Skip to main content

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.”

Why the odd union of Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic could become an ideal fit

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.

*****

lane-kiffin-fau-football-alabama-usc-tennessee-2000.jpg

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.”

The making of a leader: Four games tell story of Alabama QB Jalen Hurts's growth

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.”

*****

lane-kiffin-usc-fau-football.jpg

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.