Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Thursday, February 14, 2013 5:39 PM
IRVING, Texas (AP) — Monte Kiffin figures he could be 52 and coaching the 3-4 defense instead of 72 and running the 4-3.
Age and scheme don't matter much to the new defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. Talent and passion do.
"I look at coaching like this, do you like it or do you love it?" Kiffin said Thursday in his first meeting with reporters at team headquarters. "You got to love it. You got to have great passion."
Kiffin, architect of the so-called "Tampa 2" when the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, will spend the next six months converting the Cowboys to the 4-3.
It's the same alignment they used when coach Jason Garrett was a backup quarterback and Dallas was winning three Super Bowls in four seasons in the 1990s. Dallas switched to the 3-4 under Bill Parcells almost a decade ago.
When he replaced the fired Rob Ryan last month after the Cowboys' second straight 8-8 season — and third in a row without a playoff berth — Kiffin remembered seeing countless news items that all seemed to start with "72-year-old."
"I thought it was my jersey number, by the end of the day, good golly," said Kiffin before pointing out with a wry smile that he was a leap year baby in 1940 — born on Feb. 29. "So can you figure out how old I am right now?"
There's no escaping that he will be 73 when the season starts, but he wasn't thinking about age and whether he related to today's players when he decided he wanted back in the NFL after four seasons running the defense for son Lane Kiffin at Tennessee and Southern California.
"I got the same question when I was 68 years old at the University of Tennessee," Kiffin said. "Let me tell you what. I'm 72 going on 52."
The new Dallas staff's ties to Tampa Bay's Super Bowl team go deeper than Kiffin. Rod Marinelli turned down a chance to stay in Chicago as defensive coordinator after Lovie Smith was fired, deciding instead to run the defensive line for the Cowboys. It's the same job he had with the Bucs when Kiffin was defensive coordinator.
Rich Bisaccia was special teams coach in Tampa from 2002-10 and left Auburn after just a few weeks when he says Garrett kept pressing him to join the Tampa reunion.
"I think we know what we believe in and what the core beliefs are and the core beliefs are running to the football and playing with passion and playing with great energy and probably the No. 1 thing we all look for are guys that love football," Bisaccia said. "The three of us love football."
Marinelli was the first of the three to leave Tampa when he became head coach in Detroit. That lasted just three years, and ended with the only 0-16 season in NFL history.
He bounced back quickly, going to Chicago as defensive line coach and getting promoted to defensive coordinator a year later. The Bears forced 44 turnovers in 2012, including five interceptions of Tony Romo — two of them returned for touchdowns — in a blowout win at Cowboys Stadium.
"When I came from Tampa, everything we did worked, so there was a great belief, a great faith in what you're doing, and then I was very fortunate to go through adversity," Marinelli said. "It's really not a belief unless it's been attacked, and you kind of weather the storm through it all, which I did, and then you come out of it with a stronger belief."
Kiffin's return to the NFL was followed less than a week later by NFC East rival Philadelphia hiring Chip Kelly as coach, leading pundits to point out that Kelly's Oregon Ducks rolled up 730 yards against Kiffin's Trojans last season — and more than 1,150 yards over two games.
"We should have done better at USC," said Kiffin, who spent 11 seasons in the 1960s and '70s under Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne at Nebraska, his alma mater. "We didn't play as well as we should have. I take responsibility. I got back in and the Pac-12 had gotten better, without a doubt."
Kiffin says the Cowboys have the personnel to make the 4-3 switch, contradicting his old boss in Tampa, Tony Dungy, who said the Cowboys will need two years of drafts to stock the defense properly.
The biggest change will be Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware converting to defensive end, and the biggest question will be whether Dallas has enough interior defensive linemen after eight seasons with only a nose tackle. Another concern is whether cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are physical enough for the Tampa 2 style.
"The transition, you never know, but when you start to look at these guys on tape, they can really run and our system is built on speed, quickness and balance and change of direction and attitude," Marinelli said. "The fit looks good. It's intriguing and exciting."