• Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic feels like an unnatural fit. But for a program needing wins and a coach seeking trust, the marriage just might work.
By Andy Staples
December 13, 2016

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Lane Kiffin wanted to make one thing clear straight away. “This was not about becoming a head coach again,” Florida Atlantic’s new head coach told SI.com on Tuesday as the room slowly emptied following his introductory press conference. “This was not about ‘You have to take a job.’ We were doing great things at Alabama. It’s a very exciting time there. I had a great relationship with coach [Nick] Saban. I think this is a special place.”

Kiffin had pounded home that point during the press conference as well, but the circumstances make this position difficult to believe. Kiffin acknowledged that he also interviewed with Houston, a more attractive job from a financial and competitive standpoint. If Kiffin is telling the truth that he planned to return to Alabama as the offensive coordinator, he is leaving nearly half a million dollars in salary on the table. He makes $1.4 million to run Alabama’s offense. He’ll make $950,000 a year to be the Owls’ head coach. He probably left $1 million on the table. Had Kiffin chosen to run the offense at LSU for friend Ed Orgeron, the Tigers were prepared to pay Kiffin at least what they will pay defensive coordinator Dave Aranda ($1.85 million) and probably more. Kiffin did not make this move lightly, and he probably didn’t make it entirely because he believes in the future of FAU football.

And that’s OK.

It would have been rude had Kiffin suggested anything other than championship dreams for the Owls, and he is trying not to be as rude during his fourth head-coaching stint as he occasionally was during his first three*. The fact is the 41-year-old Kiffin’s goals align with the goals of FAU athletic director Patrick Chun and the goals of the Owls’ donors and fans. Kiffin wants to win a lot of games at FAU. They want Kiffin to win a lot of games at FAU. That might not make for an everlasting union, but it makes for a perfectly symbiotic relationship.

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Put yourself in Kiffin’s shoes. Sure $950,000 is a ton of money, and Kiffin has already made a ton of money. But do you know what’s more than $950,000? The two million bucks LSU probably would have offered. Could you walk away from an extra $1 million-plus per year because taking the lower salary might help you reach your ultimate goal? If Kiffin had left a VP job at KPMG to hang out a shingle and make less money as his own boss, we’d say he bet on himself. When he turns down seven-figure coordinator jobs to take less as a Conference USA head coach, he gets called desperate. But if Kiffin wants to be a Power Five head coach again, he needs to prove he’ll be a better CEO than he was the first three times. He can’t do that by succeeding as the coordinator at another SEC school. He’s proven over the past three seasons that he’s a brilliant SEC offensive coordinator. He can only prove what he wants to prove if he can be a CEO again. Now he is. 

*Kiffin now works in the same county as the town of Pahokee, which he insulted so badly as Tennessee’s coach that he and his staff were once banned from Pahokee High’s campus. These are the gaffes Kiffin can only overcome by proving he has grown up in the intervening years.

Chun, Gene Smith’s former lieutenant at Ohio State, reached out to Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer after firing Charlie Partridge to seek advice on the type of coach he needed to hire to lift the Owls out of a three-year quagmire in which they won only nine games. Those conversations helped convince Chun of two things.

1) He needed to hire someone with a background on offense.

2) He needed to hire someone who could mold the scheme around the players rather than try to ram players into a rigid system.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

What offensive coach has done a better job recently at molding the scheme around his players than Kiffin? Each of the past three years, Kiffin has essentially built an offense from scratch around a different starting quarterback. Alabama won the SEC in each of those years. The Crimson Tide won the national title last season and are the favorite to win another this season. And had Kiffin had that résumé and never been a head coach before, athletic directors would have tripped over one another trying to hire him. But Kiffin got fired as the Oakland Raiders’ head coach in 2008. He bailed on Tennessee after the 2009 season to go to USC. He got fired in the middle of his fourth season at USC.

Chun hopes he’s hired “Lane Kiffin 4.0,” an updated version that has left behind all the bugs that torpedoed his career while he was trying to emulate former boss Pete Carroll. Chun pointed out that some of the best coaches don’t simply copy their mentors. They blend the best aspects of each. Meyer got his hard edge from Earle Bruce and learned a softer touch working for Sonny Lubick. Bob Stoops learned to grind working for Bill Snyder and learned to loosen up working for Steve Spurrier. Maybe Kiffin needed these past three years with Saban to round out the traits Kiffin borrowed from Carroll. Some of the first words out of Kiffin’s mouth after FAU president John Kelly introduced him Tuesday suggest Kiffin’s current boss has rubbed off on him.

“The Process starts today here at Florida Atlantic,” Kiffin said.

Chun also seems refreshingly realistic about the situation his hire creates. Chun told a story about riding in a car with Kiffin on Tuesday morning. Kiffin had Facetimed daughter Landry, who was celebrating her birthday. According to Chun, Landry Kiffin mentioned she’d seen lots of TV coverage of her dad’s new job. She also mentioned that the commentators predicted Kiffin would only stay in Boca Raton for two years. “My new bosses are in the car with me,” Chun recalled Lane Kiffin saying. Then he laughed. If Kiffin stays at FAU for only two seasons, it will mean things either went very well or very poorly. And it’s quite possible that if things go well, Chun could find himself working in the Power Five again as well.

There is no guarantee Kiffin will win enough to earn his way back into the Power Five as a head coach. With Butch Davis (Florida International) and Charlie Strong (South Florida) returning to coach in the state and Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, Jim McElwain at Florida, Mark Richt at Miami and Scott Frost at Central Florida, Kiffin has entered perhaps the most intense recruiting environment in the Sunshine State’s football history. “The beautiful thing,” Wellington (Fla.) High coach Tom Abel said, “is now you’ve got no excuse to leave the state of Florida.” Kiffin doesn’t have to beat Fisher, McElwain and Richt for players to succeed, but he will need to occasionally fend off Strong and Frost. He’ll need to win the head-to-head on the recruiting trail and on the field against Davis, the man who built the great Miami teams at the turn of this century before departing for the Cleveland Browns.

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That part shouldn’t be a problem for Kiffin. He never had trouble recruiting. He struggled with the other aspects of running a team, starting with his stint with the Raiders as a 31-year-old. “At the time, you think you’re ready. I did,” Kiffin said. “You think you know it all. That’s why experience is important. That’s why maturity is important. What happened with me is what happens with any first-year head coach. You screw some things up. Usually, when you’re a first-time head coach at that age, you’re somewhere small and it’s not a big story. Well, mine are national stories.”

They remained national as Kiffin learned on the job through his stints in Knoxville and Los Angeles. He never wonders about how differently his career might have turned out had his first head-coaching job come at a place like FAU. That, he said, doesn’t do any good. All he can do is apply what he’s learned in the meantime. Unlike his friend Orgeron, who got interim head coaching stints at USC and LSU to prove he had changed since flopping at Ole Miss, Kiffin hasn’t had the opportunity to run his own program. Nearly 10 years after Al Davis gave Kiffin a job few 31-year-olds would handle well and three years after Pat Haden canned him in a private terminal at LAX, Kiffin has his chance to back up his promises that he’d run a program differently the next time. When a reporter asked Tuesday what message Kiffin would like to send to the rest of Conference USA, Kiffin offered proof of one lesson learned.

“I’m not concerned about sending a message to the rest of the conference,” Kiffin said. “I’ve sent those messages before—like to coach Meyer when I was at Tennessee and we were in the same conference and I said we were going to sing Rocky Top all night long in the Swamp. That didn’t go over very well. It took about eight or 10 years to get back to being buddies with coach Meyer. We’re a lot better now—after I accused him of cheating. So I’m not worried about the message. I’m worried about our program. I’m worried about our players. … So this is kind of a boring press conference.”

Ten years after embarking on a path that took him too high too fast, Kiffin understands it doesn’t matter if he wins the press conference. He only has to win the games.

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