IRVING -- Monte Kiffin has been around the football block a time or two... or three.
Kiffin, 72, has coached at Nebraska, Tennessee, Southern Cal and in Green Bay, Buffalo, Minnesota and Tampa Bay, among other places. But after only five weeks in Dallas, Kiffin said he understands why the Cowboys are America's Team.
"I'm telling you what now: You talk about liking your football," Kiffin said Thursday in the team's annual assistant coach meet-and-greet with the media. "...I'm driving to the airport [to pick up his wife], and I'm flipping around the radio stations. And it isn't just like sports talk, or this or that, it's the Dallas Cowboys. Believe it or not, I hit a button, hit another, and they are still talking Dallas Cowboys. You are all fired up down here. It is what it is. That's why it's the Dallas Cowboys. That's why it's the dream team."
The Cowboys had only four defensive coordinators from 1989, when Jimmy Johnson arrived as head coach, to Bill Parcells' final year as head coach after the 2006 season.
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Parcells' departure, which coincided with the end of Mike Zimmer's seven seasons as defensive coordinator, came only two years after the Cowboys switched to a 3-4 defense for the first time in franchise history.
Since then, beginning with Wade Phillips' arrival in Dallas in 2007, the Cowboys have had constant turnover at defensive coordinator.
Kiffin is the fifth defensive coordinator since the beginning of the 2007 season, and he is switching Dallas back to a 4-3 scheme.
"We've settled on Monte Kiffin, and I use the word 'settled' and I kind of laugh to myself," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who was a backup quarterback with the Buccaneers in 2004 when Kiffin, Rod Marinelli and new special teams coach Rich Bisaccia were there. "This guy has coordinated this style of defense as well as anybody in the National Football League for the last couple of decades."
Kiffin's first hire was Marinelli as defensive line coach. The two are reunited after a seven-year separation to try to return glory to the Cowboys.
Kiffin and Marinelli were together 10 seasons in Tampa. During their time there, the Bucs' defense was in the top 10 in points allowed every year and in the top 10 in yards allowed in all but their first season of 2006, when Tampa ranked 11th. The Bucs went 89-71 from 1996-2005, allowing an average of 281.4 yards and 16.7 points per game. They generated an average of 32 turnovers a season.
"I think what we did there, and a lot of other guys were there with us, [gave us] a bond and... a belief [in the system]," Marinelli said. "There are things maybe you do differently here and there over the course of the year. But that foundation, the fundamentals of what we do, is the core belief for us. That kind of unites us. That's why I wanted to be a part of this and be back with him."
Kiffin and Marinelli weren't greeted by Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch when they walked through the Valley Ranch doors. But they do believe they have a core group of players to make a quick, successful transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3.
DeMarcus Ware, Bruce Carter, Sean Lee, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are good building blocks.
"We are not the 1996 Buccaneers by any sense," Kiffin said. "...We have a good nucleus here for a 4-3 defense, but we still need to get better, no doubt about it."
Cowboys fans are tired of waiting for next year, so Kiffin and Marinelli's honeymoon won't last long. That was one of the first things Kiffin figured out when he arrived in town.
"We hope we can get there as quick as we can -- as quick as we can get there," Kiffin said. "This isn't like three-year plan right here. I don't think we had that wherever we went. I don't care where you coach. All I can tell you is there are no guarantees. I just tell you right now these guys are going to get coaching."