Pete Carroll, the former Patriots coach whose Southern Cal Trojans will be vying for an unprecedented third consecutive national title when they meet Texas in the Rose Bowl Jan. 4, was sitting on a plane in Los Angeles on his way to a recruiting trip to New York when he checked his cellphone one more time before takeoff.
There was a message that a reporter wanted to speak to him about Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Carroll didn't have much time, so he returned the call and spoke fast.
''He's been the most successful defensive coordinator in the NFL," said Carroll. ''I've never met an individual who understands defense as much as Monte. His knowledge is unparalleled. The way he teaches defense is just an amazing thing to watch. His defenses over the years have been dominating. I think that's the only way you can describe them, and I've known this man for almost 40 years, and I don't know anything compared to him.
''I've never been able to duplicate how to teach defense as simply and effectively as he does. I wish people could watch how he takes a young player and teaches him the system. For someone in this profession to watch how he goes about it . . . he's the best."
Kiffin is Carroll's sounding board, a guy he calls once a week. They met when Carroll was a young secondary coach with the Arkansas Razorbacks under Lou Holtz in the late 1970s, and Kiffin was defensive coordinator.
Kiffin, who recently signed a two-year extension that pays him nearly $2 million per year, also coached with Carroll in Minnesota, Buffalo, and New York in the NFL, as well as at North Carolina State.
The connection runs even deeper. Kiffin's son, Lane, had quite a first season as the Trojans' offensive coordinator, replacing Norm Chow. When asked about Lane Kiffin, who helps Carroll with recruiting, the coach said, ''It's not surprising he's been so successful. He's the son of one of the greatest coaches ever."
Kiffin already has helped orchestrate one Super Bowl championship in Tampa Bay for head coach Jon Gruden. And now the team has begun to build back toward those glory days. The Bucs will head into Gillette Stadium to face the Patriots Saturday with a 9-4 record and a heavy dose of confidence following a big win over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday.
Kiffin doesn't have to say much to get the Bucs' defense up for this one. What he has to do is scheme to stop Tom Brady, which he was working on yesterday when he politely declined an interview.
Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks said, ''I've been waiting for this game for two years. I'm more jacked up about this than any other game this year. I relish this opportunity playing the two-time defending world champions. The last team to win the Super Bowl besides them was us."
Kiffin's coaching style hasn't changed much over the years, except he has that knack of ''tweaking" -- as Carroll calls it -- to adapt to the opponent. Last week, Kiffin asked his unit to get more physical against the Panthers, and Tampa Bay dominated in the trenches.
The 2005 Bucs aren't the 2002 Bucs, who held opponents to 12.25 points per game, but they're limiting teams to just over 16 points a game. Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland may not play Saturday, but they have received such a boost from former Boston College star Chris Hovan, reborn as a nose tackle, that they may rotate a few tackles in McFarland's spot inside of ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires.
The defense has allowed the fewest first downs in the league (195) and only 6 first-possession points (both field goals), second to the Broncos, who have allowed only 3. They're seventh overall in stopping teams on third down (34.5 percent) and are allowing only 92.85 rushing yards per game (fifth).
If you had to define The Kiffin Way, it would be an attacking, pressuring, penetrating style that creates turnovers.
That part never changes.
The 63-year-old Kiffin has resisted interest by teams seeking a head coach. He believes some coaches are meant to work one side of the ball, and that he's one of those people (though he was the head coach at North Carolina State from 1980-82, going 16-17).
After the Bucs beat the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, Kiffin was rewarded with a three-year, $5.1 million deal, which was extended last month. He's worth every penny, according to those who know him best.
''Let me put it this way," Carroll said. ''Before I knew Kiff, I didn't know anything about defense.
''His mind is always working. He never sleeps. He's always thinking about ways to counteract their guys. We spent a lot of time on the phone going over strategies. I mean, Monte will just go until he collapses and falls asleep and then he'll wake up and be ready to go again. He's a tireless worker."
When Tony Dungy was at the Tampa helm, he would often turn the air conditioning up full blast in Kiffin's office after he'd fallen asleep on the couch in hopes Kiffin would get the hint and go home. But Kiffin would just pull a blanket over himself, get a full night's sleep, and wake up at the crack of dawn refreshed and ready to go again.
Kiffin is game-planning for a Patriots offense that is beginning to jell.
Brady, though nicked up with a sore left calf, has never played better. Bucs defensive coaches marveled the last couple of days at how quickly Brady releases the football. The Bucs are already playing the underdog card. Gruden said he likes the fact that many experts think the Bucs can't win in the cold of Foxborough (Gruden lost the infamous ''Snow Bowl" game here in the 2001 playoffs while he was head man in Oakland).
Kiffin leaves the motivational stuff and the offensive scheming to Gruden. He just shuts the door to his office, turns on the video machine, and watches until the light goes on or the sun comes up. Whichever comes first.