Reimagined, remastered, unleashed: Is new Lane Kiffin ready to succeed as head coach?
- As Lane Kiffin gets another shot as a head coach as FAU, he's trying to prove he's grown from his experience at Alabama after controversy-filled tenures at USC, Tennessee and Oakland.
BOCA RATON, Fla. – It’s two days before Christmas, and Lane Kiffin jumps into shotgun of a rental Nissan Rogue in an upscale neighborhood near here. Kiffin has just been named the head coach at Florida Atlantic University, and his overlapping duties as Alabama’s offensive coordinator have made house hunting in his new hometown a shotgun affair.
Kiffin knows what he wants, both in a home and in his new career. Finding them, could be trickier. For a house, he needs something filled with light, glass and located on the water for his boat and JetSki. His range is somewhere between $3 million and $5 million. Oh, and a pool. He needs a pool.
The first house he enters with a reporter has giant fishing boats docked in the waterway out back. Kiffin has an affinity for tarpon fishing and ignores the nuances of the home to focus on the views of the water. “That’s my happiness,” he says.
For Kiffin, 41, finding that happiness on the sideline has been elusive. He knows what he wants out of his job at Florida Atlantic—for his coaching career to be about coaching again.
Since becoming the youngest head coach in NFL history in Oakland a decade ago, Kiffin has been fired twice and left the head job at Tennessee after one season. He has spent the last three seasons as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama, which he considers a graduate degree in things he’d lacked: discipline, meticulousness and avoiding drama. The Tide’s national title in 2015, three consecutive SEC offensive players of the year and system overhaul under Kiffin have reminded people why he was once considered a prodigy in the first place.
But as success came at Alabama, interest from athletic directors remained tepid. They still feared his NCAA brushfires at Tennessee, his penchant for controversy at USC and his uncanny knack for turning the simplest act—like a visor toss—into a viral story.
Kiffin’s search for a new job, a new identity and a new start may best be told through real estate transactions. After short stints at Tennessee and Oakland, Kiffin says he lost nearly $500,000 on each of the homes. When he got the USC job, he rented soccer star Landon Donovan’s old house, nearly rented a home for $25,000 per month and ended up in a Manhattan Beach home he later sold to Vince Vaughn for $6.5 million. Kiffin got divorced earlier this year, and his ex-wife, Layla, lives back in Manhattan Beach in a $10,000-per month rental home with their three children. Kiffin’s apartment in Tuscaloosa rents for $2,400 a month in a complex filled with students. “I’m very humbled,” Kiffin says. “The football gods put me with Saban to see someone that never changes no matter what the outcome of the game is.”
Has three years around Saban’s monotone, singular focus and rigid organization really changed Lane Kiffin? He’s best remembered for getting accused of “conning” the Raiders organization by late owner Al Davis, antagonizing Urban Meyer while at Tennessee and getting fired in a private airport in September 2013 while at USC. FAU officials have bet big on change. “The fact we were able to pursue him,” FAU President John Kelly tells Sports Illustrated, “is a huge coup for us as a university.”
The Kiffin Factor is a media equation that’s part of FAU’s gamble. Whatever Kiffin does—win, lose or find controversy—will be analyzed, scrutinized and publicized exponentially more than if it happened under any other coach. Especially any other coach in Conference USA.
Kiffin is captivated by the Kiffin Factor. “There’s this age thing about me being so young, and I think there was something about Layla being so attractive,” he says. “There was something in there to where it became, O.K., we don’t like him.”
Kiffin reverse engineered the typical job path. Starting as a head coach in the NFL, moving to the SEC and then the Pac-12. All by age 35. That’s led him to a more standard first head coaching job at a typical first-time head coach age. While viewing waterfront properties, he strolled down memory lane with Lane’s memory bending his career arc toward optimism. What has he learned along the way? “I’m trying to be boring,” he says, before acknowledging he wasn’t succeeding.
Kiffin enters a $6.9 million estate and likes what he sees. He likes it too much. There’s an infinity pool, giant windows and plenty of space to dock a boat out back. He walks upstairs and sees a giant second-story porch. “That’s my baby,” he says, a catchphrase friends say is his trademark.
He walks and talks and asks few questions of the real estate agents attempting to flank him. He knows what he wants. He likes what he sees. He appreciates that none of the real estate agents recognize him or ask for pictures. He appreciates that he hasn’t heard whispers that they’d jack up the prices because they’ve read what he makes in the papers. That happened in Tennessee, he says.
He’s wearing an Alabama dry fit shirt from the SEC title game, Alabama football shorts and crimson and black Nikes. He looks like he just came from the gym. His Tom Ford sunglasses wrap around wisps of gray hair, which mix with the familiar sandy blond. He speaks with confidence and experience. “I have a great story,” he says. “More Lane Kiffin stories.”
The second house Lane and Layla rented in Manhattan Beach was built on a particular part of the hill tumbling toward the ocean where the sunlight disappeared earlier. Lane Kiffin hated this house. He loves light, craves it, relishes that extra hour of light that he can play with this three kids—Landry, Pressley and Knox—so much that he soon moved. “The one on the wrong side of the hill,” he says. “I nicknamed it Green Bay because it was so dark.”
That prompted the Kiffins to buy the house they eventually sold to Vaughn. Kiffin’s strength coach, Brad Rolle, was house sitting early on when a shotgun blast left a crow dead in their backyard. A shotgun blast in Manhattan Beach is as typical as a nor’easter. The coach later reported back to Lane: “You’re going to like this guy.”
Their neighbors ended up being Duck Dynasty creators Scott and Deirdre Gurney, and they vacationed with the Kiffins and held birthday parties together for their kids. “Awesome house,” Kiffin says. “Great neighbors. They end up being our best friends.”
As Lane chronicles the transactions, the real estate agent for the $6.9 million home is talking about the expansive kitchen: “Reimagined and remastered, those are my buzz words.” The remark elicits a polite laugh. But Kiffin, who is attempting a similar overhaul, isn’t really paying attention. He’s walking upstairs and jokes with his real estate agent that he’s annoyed that he took him to a house out of his $3 to $5 million price range. “Everything sucks after this,” Kiffin says.
He pauses for a minute. He’s been trying to be boring, reimagined and remastered. He thinks out loud. “Should I tell my joke?”
He can’t help himself, a classic Kiffin trait, and proceeds: “I used to say there’s a constantly daily battle between who can take more of my money between Layla and Obama.”
He continues with a bit of fuzzy math: “I figured it out. I really don’t make any money. I pay around 52% in taxes. Layla gets 34.5% in the divorce, and [agent Jimmy Sexton] gets 3%. I make [about] 9% and I’m living in Tuscaloosa.”
Kiffin took a pay cut from nearly $1.4 million as Alabama’s offensive coordinator to $950,000 at FAU. He says he could have made $2 million next year as a coordinator.
But Kiffin’s travels have taught him a few things. He says 10 years ago he’d have taken the FAU job as a stepping stone. But in his interview with FAU officials, he told them he plans to stay for a while, hence his decision to buy and not rent. There are players all around, and winning and location mean more than full stadiums and TV ratings.
“It’s almost like when you don’t have money, you think it’s important,” he says. “And once you have it, you’re like, ‘Was I really happy because I have more money going into the bank? No.’ There’s a reason why people retire and move here. I get to coach football and live here. Howard Schnellenberger said it perfect. When he got this thing going, he said it was football in paradise.”
The second house Lane Kiffin looks at has five bedrooms, six bathrooms and a two-car garage. There’s two patios, an outdoor kitchen and a dock with ample space for a boat to provide Kiffin his “happiness.” It’s a shade under $4 million, comfortably in his price range.
Kiffin doesn’t want too big of a home. “It’s just me,” he says. But he sees the home as an investment in recruiting, as he envisions players stopping by to ride JetSkis and recruits having brunch on one of the outdoor patios. “We’re going to win. I know we’re going to win,” Kiffin says. “I know the next head job that I took was going to make or break my head coaching career because the way it works.”
He adds: “Then all of a sudden the storyline becomes, ‘O.K. he’s winning. He knows how to win as a head coach. At USC, he actually did a pretty good job.’”
As he wanders past the white millwork, polished nickel fixtures and custom cabinetry, Kiffin is more focused on the past. In the last three years at Alabama, he’s spoken only a handful of times to the media. Most have been muted sessions he knows will be scrutinized by Saban. As he house hunts, Kiffin seeks to clarify, inform and tell his side of the story. He’s a study in contradiction, as he’s dismissive of the media but obviously conscious of his image in it.
He starts with USC, which received historic NCAA sanctions from violations under former coach Pete Carroll while Kiffin was head coach. The sanctions came six months after Kiffin took the job and included a two-year postseason ban and a loss of 30 scholarships over three seasons. Kiffin went 28–15 under those conditions. In reflecting on USC, he uses the word “bothers” six separate times.
“I don’t care about what people think about me that don’t know me,” he says. “But the one thing that bothers me of all the places is the general perception was that I was a failure at USC as a head coach.”
He spends little time reflecting on the Raiders, other than pointing out he begged Al Davis to use the No. 1 pick on Calvin Johnson instead of JaMarcus Russell. Kiffin says Jeff Garcia had agreed to come to Oakland in free agency, and Davis based his Russell pick off evaluating the television copy of LSU’s Sugar Bowl blowout of Notre Dame. He shrugs: “The Raiders wasn’t that hard. Al Davis fires everybody.”
Kiffin considers his lone season at Tennessee, in which he went 7–5 in 2009, a success. “The SEC was as strong as it’s ever been,” he says, “clearly different than it is now.”
Kiffin says he lost money taking the USC job, as he took it for equal pay as Tennessee and ended up behind because of taxes and cost of living. When then-Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton offered more money to stay, Kiffin declined. He left the Volunteers because of memories of national titles, Heisman Trophies and a 34-game winning streak in Los Angeles. “I can’t for the rest of my life watch USC on TV and go, ‘I turned down that job. What would it have been like?'”
Kiffin says his only regret leaving for USC came from not listening to his agent, Sexton, who recommended more protection in his contract in case the NCAA hammered USC. Kiffin said he believed Trojans officials who told him the sanctions wouldn’t be serious.
He remembers the day after the sanctions came down that the Los Angeles Times compared them to the death penalty. USC athletic director Pat Haden told Kiffin the administrators were ready for half capacity in the LA Coliseum, five-win seasons and the struggles that come with serious penalties. “Once the ball was kicked,” Kiffin says, “no one remembered the sanctions.”
Kiffin, of course, is misremembering part of the reason he got fired at USC. He got fined $10,000 for criticizing officials, took part in a number switch to fool an opponent and prevented Hawaii from using the Coliseum for a walk-through. Small issues at other schools become big issues at USC. When reminded of this, Kiffin brushes off the off-field issues as the Kiffin Factor.
He gets back to the job he did there, finishing 10–2 and No. 6 in the country in the final 2011 AP poll. He wonders if the Trojans had tanked like they were supposed to under probation if he’d have been fired in 2013. He wonders how the best coaches in the NFL, Bill Belichick or Pete Carroll, would fare if they had 44 players when everyone else had 53. “We have this whole view of Lane Kiffin as a failure,” he says. “The perception is so negative. The USC thing bothers me. I don’t think there’s any way you can keep winning through those penalties.”
Kiffin leaves the final house of his early afternoon hitch and stands in the middle of a residential street trying to recall what he’d just seen. He spent less than two minutes in one house, using “Yahtzee” as the code word to abort immediately. So far, his real estate agent has learned that Kiffin prefers new property, an abundance of light and clear views of the water. The “Yahtzee” house had shrubbery obscuring the water, which defeats the point of waterfront living for Kiffin.
He knows what he wants. Knows how he’s going to act. Knows what he didn’t know when his head coaching journey started a decade ago. “Try being a head coach at an NFL team and not knowing what you’re doing,” he says.
Kiffin points to the three-year apprenticeship under Saban as the key to his understanding of the holistic view needed by a head coach. FAU officials noted how often Kiffin mentioned Saban’s “Process” of running his program in the interview.
Kiffin doesn’t pretend that he enjoyed every moment working at Alabama, as he mentions daily 7:30 a.m. staff meetings like he was forced to drink sour milk. He felt isolated in Tuscaloosa; his family didn’t move there, and his profile didn’t allow him to go anywhere socially. “This will come across wrong,” he says. “But it’s like dog years. Three years is like 21.”
To illustrate how different he and Saban are, he pulls up a graphic on his phone. The text comes from Dr. Chenavis Evans, a psychologist who works with Alabama, NFL franchises and other colleges in her job as the owner and CEO of Critical Insights Consulting. Evans profiles the personalities of the coaches and players to help maximize how they work together. Kiffin’s profile comes up as a conceptual thinker. “You’ll like this,” Kiffin says with a smile. “It means I’m imaginative, intuitive about ideas, visionary, enjoys the unusual and learns by experimenting.”
He laughs: “Doesn’t that explain me and everything that’s not in the staff room at Alabama?”
He then points out that Saban and a majority of the Crimson Tide staff are labeled structural: “Practical thinker, likes guidelines, cautious with new ideas, predictable and learns by doing.”
Ultimately, the two sides learned to work together. Kiffin convinced Saban to overhaul the Crimson Tide’s offense and utilize a dual-threat quarterback, moves that have helped them experience unprecedented success. In return, Kiffin says he learned a ton from Saban, with the biggest lesson being how to be more thorough in decision making. “I was always real fast and I didn’t slow down to think things through a lot of times,” he says. “Coach is so slow when it comes to things like that. And it drove me nuts at first.”
Just how nuts Kiffin drove Saban has been a popular topic, as speculation has flown around that Kiffin wasn’t welcome back at Alabama. Kiffin disagrees with that and says he’d never heard that from Saban. (Kiffin did say he’d had at least a conversation with LSU about their offensive coordinator job, as head coach Ed Orgeron is an old friend who left the NFL to work with Kiffin at Tennessee). When explaining his relationship with Saban, Kiffin points to the development of three consecutive SEC offensive players of the year—receiver Amari Cooper (2014), tailback Derrick Henry (2015) and quarterback Jalen Hurts (2016).
Kiffin believes that offensive success has changed Alabama’s recruiting paradigm. He points out that Julio Jones, an elite NFL receiver, caught 78 balls his final year at Alabama in 2010. Cooper caught 124, which is what Kiffin says attracted Calvin Ridley to Tuscaloosa from South Florida. He points out that Derrick Henry’s Heisman season helped lure star freshmen tailbacks B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs. And Hurts’s success this season helped make the Tide more attractive to quarterback recruits. “He’s always been able to go sign any defensive player in America, but he’d struggled to sign the national five-star quarterback,” Kiffin says. “Now that’s different.”
He adds: “I believe, and you can ask him, coach was in a great place with me coming back.”
Earlier this month, Saban said Kiffin is “absolutely” ready to be a head coach and cited his “tremendous maturity.” Evans has worked with both and says they’ve complemented each other well, with Kiffin’s free-wheeling style an effective foil to the structured Saban. “You will see a different Lane,” Evans says. “I’ve seen it. I’ve seen his growth. I’m very excited for him. Coach Saban has been very, very good for Lane, and they’ve been very good for each other.”
As Kiffin ponders his new home, he’s appreciative of the chance Saban gave him at his last one. Kiffin says Saban runs the program like he’s the father of the 85 players, whereas his old boss at USC, Pete Carroll, acted more like an uncle. “Being with both was extremely valuable,” Kiffin says. “I needed Nick Saban more than I needed Pete Carroll.”
The rental car inches through Boca traffic—Range Rovers and Audis crammed light after light—to Kiffin’s hotel. FAU flew Kiffin here private after Alabama’s final practice on Dec. 22. He’s got to look at two more houses later this afternoon and interview a local coach recommended for a job by South Florida football kingpin Luther Campbell, of 2 Live Crew fame.
As the car lurches down the crowded streets, Kiffin knows his new narrative is going to be accepted at a similar pace. He’s hammering home the point of change, citing examples how things the 41-year-old Lane Kiffin is doing that 31-year-old Lane Kiffin wouldn’t have. He brings up the potential of hiring Art Briles, something he considered but never brought forth as an idea to his future bosses. (Kiffin hired Art’s son, Kendal Briles, as his offensive coordinator.) “I came to the decision that’s not at this time the best thing to do, even in a smaller role,” he says of Art Briles. “Because I thought it through. Risk versus reward. There’s too much risk in that. Now you have protesters in your game and at your stadium because you hired Art. That’s not worth it.”
Kiffin moves on to the next example of his new perspective at 41, with three head coaching jobs, two firings and finishing school under Saban in his rear view. When he arrived in Boca Raton late on Dec. 22, he says the old Lane Kiffin—he uses the third person liberally—would have locked himself in the office and watched recruiting film until midnight. Instead, he went to Morton’s with two prominent trustees and supporters, Abdol Moabery and Anthony Barbar. Moabery brought his son and Barbar brought one of his sons. Kiffin brought a pile of Alabama gear for the kids. When Moabery mentioned he loved Campbell, Kiffin proceeded to call Uncle Luke. “Abdol, oh my God,” Kiffin recalls with a laugh. “He starts singing the songs on the phone. He said, ‘I don’t get starstruck. But my God.’” (Kiffin declined an invitation to Campbell’s birthday party later that night, which he attributes to another sign of “the mature Lane Kiffin.”)
There’s a sense that FAU is a bit starstruck by Kiffin, where he’s been and what he could do. Barbar calls Kiffin an “offensive genius” and adds: “The thing that struck me was that he walks in the room and you’re immediately attracted to him.” The school has nearly doubled its salary pool for assistant coaches from $1 million to $1.7 million. Along with location and chance to win, another primary attraction to Kiffin was how badly FAU officials wanted him there. “He clearly wanted the job,” Kelly says, “and we clearly wanted him for the job.”
Three years ago, FAU athletic director Pat Chun called Kiffin and told him they weren’t interested in interviewing him. Three years later, university officials see Kiffin as a perfect fit for the school’s rising academic profile and ambition to be the fastest improving university in the country.
If Kiffin wins big, the Kiffin Factor will bring national prominence to an anonymous regional university. If he loses or controversy ensues, negative attention will follow. Kiffin’s early hires hint to risk, as both Kendal Briles and Kiffin’s brother, new defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin, have had recent issues with the NCAA. When asked if he’s a risk taker, Chun laughs. “I’m a Midwest guy,” he says. “Probably not. I don’t even like heights. I’m probably as boring as you’ll find them.”
Chun’s life got a lot more interesting in the last month, but the desired end result is simple: Kiffin wins big at FAU and reshapes himself as a coach. “I think that would be the best legacy he could leave here,” Chun says, “for people to know him as a coach and not a celebrity figure.”
When Kiffin finally reaches the hotel, he’s scrambling to eat a late lunch and finish off his day’s to-do list. He reflects once more on how appreciative he is for working with Saban at Alabama and says he’s going to call Chapter 12 of the book he’s considering writing “Roll Tide.” Kiffin’s old Manhattan Beach neighbor, Deirdre Gurney, has come up with the title, “I Hate Lane Kiffin” by Lane Kiffin. “It’ll disarm everyone,” Kiffin says Gurney has told him. “Wait, he hates himself, too?”
Lane Kiffin then heads off to continue looking for a new home in his new home. Chapter 13, true to form, won’t be boring.