Tuesday, July 5, 2022

The Kiffin Effect, Brightline on a Fast Track & Other News

Did Lane Kiffin succeed as Florida Atlantic University’s football coach? That depends on which metric you use.

On the field, there’s no doubt. In three seasons under Kiffin, FAU won the Conference USA championship twice after never coming close for almost two decades. The Owls routed Alabama-Birmingham 49-6 on Saturday at FAU Stadium to claim their second title. Though FAU slumped to a 5-7 record last year, Kiffin went 11-3 in 2017 and has gone 10-3 this season.

But President John Kelly also hoped that a big name like Kiffin—who had coached in the National Football League and at college football powerhouses—could make FAU football popular with students and area residents. It was part of his plan to transform the commuter school into more of a traditional campus.

Wins haven’t boosted attendance. The announced crowd for the championship game on a beautiful Saturday afternoon was about 15,000—half the stadium’s capacity. Far fewer actually showed up. As of last season, FAU still ranked 116th in attendance out of the 130 major-college football schools, having moved up four spots from the previous year.

In addition, FAU still hasn’t sold naming rights to the stadium. It’s been almost seven years since the debacle of trying to name the stadium for Boca Raton-based GEO Group, which operates private prisons and detention centers. Student protests and public criticism caused the university—under a previous president—to back off.

fau stadium
Rendering of FAU Stadium with GEO Group naming rights

Yet FAU would point out that the Schmidt Athletic Complex will open soon. Kelly has touted the project as a unique melding of athletics and academics, and it will be a major upgrade to FAU’s facilities.

When he hired Kiffin, Kelly took a risk. By late 2016, Kiffin had been fired from the Oakland Raiders, bolted from the University of Tennessee after one season, been fired from the University of Southern California and worn out his welcome as the University of Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Despite his acknowledged talent, Kiffin was temporarily unemployable in most places.

As I wrote at the time, Kelly went in with eyes wide open. If Kiffin succeeded, he would want another shot at a high-level job. He would not become an FAU lifer. In return for that understanding, Kiffin would make FAU a winner. That was the deal.

So even though Kiffin signed a 10-year contract extension after that first season, few people believed that he would come close to completing it. Indeed, the buyout was low enough as to not be a problem for future employers. It will cost the University of Mississippi just $1.5 million—a relative pittance—to make Kiffin the Rebels’ next coach.

“I’m not driven by money anymore,” Kiffin told ESPN last May. “I’m not driven by ego. I’m very happy (in Boca Raton) on all fronts.” Sure.

Kiffin’s new deal will pay him roughly $4.5 million a year—roughly five times what he made at FAU. That will help him repay the $2 million FAU loaned him to buy a 6,000-square foot house in Boca Harbour. He also got a membership at the Boca Raton Resort & Club.

In the transactional world of college sports, FAU certainly did a lot for Kiffin. We don’t know yet whether FAU got a similar return on investment.

More on Kiffin

Success at FAU hasn’t changed Kiffin’s reputation.

This is from the blog of Peter King, one of the nation’s most respected football writers.

“I’d love to be able to total up the number of players, owners, athletic directors, fans and institutions truly unhappy with Lane Kiffin over the last 12 years. In that time, Kiffin got fired by the Raiders for cause for lying to (owner) Al Davis (upheld by an arbitrator who agreed that the Raiders didn’t have to pay his remaining salary); left Tennessee after one season to coach USC, causing rioting on the Knoxville campus; got pulled off a team bus to be fired by USC early in his fourth season; took the offensive coordinator job at Alabama, and, before the Tide’s NCAA playoff game in January 2017, got fired by (Head Coach) Nick Saban; took the Florida Atlantic job for the 2017 season, signing a 10-year contract extension late in his first season at FAU; and on Saturday, an hour after coaching FAU in a conference title game, was announced as the new Ole Miss head coach.

“Sleep with one eye open, Rebel people.”

Brightline vote

When the Boca Raton City Council votes tonight on the proposed Brightline/Virgin Trains USA station and parking garage, the person to watch will be Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke.

andrea o'rourke
Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke

Since her election nearly three years ago, O’Rourke regularly has proclaimed herself to be the neighborhoods’ champion. When development projects come before the council, O’Rourke regularly asks something like, “What do the residents think?” She asks developers to meet with neighbors and respond to their concerns.

From the start, it has been clear what the neighbors think of the station/garage project: They don’t like it, at least not in its current form. Residents of Library Commons have stated that the garage is too big and too close to their homes, even though it now would be 45 feet from the community’s southern edge, not just 25 feet.

When some neighbors expressed concern about allowing residential development in the Midtown neighborhood, O’Rourke led the charge to develop a plan for the area. That decision not only killed any chance to redevelop Midtown on a grand scale and benefit the city, it led to a lawsuit by a major property owner.

With the Brightline station, however, O’Rourke mostly has ignored the criticism from residents. She and other council members will tout that extra 20 feet of separation and other efforts to create a buffer. Based on earlier comments, though, that won’t mollify the residents.

I asked O’Rourke about the contradiction between her positions on Midtown and on the train station. She didn’t want to comment on detail because of the lawsuit, but did say that she opposed “upzoning without a plan” in Midtown. Upzoning occurs when government allows higher-value development in an area.

But allowing the station almost certainly will lead to upzoning south of the site and perhaps next to the station. That’s happening around the existing Brightline stations. O’Rourke has breezed by this issue. She has stressed the benefits of mass transit, even though she criticized the proposed Tri-Rail station for Midtown. Tri-Rail now has abandoned the station.

O’Rourke likely will be part of a unanimous vote tonight for the station. Maybe it’s the right vote. But O’Rourke no longer could credibly call herself the council’s main advocate for the little people. The plaintiff in the Midtown lawsuit might even use O’Rourke’s position on Brightline as evidence in the lawsuit.

If O’Rourke, as expected, votes yes, it will show just how fast-tracked and wired the station project has become.

Recap of Brightline details

Regarding the details of the Brightline/Virgin Trains proposal, almost nothing has changed.

The company would pay for the station. The city would pay about $12 million toward the parking garage— most of the cost. The garage would have 455 spaces, including 64 for the library. Between the garage and the parking lots, the library would have the same number of spaces—171.

Virgin Trains would pay just $1 a year to lease roughly two acres of city-owned land east of the Downtown Library. The company still would get right of first refusal to the roughly four remains acres on the library site and two city parcels across the street. The city and company would share parking revenue.

brightline garage boca
Brightline garage rendering

Two things are new. The city attached a report from the Federal Railroad Administration finding that the train service won’t worsen air pollution. Some residents contended—without offering evidence—that the station would pose a health risk because trains would be stopping and starting, not just passing through.

Also, a memo from Deputy City Manager George Brown said the city had asked for details about a consultant’s report—for Virgin Trains—that the station would produce $15.5 million worth of economic benefit to Boca Raton. Brown said the methodology in the study is “widely used and well-regarded.”

Among other things, the study projects that 129,000 visitors would come to Boca Raton on the train by 2023. It also says the station would generate 700,000 annual one-way trips by that time.

As with most aspects of the proposed station, Boca Raton is relying on outside information. The city never commissioned its own study of whether the return on that $12 million would justify the investment. Virgin Trains is seeking stations in Boca Raton and elsewhere because its original ridership projections were too high, despite all the claims that the service would be a “game-changer.”

Nevertheless, the staff memo concludes that the station would be a “significant economic benefit.”

Delray: West Atlantic Redevelopment Plan, disparity study

With new City Manager George Gretsas set to start on Jan. 6, Delray Beach hasn’t been dealing with too many major issues. But two notable items are up Tuesday.

george gretsas
Delray Beach City Manager George Gretsas

The city commission will try to approve the updated West Atlantic Redevelopment Plan. The draft is nearly 300 pages, and it notes all the reasons to make redevelopment a priority. Within West Atlantic’s roughly 1,000 acres, unemployment is twice as high as it is in the rest of the city. The high school graduation rate is 24 percent lower.

Most residents leave the area to work, while outsiders hold most of the jobs in West Atlantic. Much of the area’s economy is thus upside down.

Earlier, the community redevelopment agency will discuss a related item. The CRA would pay 20 percent of the cost for the city to conduct a $200,000 disparity study. According to the staff memo, the study “would be to determine whether or not a statistically significant disparity exists within the city’s award of contracts to minority-and woman-owned enterprises.”

Delray Beach commissioners have talked often about the need to patronize local companies and hire local workers. The study could provide ways to do that.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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