One of college football’s most controversial coaches gets a fresh start at FAU
Written by ALLISON LEWIS
Photos by JASON NUTTLE
Lane Kiffin has one of the most storied careers in American football history. He’s been hired and fired, loved and hated, by some of the best teams in the Pac-12, NFL and SEC.
Late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis fired Kiffin, the NFL’s youngest head coach, in 2008 after a 4-12 season. USC did the same in 2013 after a 64-21 loss to Arizona State. His short stint at Tennessee left fans and students dismayed, then angry, when he started trolling them on Twitter. In January, University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who signed an eight-year extension with the organization, relieved Kiffin, his offensive coordinator, eight days before the Tide’s upsetting loss to Clemson for the 2017 national championship.
Compare this to Florida Atlantic University, whose football program has seen similar ups and downs since its inaugural 2001 season. Legendary head coach Howard Schnellenberger led the Owls to a Sun Belt Conference championship title in 2007 and their first bowl invitation (New Orleans Bowl) the same year. Following his retirement in 2011, FAU hired Carl Pelini as Schnellenberger’s replacement in 2012. Pelini was fired after admitting to illegal drug use, and interim head coach Brian Wright finished the season with bowl eligibility in 2013. Charlie Partridge took over in 2014 and was fired in 2016 after three consecutive 3-9 seasons.
FAU’s president, John Kelly, set out to find a replacement, sitting in on each candidate interview. “I wanted a coach who could take us to the top 25,” he says.
By mid-December 2016, fate intervened. FAU needed a coach; Kiffin needed a job.
“We wanted Lane Kiffin or a Lane Kiffin-type coach,” President Kelly says. “And we got what we wanted.”
So did Kiffin. He’s now head coach of the FAU football program.
Kiffin’s football legacy started early, as captured in a black-and-white photo displayed on the credenza in his office. Young Lane and his father, Monte Kiffin, are on the sidelines at North Carolina State University, where Monte held his only head coaching job from 1980 to 1982. The caption reads: “Dad and son clown around … NCSU head coach, Monte Kiffin, holds his 5-year-old son Lane atop his shoulders. …” Lane points a finger, his mouth agape, as if hollering at someone.
Today, Kiffin, 42, is a soft-spoken, sarcastic guy with sandy blond hair and brown eyes. He uses Twitter to invite Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West to Owls games, and shares questions like: “Is sand called ‘sand’ because it is between the sea and the land????” Someone close to him likened him, with affection, to “a diva.”
Sometimes, he works out at 5 a.m. with Wilson Love, FAU’s head strength coach. He’s always living and breathing football, a trait that remains constant, despite his regular rotation through NFL and college football teams.
Plenty have offered skepticism about Kiffin’s recent appointment, for one reason or another: his questionable hiring of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, a former Baylor University coach who is facing litigation for allegedly coercing football prospects with sex while at Baylor; a lawsuit filed against Kiffin by former Alabama wide receiver Antonio Carter, alleging the head coach misled him about a football job at FAU.
Despite it all, Kiffin remains focused on his players and this year’s season, which started Sept. 1 with a match against the Navy Midshipmen.
FAU is different from your time at Alabama in many ways. Why exactly did you take this job?
The president is really committed to a winning football program. … If you look at the track record of the schools over years and years and years, almost every Florida school at some point has won. There’s a reason for that, and the reason is there are great players here. And you get to live in Boca.
What excites you about coaching FAU football?
In the interview process, it was apparent they were excited about winning and doing things differently than they’ve done before. When you go to a place that hasn’t won for a while and you do [win], it’s actually more exciting than [when] you go to a place that’s already been winning and you just keep winning. I’m excited.
Do you have plans to start recruiting more from area high schools?
We do. As we move into the next class going forward, we want the majority of that class to be from Florida, especially from South Florida, because of the quality of players and the quality of coaching here.
FAU has gone three seasons winning only three games. How imperative is it to change that record?
That’s the No. 1 goal. That’s why you’re hired. First step was putting together a really good staff. Now we’ve got to keep working with our players, continuing to recruit and then, as we get closer to it, managing the game so that those close games we win in the fourth quarter.
What’s your vision or dream for this football team and your first season at FAU?
We don’t really … say, ‘We’re aiming to have a championship in Year X,’ whenever that is, because there’s too many variables in football. It still is a team sport. It’s got 85 players on a roster. You get all kinds of variables. Injuries—more injuries probably than any other sport. All we do is try to work to be the best we can in that year, on that day.
How do you plan to get more involved with the Boca community?
We talk about that weekly. We’re still trying to get out as much as we can and meet as many people as we can. It’s unusual to be at a place where there are so many people that don’t know about the football program. We’re always trying to come up with ideas and do the best we can to change that.
Do you plan to stay in South Florida long-term?
We don’t really look at things that way. I’m in a different stage of my life than I would have been had you asked that five to 10 years ago. As you’re younger you’re trying to find the bigger, better job or [higher] salary, or whatever. Sometimes you start to realize it’s more important to find a place where you really feel comfortable, you really like the people that are there and you really feel something special—and a place you want to live, too.