Already on his fourth head coaching job, Lane Kiffin is adjusting his lenses at FAU
Kiffin thinks this time around, he's more ready to be the CEO of a program
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The view from Lane Kiffin's office is not unlike that of dozens of coaches across the country. It provides a panoramic view of the practice field, and on this day, it is filled with summer campers drawn by the still-fresh charm, promise and swagger of Florida Atlantic's new coach.
"No," Kiffin corrected, "Those are our guys."
Oops. The visitor who made the observation is properly embarrassed. Lane sympathizes.
"At this level, they taught me you have to change your lenses," he says. "When you evaluate your own players and recruits, you have to change your lenses from what you're used to seeing. You're used to seeing first rounders."
"Coaches are like, 'Your lenses are starting to adjust," Kiffin says. "Linemen [sometimes] look like running backs."
The moment is gone. The larger issue of Kiffin's character rehab lingers in an office strangely devoid of mementos from his previous coaching stops in Oakland, USC and the SEC. Perhaps it's because Lane Kiffin doesn't usually leave a job, he breaks up.
There are hurt feelings, recriminations, broken promises. And that's just Tennessee.
But Kiffin wants you to know he's something close to changed. More boss than buffoon. More office than offensive. The M word has even snuck into the conversation.
"He gives you a sense of maturity when the book on him was immaturity," says FAU AD Patrick Chun.
Maybe taking over a Conference USA school that has been in FBS all of 11 years will teach you humility.
"Nick Saban has better players every time he steps on the field," Kiffin says. "Outside of that, he is the CEO of everything. He knows everything that is going on in every aspect of everything."
While Kiffin isn't quite that omnipotent, he has learned to delegate. Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles will call all the plays bringing every page of Baylor's playbook with him.
Meanwhile, Kiffin has promised to be the face of the program, shaking hands, smiling pretty, learning names, being the Head Owl Coach.
"I didn't know how to do it," Kiffin said of his last head-coaching stop at Tennessee. "I'd sit in the office and watch more film. I'm sure I probably got emails and asked to do things. That wasn't a priority."
He tells the story of being seated at the head table of a rehearsal dinner prior to the wedding of the daughter of a prominent Tennessee booster.
"I hadn't even met the daughter," Kiffin said. "This is just stuff that is weird to me … But because you're the head coach at Tennessee, [you] get put next to [the couple] so it looks like you're best friends.
"At the time I thought, 'This is so wrong.' Now I realize, OK, that was really part of the job."
The mature CEO thing manifests itself further. Briles was handed the keys to the car after being cold-called by Kiffin. That despite being fresh from the Baylor scandal as well as Art Briles' son.
"We did the research that we could," Kiffin said.
Lane's brother Chris is the defensive coordinator who is also accused of four NCAA violations in his previous job at Ole Miss. Lane hasn't seen much of the second notice of allegations. It is gently suggested he read it.
Kiffin tells sensitive stories about his time at Alabama, but most of them are off the record. That's what a good CEO does. The best revelation is a shout out to Saban for embracing the spread offense that lifted Bama to the next level last season.
"He wanted to go fast," Kiffin said. "It wasn't Lane Kiffin coming in and making Nick Saban go fast. He was very clear when he hired me, 'I want to change. I don't like it [but] it is what college football is.
"By opening up the offense that way, it opened up recruiting. To where now [Alabama] can go anywhere in the country and get a quarterback."
Alabama's quarterback of the future (and maybe now) is Tua Tagovailoa from Hawaii. Top tailback recruit Najee Harris is from California.
"Twenty years ago, those things don't happen," Kiffin said. "My point is, the marriage [with Saban] was awesome both ways and it worked."
"Forty-two sounds really old to me," Kiffin said. "But if I step back, think how many coaches who were very successful head coaches who still hadn't become head coaches [at my age]."
It's not clear if Kiffin is self-aware enough to understand even at his relatively tender coaching age, he needs this job as much as the school needs him. The Owls new coach is only 14 years younger than the university he represents. His dad -- defensive guru/FAU analyst Monte Kiffin -- was 21 when Florida Atlantic was founded in 1961.
Next door to that practice field, private planes fly in and out of Boca Raton Executive Airport. A one-time boy king who has coached on the teams of four Heisman Trophy winners and has three national championship rings will have to be heard over the noise of jet engines.
"There's no guarantees with anything," Kiffin said in a moment of reflection. "But because of where I am in my maturity of how I think, 10 years ago if I would have been sitting here after six months on the job. I would probably been thinking, 'I'm going to turn this program around and go to one of those top 10 jobs.'
"But having been at those places. Once you're there, it's never what it seems. The grass isn't always greener."
So what, exactly, is this FAU gig about for Lane Kiffin? Let's not kid ourselves. This isn't a retirement job.
"It's a retirement city," Kiffin said coyly of Boca.
FAU officials all but say if he has success, they expect their boy to be out the door for the next Power Five job. No offense, but the mere fact Kiffin had to come here to prove himself again, is a reflection on both him and Florida Atlantic.
Eyes wide open on each side.
"Even though the USC thing will drive me nuts forever," Kiffin said.
USC thing? Why?
"Because we did a really, really good job there. It really pisses me off that the assumption is we didn't."
Kiffin likes to point out despite a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships, he took over a program in 2010 that has won 10 games three times in last seven years. Kiffin was head coach for one and a half of those seasons.
"People look at that like we didn't win there," he said.
Another Kiffin observation: If he is so bad, how come his USC winning percentage (.651) is basically the same as Notre Dame's Brian Kelly (.656)?
FAU is a fine school whose football promise was unlocked early on by patriarch coach Howard Schellenberger (58-74, two bowls in 11 seasons). If Kiffin can make FAU relevant again, well, he's got his work visa punched for a longer head-coaching stay in the big time.
"I wanted a Music Man to come in here, just because of his name that would wake up a hell of a lot of our sleepy fans," Schnellenberger said.
As the only other former Alabama offensive coordinator around the program who won a national championship with the Tide (1961, 1964, 1965), Schnelly knows: FAU figures it can ride the tail of that Kiffin comet to at least becoming some sort of bite-sized national conversation piece.
"At the end of the day, that's what makes for us a compelling choice," Chun said. "Obviously because he's had failure, the market is unique for him as well. That's probably why the stars collided."
Failure? That's one way to put it. Kiffin left Alabama Houston, which chose to go with its own offensive coordinator Major Applewhite instead. Applewhite has never been a head coach.-- after taking the FAU job the previous month. This was after he had interviewed with higher-profile
As I wrote at the time, taking the FAU job is what desperation looks like for Kiffin. A guy who coached the last two SEC offensive players of the year shouldn't be at the school with the nation's third-worst attendance at this point in his career.
Coaches covered in all that glory and bling don't end up in Boca..
That image coalesces as Kiffin reaches for a real estate listing. It is of the nearby house he purchased on the water. The luxury crib is 6,200-square feet and features two jet skis. He pulled out a rod and made some casts this morning because, well, he can.
Turns out the sun strategically sets in Lane's face each night.
"My whole thing is I hate when it's dark …," he said. "Every time I go look at houses, I go to the backyard before I go inside. I want to see where the backyard is at night because I'm never at home except at night."
Change your lenses. Maybe the house, the practice field, the airport and the job are all ideal places for the boy king to take off again.
"FAU," Schnellenberger concluded, "is the best opportunity for a guy his age who has some scars along the way."
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