School of hard Knox

How Lane Kiffin became college football's easiest coach to hate, particularly in Tennessee, and why we shouldn't expect that to change any time soon

By Jon Solomon /

School of hard Knox
How Lane Kiffin became college football's easiest coach to hate, particularly in Tennessee, and why we shouldn't expect that to change any time soon
CBSSports.com talks Kiffin's return to Knoxville
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When Lane Kiffin was in kindergarten, he would often call into a radio show featuring his father, NC State coach Monte Kiffin, with a question. The family story goes that on one occasion, Lane suggested the university should give his dad a new contract so the family could buy a blackboard to draw up football schemes.

Yes, even as a child, Kiffin had an ambitious mind for football that foreshadowed his future as the most polarizing coach in college football.

There is little middle ground in how the public views Kiffin, who returns this week to coach in Knoxville for the first time since he was vilified for leaving Tennessee in 2010, just 14 short months after he took the job.

Either you believe there's no one better at selling himself and failing up than Kiffin, or you believe he's a good coach and recruiter who simply got handed keys to luxury cars too soon. Gray areas don't seem to exist in conversations about Kiffin.

Each Kiffin exit tries to top the previous one, as if there are style points for soap opera-like departures. There was the PowerPoint presentation employed during a press conference by Al Davis, which he used to help demonstrate that Kiffin was a so-termed liar during his time in Oakland. There were burning mattresses and a bizarre, late-night news conference at Tennessee. There was the airport firing and getting pulled off the team bus at USC.

Through it all, Kiffin became a magnet to a sports-media world now consumed by page views -- so much so that friends and family members wonder whether Kiffin will be allowed to be head coach of a team again. Kiffin is the rare college coach who can be the butt of jokes both in the mainstream media and on TMZ.

Google "Lane Kiffin" last week and the first thing that popped up likely would have been an online skit that went viral. In it, actors portray Kiffin and his wife fielding vulgar and insulting phone calls from Alabama fans.

"Lane sent it to me on a family group text," said Robin Kiffin, Lane's mother. "It was awful. That language is horrible. … They never leave him alone. I don't see them picking on anybody else like that. That guy at Texas Tech (Mike Leach), he locked a quarterback in a shed and he gets another job. Are they still talking about that? No. The Arkansas guy (Bobby Petrino) gets caught on a motorcycle wreck with another woman and he gets another job. Are they talking about him? No."

What is it about a 39-year-old man with a 40-36 head-coaching record that creates such intense feelings?

What's the expiration date for being a punchline?

"I'm scared to death for his safety. I want him to be in the press box."

People who know Kiffin acknowledge the negative views of him have been fueled in part by Kiffin himself, something he seemingly understands. There were the recruiting violations, the bravado, the perception of aloofness and, most notably, not enough wins on the field. But those around him also wonder what exactly Kiffin did that was so wrong that he continues to be portrayed as a caricature.

"At some point maybe he made a mistake, maybe he didn't, and it got reported and people had opinions on it and it just ran wild," said Heidi Kiffin, Lane's sister. "Once that happens, people look for it. People love a bad guy."

This season, as the new offensive coordinator at Alabama, Kiffin's interactions with coach Nick Saban have been caught repeatedly by television cameras and the Internet. Kiffin's potentially stepping into a head coaching role again -- the one job everyone was sure he would succeed at as a kid -- is currently tied to his role at Alabama. It's a high-pressure job where he can avoid making headlines with his mouth and focus solely on coaching four- and five-star talent.

Through four games in 2014, Kiffin received glowing reviews for Alabama's offense, including from Saban. The next two games saw Alabama post its first consecutive games under 20 points since 2007. Then last Saturday, Kiffin's offense scored 59 points and averaged 7.5 yards per play against Texas A&M, including a 35-point second quarter, which was the highest-scoring quarter in program history.

It's under this backdrop that Kiffin visits Knoxville for what figures to be a hostile return Saturday night. Kiffin's three kids are staying home out of concern that the environment won't be appropriate for them, according to Kiffin's mother and sister. They remember how uneasy the family felt leaving Knoxville in 2010.

"I'm scared to death for his safety," Robin Kiffin said of Saturday's game. "Some people were visiting us last weekend from Tennessee and they said they better not let him on the sideline (where Kiffin coaches at Alabama), they should put him in the press box. I want him to be in the press box."

Former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton wishes Kiffin's first game against the Vols would have been in Tuscaloosa instead.

"I know that Tennessee fans have some really hard feelings," Hamilton said. "Tennessee is a storied program so to have someone sort of walk out on them, even given it was for his dream job and the way that whole year went down, there's not going to be any love shared. But I also believe Tennessee fans are smart enough that they don't want any kind of scar on who they are by going overboard in the reaction to it. And I say that not even knowing what overboard means."

The stunts surrounding Kiffin's return appear to have no limits. The local NBC affiliate did a tongue-in-cheek report this week based on what it says is a true accusation from a barber that Kiffin skipped town before paying a $14 haircut debt.

In a Tennessee State House race, challenger Eddie Smith compared incumbent Gloria Johnson to Kiffin. "Lane Kiffin and Gloria Johnson both made a lot of promises to the people of Tennessee ... And like Lane Kiffin, Gloria Johnson is all talk," reads the political ad.

Ed Orgeron, a former Tennessee and USC assistant under Kiffin, wants Vols fans to remember one thing: "The day before he left (Tennessee), they loved him. You can say whatever you want, but he brought excitement to that school and he loved Knoxville, too. This environment is what he thrives on. He'll be very respectful and very courteous and call his best game."

Kiffin must stay quiet on his return to Knoxville -- that's probably for the best -- since Alabama's media policy does not allow assistant coaches to be interviewed in-season. During his only media availability in August, Kiffin said he had a "great year" at Tennessee and the people of Knoxville were "phenomenal," adding he doesn't operate by looking backward on whether he should have left Tennessee.

"I think as you make mistakes, the No. 1 thing you've got to do is learn from them and not just make excuses for them," Kiffin said. "I've made more than anybody, probably. To be able to go through what I've gone through and still be fortunate before the age of 40 to still be here to be offensive coordinator with Coach Saban at Alabama, you take some time to reflect on that."

Before Kiffin was viewed as a villain

Kiffin was a nervous wreck at his introductory press conference with the Oakland Raiders in 2007. He was so nervous that he got a call afterward from his younger brother Chris, now an assistant at Ole Miss, who gave him a hard time and told him to relax and just be himself.

Almost eight years have passed since Kiffin took the Raiders position -- the job that changed everything for him. Sure, he was a successful offensive coordinator at USC with Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. That was a shared role with Steve Sarkisian and part of the Pete Carroll dynasty. But leading an NFL franchise at the age of 31 without any head-coaching experience?

Kiffin was just 31 years old when Al Davis hired him to coach the Raiders. (Getty Images)

"I was shocked he was an NFL head coach so soon," said Jon Leverenz, an assistant coach of Kiffin's in the 1990s at Jefferson High School in Bloomington, Minnesota. "But hey, kids grow up fast when they leave high school."

Kiffin wasn't cast as a villain then. As strange as it sounds today, when the Raiders hired Kiffin on Jan. 23, 2007, after Sarkisian turned down the job, Kiffin was a blank page to most fans. Only weeks earlier, the University of Minnesota passed over Kiffin to hire Tim Brewster. In hindsight, perhaps it was a missed opportunity for Kiffin to have the ability to learn how to be a head coach at an under-the-radar program.

Raiders owner Al Davis loved hiring young coaches, especially offensive play-callers. Davis was 33 years old when he took over the franchise in 1963.

"Al was hired at a very young age, and Al certainly wouldn't shy away from hiring someone because of his or her age," said former Raiders CEO Amy Trask.

Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan and John Madden all had success as Raiders head coaches in their 30s. Davis was banking on the same from Kiffin at the age of 31 -- 14 months younger than when Madden took over.

Kiffin had the knowledge and the pedigree as the son of Monte Kiffin, the famous NFL defensive coordinator who invented the Tampa 2 defense. Lane's future was never in doubt growing up: He would be a coach.

Whereas Monte tends to be deliberate when making decisions, Lane aggressively pursues his goals. Whereas Monte often goes by the book, Lane isn't afraid to needle.

"I think he tries to be funny sometimes," Robin Kiffin said. "The same thing happens to me. I'll do something and Monte will say, ‘What in the world did you say that for?' I say, ‘It's funny.' He'll say, ‘No, it's not.'"

Football was a way of life in the Kiffin household for the three children, especially Lane, who tagged along with his dad at practices and training camps. Lane was the football equivalent of a gym rat. He was interested in probing the Xs and Os. He liked making predictions about what would happen in games while watching on TV.

"Even playing Madden video games, he wouldn't play that much, but he'd still beat me because he could read what the defense was doing so much faster than I could," said Scott Hackett, who met Kiffin as elementary school kids in Minnesota and later became his best man. "He liked to question and wanted to learn the why behind things."

Lane would only open himself up to those who gained his trust, a realization Hackett came to believe was due to Monte's fame.

"I never asked for autographs, never asked him to take me to games, whereas maybe other kids did," Hackett said. "I think there was some of that, ‘Are you really my friend, or are you really my friend because of who my dad is?' Once he knows you're sincere and what you're telling him is truthful and you're not using him, he opens up a little more and he's very loyal."

While there were advantages to being the son of an NFL coach, Lane experienced difficult moments, too. Robin Kiffin said a neighbor's son reported Lane got beat up at the bus stop every Monday in the sixth grade after Monte Kiffin's Green Bay Packers lost a game.

"I don't know if that's true; he wouldn't tell me," Robin Kiffin said. "People would say his dad's defense was terrible, the defense lost the game. He was in second grade when Monte got fired at N.C. State. Sure, that impacted him. When you're young, in your mind you say that's never going to happen to me."

Kiffin's offenses through the years
YearTeamQuarterbackYards per play (Rank)Points per game (Rank)
2005USCMatt Leinart7.5 (1st)49.1 (2nd)
2006USCJohn David Booty5.9 (29th)30.5 (18th)
2007RaidersJosh McCown/Daunte Culpepper/JaMarcus Russell4.7 (29th)17.7 (23rd)
2008RaidersJaMarcus Russell/Andrew Walter4.7 (29th)16.4 (29th)
2009TennesseeJonathan Crompton5.7 (53rd)29.3 (43rd)
2010USCMatt Barkley/Mitch Mustain6.0 (30th)31.0 (37th)
2011USCMatt Barkley6.5 (9th)35.8 (16th)
2012USCMatt Barkley/Max Wittek6.6 (10th)32.1 (40th)
2013USCCody Kessler/Max Wittek6.1 (38th)29.7 (60th)
2014AlabamaBlake Sims6.9 (7th)36.9 (25th)

As a high school quarterback, Kiffin hated to lose, and his curious and confident nature pushed the boundaries. He wasn't afraid to question coaches in an era with less of that than today.

Leverenz, an assistant at Kiffin's high school, remembers times when Kiffin could have made the easy throw. Instead, he kept rolling to the sideline and would throw a completion at the last second to David Watson, his friend and a future USC assistant with Kiffin. One excuse Leverenz would hear from Kiffin: "I didn't see him. I don't have my contacts on."

"He made things exciting," Leverenez said, laughing. "He got under people's skin. He thought his way was right all the time. I don't know if you'd call it arrogance or confidence, but he was sure of himself. When you mention Lane Kiffin's name to some English teachers, they shake their heads and are like, ‘Oh boy.' He wasn't burning up the grade-point average or anything. But he knew football was his focus."

Leverenez is quick to point out he had a good relationship with Kiffin.

"He wasn't offensive; he wanted to have fun," Leverenez said. "He knew the game very well and some of the input we got from him was helpful. He could see what defenses were doing to us. He wasn't afraid to chime in, which was helpful."

Underneath some of the swagger was someone who wanted to help people, Robin Kiffin said. She recalled how Lane was once nominated by a high school teacher for student of the month because every day he carried on a conversation with an autistic student who got ignored by other kids.

Kiffin got a football scholarship to play at Fresno State. But he had an average arm and became a graduate assistant for his final year, per the suggestion of Fresno State assistant Jeff Tedford.

Kiffin was an offensive line assistant at Colorado State in 1999, then a quality control assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2000. The big break came when he was hired to coach tight ends at USC for Carroll, who once coached with Monte Kiffin.

Friends of Kiffin say no one has more influence on him than his father and Carroll. (Attempts to speak with Monte Kiffin and Carroll for this article were unsuccessful.)

The USC dynasty positioned Lane Kiffin for a stunning ascension: NFL head coach. By the time Kiffin got fired by the Raiders after posting a 5-15 record, Davis had publicly called Kiffin a "professional liar," citing lies to the media and internal disagreements over personnel. "I think he conned me like he conned all you people," Davis told reporters in 2008.

Trask, the Raiders' CEO at the time and a trusted confidant to Davis, said she found it easy and productive to communicate with Kiffin but knows that wasn't the experience for everyone. She sympathizes with Kiffin becoming a head coach at a young age, remembering how she was hired by the Raiders in her mid-20s only after serving as an intern with the organization.

"When I look back at the manner in which I handled things at a young age, I often cringe," Trask said. "My point being this: We handle situations when we're in our 20s or early 30s as Lane was very differently than how we handle them in our 40s or 50s. I know that was the case with me, and I would guess that looking back Lane might feel the same."

Monte was required for Tennessee deal

Mike Hamilton was in an unenviable position as Tennessee athletic director when looking to replace Philip Fulmer in 2008. The firing of Fulmer split Vols fans. Hamilton wanted to change the paradigm in the value associated with rising coaches' salaries.

What if, Hamilton wondered, Tennessee paid a lower salary for a less-experienced head coach and used the savings to surround him with an established and higher-paid coaching staff?

"Lane was involved in a very successful program at USC and, by all accounts, was a very bright football mind," Hamilton said. "For some of the risk involved in his youth, we felt that was counterbalanced by the fact his dad would be there as defensive coordinator. Candidly, that's what moved Lane to the next phase of the search, and ultimately we would not have made that hire if Monte had not been part of the deal."

Despite how he is remembered, Kiffin helped revive a Tennessee program that had fallen off under Phillip Fulmer. (Getty Images)

Tennessee did not put much credence into Davis' rambling news conference when Kiffin was fired in Oakland.

"We talked to some folks around that franchise and some folks in professional football," Hamilton said. "Fair or unfair, there's always been this perception that the Raiders have a quasi-odd deal around them. It was almost viewed as that was the Raiders being the Raiders. Now, that may have been the wrong view. A couple people there said there were definitely some issues there, and others said Lane wasn't given a fair shake."

On the field, Tennessee provided a solid product under Kiffin. The 7-6 record could have been better, though, and losses to UCLA and Virginia Tech remain fresh in Hamilton's mind.

But quarterback Jonathan Crompton showed surprising effectiveness under Kiffin. Tennessee nearly upset No. 1 Alabama on the road, losing on a blocked field goal as time expired. The recruiting buzz surrounding Tennessee gained momentum nationally as Kiffin made news for off-the-field comments, something he later said was done to get noticed by recruits. Aggressive tactics were Kiffin's nature.

"There was one time we needed to get a kid's transcript to be a mid-year graduate," Orgeron said. "We would find the guidance counselor at a high school in his home and get him to open up the school to get a kid's transcript. That's in the snow in Cleveland, Ohio. Lane won't stop. He won't take no for an answer."

Even Hamilton is quick to say that, despite some "revisionist history" by Tennessee fans, Kiffin reenergized the Vols' fan base.

"Our name was back on the national map for recruiting," Hamilton said. "We had some problems with spread-type offenses on the defensive side of the ball. But overall, I thought he was a good coach."

To Daniel Hood, who redshirted as a Vols defensive lineman in 2009, there was never a more enjoyable time to play at Tennessee than in Kiffin's one season. Football wasn't a job like it felt to Hood under Derek Dooley, Kiffin's successor.

Under Kiffin, coaches had to kick players off the field when 90-minute practices turned into two-and-a-half-hour sessions because the players wanted to keep going. Under Kiffin, players enjoyed his outlandish media boasts, such as saying he looked forward to "singing Rocky Top all night long" after the Vols beat Florida.

"Everything was so intense with him, everything was so vital, so important," Hood said. "He brought in the attitude we're Tennessee, we're better than you, and we'll prove it, and the whole team bought into that mantra. He'd go say something in the media and we'd know we'd have to back it up."

The flip side was an undisciplined team at times. "We weren't as disciplined as we should have been," Hood said. "That's what cost us (wide receiver) Nu'Keese Richardson. That's what cost us the bowl game (against Virginia Tech)."

Richardson was a prized wide receiver signed by Kiffin who got kicked off the team in November 2009 after being charged with attempted robbery along with two teammates. Richardson was the player whose recruitment first got Kiffin in trouble with the SEC. Kiffin said in February 2009 that Gators coach Urban Meyer cheated while trying to land Richardson at Florida. What Kiffin accused Meyer of -- calling a recruit while he was on another school's campus -- was not an NCAA violation and earned Kiffin a public reprimand from the SEC.

At the SEC Spring Meetings in 2009, Kiffin said he never received an apology from South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier for questioning whether Kiffin had passed the NCAA compliance test before calling recruits. Spurrier confronted Kiffin by an elevator in front of some media during an exchange that left Kiffin's face red. Kiffin had yet to coach an SEC game and already was making enemies.

Ex-AD: Kiffin was never comfortable in Knoxville

The cumulation of the off-the-field incidents ate at Hamilton, who shared the blame for hiring Kiffin and resigned from his own position in 2011. There may not have been more off-the-field incidents under Kiffin than Fulmer, but Hamilton said he never felt like issues were "buttoned up" with Kiffin.

"I'm not talking from a compliance standpoint," Hamilton said. "I'm talking about understanding that at a place like Tennessee, you have to operate in certain parameters and clean up the edges. There was a lot of rumor and innuendo during his time there, and nothing really came out of it. There was so much underlying turmoil and we could never, ever get settled down. That's unsettling as an athletic director. Honestly, that was probably going to happen regardless of who followed Phillip. We had 32 straight years of Tennessee guys and it was only natural people would be unsettled and uncomfortable with that."

At Tennessee, you need to sign little Johnny's jersey at Cracker Barrel. Lane might not even be at Cracker Barrel.

One of the more troubling stories during Kiffin's time with the Vols included allegations that Kiffin encouraged two Tennessee hostesses to visit a high school football game in South Carolina to flirt with recruits. The dressed-up coeds held up a sign for recruits, had their picture taken and became publicized in a New York Times story. This resulted in an investigation by the NCAA.

In the 2013 book, "The System," hostess Lacey Earps said Kiffin liked the idea of the hostesses going to South Carolina and that his brother-in-law, Tennessee assistant David Reaves, provided $40 in gas money for the trip. Earps said she felt she had been hung out to dry by Tennessee when the story broke. Earps never had a physical relationship with a recruit, she said, though she acknowledged purposefully leading the players on. "These are high school boys," she said in the book. "They have one thing on their mind."

The NCAA found that Kiffin's staff committed 12 violations, all related to recruiting, from January 2009 to October 2009. "Some of the violations received nationwide publicity and brought the football program into public controversy," the NCAA infractions committee wrote in 2011. "This is not a record of which to be proud. Nevertheless, because the violations individually were secondary and most were isolated, the committee, in the end, determined not to make a finding of a major violation."

Hamilton said he doesn't know whether the hostess trip was staged by Kiffin's staff or not. "I have to only believe what was found by the NCAA, and it was found it was not instigated by the football staff," he said.

Added Hamilton: "I certainly felt there were a couple times I didn't get the whole truth on things. But he also on a number of occasions was honest about things that he didn't necessarily have to be honest about and sensed maybe I wouldn't have known without him telling me."

Hamilton believes Kiffin never felt comfortable in Knoxville under the spotlight from a rabid SEC fan base.

"At Tennessee, you need to sign little Johnny's jersey at Cracker Barrel," Hamilton said. "Lane might not even be at Cracker Barrel, number one. He would sign Johnny's jerseys, but he wouldn't understand why Johnny was asking. You can say that's immaturity, you can say that's being introverted or shy, or you can say that's being a little more reclusive. There's probably a little bit of all of that. He's very comfortable with being around who he likes being around with."

Heidi Kiffin, Lane's sister, recalls how odd it was to visit Lane in Knoxville and not be able to go to dinner or a bar with him.

"I don't think it was that he was uncomfortable. It was maybe a new thing for him because it's such a small, small town," Heidi Kiffin said. "It was kind of like he was really, really famous in Hollywood or something. He's a football coach. It was something he wasn't used to and probably a lot of pressure. (Kiffin and his family) really couldn't make a move without anybody noticing."

One of the more unusual examples of the attention surrounding Kiffin is the question of whether he named his son after the city of Knoxville. Monte Knox Kiffin -- who now watches games as a 5-year-old with Lane just as Lane did with his father -- was born Jan. 13, 2009, just weeks after Lane took the Tennessee job.

"He couldn't understand why people in Knoxville loved that he named his son Knox and were so consumed by it," Hamilton said. "I told him he's the highest profile person in the state of Tennessee outside of Dolly Parton, Elvis and Pat Summitt. I don't think he ever grasped that. That's one of the lessons I learned as an AD: Cultural fit matters."

In a 2011 interview with ESPN.com, Kiffin said his son was named Knox before he got the Tennessee job. "(My wife, Layla) picked out the name because she had seen somebody else had named their kid Knox," Kiffin said. "I think it was Brad (Pitt) and Angelina (Jolie), actually. She had picked it out when we were still living in California."

To this day, Hamilton laughs at Kiffin's claim that Knox wasn't named for Knoxville.

"Don't we have to cry BS on that a little bit?" Hamilton said. "I'm like, OK, whatever. So Knox is on your radar for how many years? I just don't believe that."

Burning mattresses as Kiffin leaves

Daniel Hood still has the video of Kiffin's final, emotionally-charged meeting with Tennessee players on Jan. 12, 2010. Hood was a freshman player and figured he would want to remember what Kiffin said as chaos ensued around them, so he videotaped the speech.

Hood keeps the video private out of respect for former teammate Aaron Douglass, one of the most vocal Vols at the meeting. Douglass later died of a drug overdose. What upset some players the most was Orgeron calling recruits and telling them not to enroll mid-year at Tennessee as planned. That kept the door open for recruits to go with Kiffin and Orgeron to USC.

Before being fired at the airport, Lane Kiffin lost seven of his final 11 games at USC. (Getty Images)

"That's the part where we felt we got stabbed in the back," Hood said. "We asked Kiffin about it. He said he hadn't hired any coaches to USC yet and that he hadn't told [Orgeron] to do that. I thought he was sincere. He looked like he was sincere. But I don't know. I was young. He could have told me whatever he wanted to and I would have believed it."

Hood understood the anger by some players who had developed a relationship with coaches and felt it had become a one-sided investment. On the other hand, Hood understood Kiffin was going to USC to pursue his dream job.

"Lane Kiffin and [assistant coach] Lance Thompson were the only two coaches that really reached back and said, 'Here's my new cell number, I'm sorry what's happening, but I'm headed out of here,'" Hood said. "I've always respected that."

The chaotic scene in Knoxville saw groups of angry students and fans surround the football complex after news leaked that Kiffin had taken the USC job. As the mob chanted profanity using Kiffin's name and mattresses got burned, police barricaded the road in front of the football complex.

Hamilton, Tennessee's AD, was in Denver that day trying to close a sponsorship deal with Dish Network. A couple days earlier, Hamilton said Kiffin candidly told him he would go to USC if he was offered the job and the rumors were true that Pete Carroll was headed to the NFL. Hamilton said Kiffin told him he didn't think he was at the top of USC's list. That changed quickly.

Oddly, Tennessee held a press conference for Kiffin before he departed. Normally, a school that loses a coach to another program doesn't stage media availability on its campus. Kiffin wanted to meet with the media without TV cameras, creating tension between print and electronic media members.

"I wasn't aware of the mattress burning and the bizarre press deal," Hamilton said. "I would have never allowed him to have a press conference in the football complex."

Kiffin left the football complex in a police car. Kiffin's wife, Layla, received about 1,200 negative text messages, according to Lane's mother Robin Kiffin, after someone posted Layla's cell phone number on The Rock, a landmark in Tennessee.

"Their house was very hard to find and there were people looking into their window that night," Robin Kiffin said. "When my movers went several months later to move my stuff, people were yelling stuff at my movers and someone threw a cigar on our balcony and tried to burn our house down. It was all very unsettling for this to happen over a football coach."

Will Kiffin be a head coach again?

Kiffin's dream job at USC became a nightmare before he ever coached a game. The NCAA leveled the Trojans with damaging sanctions that limited how many recruited scholarship players Kiffin could have for several years.

"He was promised they would never fire him while under sanctions," Robin Kiffin said. (USC officials declined to be interviewed for this article.)

USC went 10-2 in 2011 despite the limitations, even beating Oregon in Eugene. Although the sanctions certainly hurt USC, Kiffin did nothing to show 2011 would be the norm. He was often criticized for USC appearing listless as the team lost seven of his final 11 games as coach in 2012 and 2013.

The continuation of the Lane-Monte pairing resulted in the awkward departure of Monte as USC's defensive coordinator in 2012. That season, the Trojans became the first preseason No. 1 team since 1950 to lose six games. USC dropped four of its last five contests, and in those four losses, the Trojans allowed 40.3 points per game.

The father who Lane tagged along with as a kid to learn football and who was a package deal at Tennessee resigned to spare his son.

"It was horrible on both of them," Robin Kiffin said. "Monte said he wasn't going to be responsible for anything negative on Lane's resume. Monte didn't have this job (as a current Dallas Cowboys assistant) before he resigned. At his age, he could have been put out for pasture."

Under Kiffin, the Alabama offense is putting up more than 36 points a game. (Getty Images)

Five games into the 2013 season, Lane was gone as well. USC athletic director Pat Haden recorded a YouTube video before the season stating Kiffin was not on the hot seat and that he had "great confidence" in him. By the fifth game, Haden had seen enough as fans wanted Kiffin out.

Kiffin became the first USC football coach to be dismissed in the middle of a season. That it happened at Los Angeles International Airport in the wee hours of the morning only added to the drama surrounding Kiffin's coaching career. Kiffin has said there were a lot of things he should have done better as USC's coach.

"They said he wasn't rowdy enough on the sideline and wasn't Pete Carroll," Robin Kiffin said. "Now at Alabama, Saban says that's what he likes best about him, the calmness on the sideline. It's like he can't do anything right."

There is little doubt Kiffin wants to be a head coach again.

"You just kind of thought your whole life that's what he's going to do," said Heidi Kiffin, Lane's sister. "That's his niche. That's who he is. I'm not saying he's perfect. Nobody's perfect. We all make mistakes. I think he is just scrutinized so much more than anybody else in the profession and people make such a big deal out of something that a lot of times is nothing."

Said Orgeron, who became a caricature at Ole Miss and also wants to be a head coach again: "It's not too late. Sometimes it takes time to figure out what kind of head coach you want to be. I think people who don't know Lane may see a certain side to him. I don't think that's who he wants to be. I'll say this about Lane: He's going to call it like he sees it. He's not really worried about feelings."

Robin Kiffin, though, is a mother and a longtime coach's wife, and she isn't so sure. She attributes the villain hat placed on Lane's head to "jealousy" for his success at such a young age and for having a beautiful wife.

"He sends me stuff all the time, these stupid spoof things that are downright mean and cruel," Robin said. "I'm sure it does bother him, but he puts on a good front. I mean, how can it not bother you?"

So the Kiffin family braces for what's next.

For the articles, such as this one, that retrace Lane's tumultuous career to this point.

For the game Saturday in Knoxville that rekindles bitter feelings, even if only for one night.

For the next sign shown on TV mocking Kiffin, or the next viral video that collects page views at Kiffin's expense.

There are no call-in shows for Kiffin these days. He is almost 40 now, not a kid. He is instructed to be quiet, not make waves.

Lane Kiffin appears to be trying to grow up as a coach. Will college football let him?

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