to take an early lead. The Minutemen ended up scoring three quick touchdowns and defeated North Platte 41-6.
That season included victories over North Platte, Kearney and Omaha Westside. Six members of that team went on to play college football, including three at Nebraska — Kiffin, Mick Tingelhoff and Dallas Dyer.
Kiffin, who the Omaha World-Herald voted as its athlete of the year in the spring of 1958, fondly remembers Lexington’s contest against Omaha Westside in 1957. The Omaha Westside football team, student body and any other fans that wanted to make the trip to Lexington chartered a train to south-central Nebraska. With the stands packed with fans, Lexington won the game 33-0.
"We upset them and that was a big deal," Kiffin said. "That’s when we were a really good team. On that team, we had Mick Tingelhoff and some other really special players too."
Kiffin was a member of the Lexington football, basketball and track teams. He also played summer baseball. He was an all-state basketball player in 1958 after averaging 17 points per game his senior year.
The high school offensive and defensive lineman was sought after by Nebraska and Oklahoma during the recruiting process.
One reason he recalls choosing Nebraska over Oklahoma was the fact that he grew up a fan of the program. He remembers driving on Highway 30 with his father to attend Nebraska games, as his father was a Nebraska graduate and had season tickets on the 35-yard line, Kiffin said.
It wasn’t an easy decision, Kiffin recalls. He considered Oklahoma and even took a visit to Norman, Okla., but committed to Nebraska after the high school track and field championships in spring 1958.
"A small plane landed at the Lexington Airport, and Bud Wilkinson, a famous coach, came to visit my parents’ home in Lexington and then I flew back on the plane for a campus visit at the University of Oklahoma," Kiffin said. "Tommy McDonald was my host. I had to make a decision. I chose Nebraska partly because my dad grew up in Lincoln and liked Nebraska.
"That was a pretty big deal when Bud Wilkinson lands at the little airport in Lexington, Nebraska because he’s a Hall of Famer. That was a pretty big deal."
Kiffin attended Nebraska, but his collegiate career didn’t start until 1960 due to a back operation. He was a three-year letterman from 1961 to 1963 for the Cornhuskers. He was an offensive and defensive tackle at Nebraska and was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the 15th round of the 1964 NFL draft.
He played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League in 1965, but his career came to an end after a couple of knee operations.
Once his time as a player was over, Kiffin embarked on a coaching career.
But before he started coaching football, Kiffin coached the American Legion baseball team in Lexington. He served as the team’s coach in 1962 and 1963 during the summers of his final years as a student-athlete at Nebraska. He worked for Union Pacific during the day and then would coach the baseball team at night. He led Lexington to the Class A state championship in 1963.
He joined Nebraska as a graduate assistant under legendary coach Bob Devaney in 1966. Three years later, at the age of 29, Kiffin was promoted to defensive coordinator. The Cornhuskers were a powerhouse in Kiffin’s tenure as an assistant coach, beating LSU and Alabama in the Orange Bowl to earn back-to-back national championships in 1970-71.
Kiffin moved on to Arkansas, serving as the team’s defensive coordinator under coach Lou Holtz from 1977-79.
After three years at Arkansas, Kiffin accepted the head coaching position at North Carolina State. He coached three years at North Carolina State, recording a 16-17 record from 1980-82, before moving onto the NFL.
He worked as a position coach with the Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets and had one-year stints as the defensive coordinator for the Vikings and New Orleans Saints before settling in as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator in 1996.
He is the longest-tenured coach in Buccaneers’ history. He presided over a defense that in 13 seasons ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed 11 times and in points allowed 12 times. He also was a catalyst for the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl championship in January 2003.
Kiffin, along with former Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy, invented the Tampa-2 defense, which is a slightly modified scheme from the traditional Cover-2 defense. It is a style of defense that is well-known and regularly used by defenses across the NFL today.
Although he only held one head coaching job, Kiffin received interest and opportunities throughout his career. He nearly accepted the head coaching position with the San Francisco 49ers after the Super Bowl victory. But head coach Jon Gruden and the team’s owners, the Glazer Family, invited him to lunch and convinced him to stay with the Buccaneers, which included a pay raise, he said.
"I was very fortunate," Kiffin said. "I got some good breaks, and I owe a lot to the players. We had a lot of good players at Nebraska, and we had a good coaching staff. Once I got into the NFL, my career took off."
After the 2008 season, Kiffin stepped away from the NFL and went back to coaching in college. He joined the Tennessee Volunteers’ coach staff as the defensive coordinator under his son, Lane, who accepted the head coaching position.
He followed Lane to Southern California, serving as the assistant head coach from 2010-12, before moving back to the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys in 2013. After two years with the Cowboys, Kiffin was out of football for one year before joining the Jacksonville Jaguars’ coaching staff.
He coached under Lane at Florida Atlantic for the last three years and now will coach with him at the University of Mississippi as a defensive analyst this fall.
Kiffin and his sons, Lane and Chris, all coached together at USC and FAU for one season at each school. Kiffin and his wife also have a daughter Heidi.
Although he keeps busy with coaching, Kiffin and his family try to make it back to Nebraska and the Lexington-area as much as they can.
Kiffin’s older sister, Ann, and her husband, Jim Murphy, who played for Nebraska and was a team captain in 1956, live in Nebraska. One of their children, Dan, owns a cabin on Plum Creek Canyon. Kiffin and his family have traveled to stay at the cabin multiple times, he said.
"Lexington is still home to me," Kiffin said. "I wouldn’t be a football coach if Lexington wouldn’t have hired my father as a football coach (in the 1930s)."