BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Standing before boosters, media, a handful of players and Howard Schnellenberger, new Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin marveled at the sunshine and palm trees just outside the window. He has regained his head coaching title, though it won't be in the NFL or at one of the top programs in college football. No, Kiffin will be leading the Owls, and he understands exactly how and why he wound up in Boca Raton, Florida.
"After being let go there and going through that process, you call a lot of people that don't call you back all of a sudden," he continued. "You realize things about people, but you realize somethign when Nick Saban is willing to give me that opportunity."
Kiffin went through an entire Rolodex of big-name coaches, thanking each for their influence on him. But he understood that it was Saban whose trust allowed him to resurrect a nearly dead career.
"I'm very grateful to Coach Saban," he said.
Kiffin flamed out with the Oakland Raiders. He left Tennessee in the dust for USC. The Trojans gave him four seasons but got sick of his act after five games in 2013 and fired him at an airport following a road game. Three months later, Saban called and brought Kiffin to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to discuss modernizing the Crimson Tide offense. One month after that, when offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was hired away by Michigan, Saban knew the direction he wanted to go.
Alabama has won two national titles and appears headed for its third since Kiffin took over the offense. (Kiffin will remain in Tuscaloosa through the College Football Playoff.) But all good things must come to an end, and through "ass-chewings" and disagreements with Saban and a reported intense desire to become a head coach again, Kiffin decided FAU presented his best opportunity.
"It has been a wonderful three years," said Kiffin of his time at Alabama, nothing that he's learned more than he expected. "Coach Saban has been great through this entire process."
Kiffin told CBS Sports during his introductory press conference that reports of him being at odds with Saban, so much so that his job was supposedly in jeopardy, were untrue. He said he planned to return to Alabama next season if a job like FAU did not come along. "I was planning on being back there. We're in a great run. That's why I don't read what's out there," he said. "Coach Saban and I have a great relationship, regardless of what people may think."
He also claimed that reports of him being laser focused on leaving the Tide for a head coaching job were unfounded. "This was not about becoming a head coach. I was very happy at Alabama and what we were doing there," said Kiffin, noting that he was in year one of tutoring freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts.
In taking over Florida Atlantic, Kiffin said he's the most excited he's been at any of his head coaching jobs. "It's a different place, a different feeling," he said. "In my mind, I wanted to find a place that's committed to winning and seeing great things happen, somewhere they use the word 'we.'"
Kiffin is not distracted by his detractors. Powerful Houston regent Tillman Fertitta told a local radio station that Kiffin "was not a safe hire" for the Cougars. Kiffin said he was not offended by the remark and that "Tillman sent me a message immediately clearing that up."
He also said he's taking a page out of Saban's book in ignoring what the media says or writes about him. "Why am I going to waste my time?" he recounted from a conversation with Saban. "No disrespect ... I don't care what they say."
He appears to not be taking the opportunity lightly. Kiffin admitted that, in his past jobs, he "was figuring things out one day at a time instead of having a plan." Kiffin was so worried about the Xs and Os on offense that he forgot he needed to manage an entire program, which he will do now as he takes a page from Saban by bringing a CEO approach to his new job.
Kiffin noted that prominent names like Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll were fired from head coaching gigs before finally figuring everything out at future stops. Carroll did not become a great coach until his third job (taking over USC in 2001 at the age of 50). Kiffin is starting his fourth at age 41.
"As hard as some of those times were, when you go through those experiences, you learn from them," he said. "You now know the answers to things."
Kiffin also said he actually followed his father's advice for the first time. Long-time defensive coordinator and assistant Monte Kiffin, 76, has always told Lane that it's much easier to build a program than follow in the footsteps of a successful coach.
Lane Kiffin credited new Texas coach Tom Herman for helping him refine his offense. He thanked TCU coach Gary Patterson for helping him mature by teaching him that you do not need to bounce around jobs: You can stay at one place, build a program and win. He admitted that it's taken nearly a decade for Urban Meyer to regain respect for him after Kiffin, previously at Tennessee, claimed Meyer cheated in recruiting and promised he and the Vols would sing "Rocky Top" all night long in The Swamp.
"I'm in a much better position now," said Kiffin.
But for all the changes Kiffin says he's made, for all the maturing he claims he's done, for all the lessons he insists he's learned, the proof will be in how the Owls perform on the field and whether Kiffin stays at Florida Atlantic for more than a year or two, assuming he finds success in Conference USA.
Prior to joining Alabama, Kiffin was an opportunist, a description he probably would not deflect or shy away from these days.
He rode a wave of appreciation for his father's Tampa-2 defense and Al Davis' love for young coaches (John Madden, Jon Gruden) to become the youngest coach in the modern NFL when he was tapped at age 32 to join the Raiders in 2007. (Davis hired him over fellow USC assistant Steve Sarkisian.) Kiffin was so young that he looked up to many of the players he coached. He went 5-15 in one-plus season before being let go four games into the 2008 campaign.
Two months after being fired in a headline-making press conference, he jumped at the chance to take over for Phil Fulmer at Tennessee. Just 14 months later, he left Knoxville with a strange middle of-the-night press conference to take over for Carroll at his presumed dream job back in Los Angeles at USC.
And now, three years and three months after learning he was suddenly unemployed while at an airport at 3 a.m., Kiffin is back in charge of a program.
When asked how he planned to turn FAU into a winner, Kiffin promised that his team will be a hard-working group that does not take anything for granted. But in sharing that philosophy, he unknowingly provided the perfect context for where his career stands right now and how, at age 41, he's starting at the bottom as a head coach for the first time.
"You don't get what you want," he said. "You get what you deserve."