Lane Kiffin's Last Chance: 'This Is a Defining Job, One Way or the Other'

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterAugust 28, 2017

Dec 13, 2016; Boca Raton, FL, USA; Florida Atlantic Owls head coach Lane Kiffin speaks to the media at FAU Football Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

He is 32A now, and there's no getting around it. His days of flying first class—of no expense spared and no excuses made or given—are way back there, sir.

"Seat 32A," Lane Kiffin says. "How about that?"           

The obvious question: What was it like?

"About what you'd think."

A few rungs down from what he's used to.

The new head coach of Florida Atlantic University is having to get used to it, though.

Kiffin recounted the cramped coach-class flight at Conference USA media day in Dallas in front of a media scrum of, oh, say, eight reporters. If his seat on the flight was a long, lonely walk from first class, so too is coaching tiny FAU from being the youngest head coach in modern NFL history with the then-Oakland Raiders, from head coaching college blue bloods Tennessee and USC, from being Nick Saban's right-hand man at Alabama.

The past decade has been a frenzied, convoluted ride—an unthinkable and improbable career line of unimaginable highs and self-destructive lows—for Kiffin. A coaching life equal parts charmed and jaded pushing him further and further to the back of the line and into reality's cold embrace.

Long story short: fired, left for another job, fired, fired. And now here he is, coaching the last FBS school that would have him as head coach.

"If I don't make it here," Kiffin says, "I guess I'm just a play-caller."

He knows this is it. His last chance as a head coach.

He can't afford to screw it up this time.

"Lane is a very smart coach. He knows the game," Alabama head coach Nick Saban says and then hesitates, and you just know there's a "but" floating in the thought.

Because there's always a qualifier following the idea, the concept, of Lane Kiffin, head coach. Has been for the last decade, and even Kiffin admits, "more than likely" will be for a long time.

"But," Saban continues, choosing his words carefully, "what Lane will figure out, what every coach eventually figures out, is it's about people."

It is here where we introduce the very crux of the Failure of Kiffin: He doesn't work well with others. At least, others in the coaching profession vital to his existence.

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There is no argument Kiffin can coach. He's one of the best developers of quarterback talent and play-callers in college football. That's backed by tangible statistics, records and championships.

Then there are the intangibles, the nagging problems that have prevented a brilliant offensive mind from becoming a successful head coach.

The criticisms from coaches and staff members who have worked with him are all the same. Selfish. Short-tempered. Egotistical.

"By the end of our time together, I wanted to physically beat his ass," says one former coach who worked with Kiffin. "And I wasn't the only one."

But those are the same people who use words like "genius" and "guru" and "gifted" when speaking of his coaching ability.

Like any job in any walk of life, success is a complete package. It's easy to celebrate the good, yet impossible to avoid the bad. The undeniable truth for Kiffin: His bad always overshadows the good.

Weeks after he was hired at FAU, he completed putting together a staff that included offensive coordinator Kendal Briles (a former member of the staff at Baylor which a Pepper Hamilton report said made choices that "posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University") and former Ole Miss defensive line coach Chris Kiffin (a key figure in the NCAA's investigation of Ole Miss). Kiffin says the FAU administration has fully vetted both, but the hirings clearly call into question early decision-making in his last chance gig.

Everyone, you see, has a blind spot. Not everyone's is as big as the Atlantic Ocean that sits but a few miles from the FAU campus.

Will I survive? Will I die? Come on, let's picture the possibility.

Kiffin and his team stroll into the crisp Boca Raton sun for the first day of fall camp with 2Pac's All Eyez on Me blaring over the loudspeakers.

Everyone is watching, everyone is waiting, for the next Lane-being-Lane moment. For the circus to arrive.

You better believe Kiffin knows it.

"There's so much out there, and half of what you read or hear isn't true," Kiffin says.

"And the other half?" he is asked.

"I don't think there's a person out there who can say they haven't done something they regret," Kiffin says.

There is no truer valuation of a coach than what his colleagues think of him. The coaching fraternity is a brutal and cutthroat business. There is animosity and jealousy, but the fraternity rarely, if ever, publicly speaks poorly of each other.

Then Kiffin enters the conversation, and the entire dynamic immediately changes. They won't speak publicly about Kiffin and his flaws because no president or administrator at any university will hire a coach who airs dirty laundry. But they'll dish anonymously.

"I've never seen a guy who knows his craft like he does be such an overbearing assh--e," says one coach who worked with Kiffin. "Lane does what Lane wants to do, no matter the consequences."

Says another coach on one of Kiffin's staffs: "He's completely unaware of his impact on others. When you're a coach, everything you say and do is not only scrutinized by the media and your boosters, but modeled by your players. Eventually, that will eat away at what you're trying to build until there is nothing left."

There's a reason he went from being Al Davis' hand-picked gut feeling to lead the Raiders, to Davis calling him a "flat-out liar." A reason he had to be escorted out of the Tennessee football facility the back way and leave campus on the back roads when he hastily announced he was leaving after one season to accept his "dream job" at USC. A reason USC athletic director Pat Haden pulled him off the team bus at LAX at 4 a.m. after a brutal loss, fired him on the spot—and still won't talk about him to this day.

A reason Kiffin didn't speak with any other assistant coach at Alabama—outside of game preparation—for a majority of the 2016 season.

A reason he was fortunate to have made it as far as he did in Tuscaloosa.

Saban had finally had enough of Kiffin.

At one point during Kiffin's last week in Tuscaloosa, an Alabama staffer says he was answering his phone on the field during practice, trying to assemble a staff and recruit for FAU while his current team was preparing for the College Football Playoff. He was showing up late to team meetings and missed the team bus after the CFP semifinal media day—at which he had told reporters he didn't recall a time when Saban was happy with his play-calling; he only recalled "the ass chewings."

So Saban—with yet another national title within his grasp and the unofficial title of greatest college coach ever dangling in the moment—made an at-the-time seemingly unfathomable decision.

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - OCTOBER 8:  Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin and Head Coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide talk on the sidelines during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium on October 8, 2016 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

A source close to the situation says Saban told Kiffin after the semifinal, a win over Washington, that they would publicly agree serving two masters (Alabama and FAU) wasn't going to work and Kiffin would leave before the biggest game of the season—the national championship rematch against Clemson—to focus solely on his new job.

In other words, We won't say you're fired, and you can save face and move on. But of course Kiffin couldn't let it end like that.

He went on national radio, on Mike & Mike, and said, "This was a decision that I came up with, and was very difficult to do. This was not something that Nick Saban forced me to do by any means. If I wanted to coach [the] game, I would've coached [the] game."

Makes Saban's decision a bit more fathomable in retrospect.

"Nick was sick of all that nonsense, and that wasn't the half of it," says a former Alabama staffer. "It had been building for a while.

"The last thing Nick wants is for something like that to infiltrate his process. He won't let that happen. One way or the other, Lane wasn't coaching at Alabama after last season. Nick just cut it one game short."

So why, you ask, would the game's best coach—the man who puts his process and the team above all else—put up with Kiffin's "nonsense" for three years in the first place? Why does anyone?

Here's why:

• Blake Sims was a fifth-year senior quarterback who never took a significant snap at Alabama—who played wide receiver the year before Kiffin arrived after being fired at USC—and by the time Kiffin was done with him, he set team passing records, won an SEC championship, was named MVP of the SEC Championship Game and led the Tide to the CFP. In one season. "He finds your strengths," Sims says, "and maximizes them."

• Jake Coker was a transfer quarterback from Florida State, where he couldn't win a starting job, who arrived at Alabama and couldn't beat out a guy who was transitioning to quarterback from receiver. A year later, he stepped in and played big in every critical moment of a national championship season. In two CFP games, he completed 75 percent of his passes for 621 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. "He loves the big stage, he loves to get you ready for it. He lives for that stuff," Coker says. "You're at timeout, you go to the sideline and look for the play call, and he says, 'This is a touchdown.' And then, yep, it's a touchdown."

• Jalen Hurts was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year in his first year under Kiffin and was one play away from leading Alabama to another national championship.

Wade Payne/Associated Press

Three first-year starters, three SEC championships, three College Football Playoff appearances. Three quarterbacks who will likely never play the position at the next level.

Need more proof? Jonathan Crompton was a career backup at Tennessee when Kiffin arrived. He played so well in his only season as a starter, he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers. Indeed, despite all of Kiffin's off-field issues in Knoxville (12 NCAA secondary violations in 14 months), the ill will he left behind had little to do with the product on the field.

"He did a helluva job. Probably still his best coaching job," says one of Kiffin's assistants at Tennessee. "But he played fast and loose—there's no doubt about that. Would something have come up eventually that could've ended it all? Probably."

Even at USC, where Kiffin had elite talent, quarterback Matt Barkley set single-season passing records—all while the program was dealing with debilitating NCAA sanctions that included the loss of 30 scholarships.

The only time Kiffin didn't work his quarterback/offense magic was his 20-game stint with the Raiders. But there's a backstory, one that Kiffin says soiled the relationship early and never allowed the team to develop.

Davis, the team's legendary general managing partner, wanted to draft LSU's JaMarcus Russell with the first pick of the 2007 NFL draft. Kiffin wanted no part of it. Davis made the pick anyway, and after that, it was only a matter of time before it all unraveled. Russell held out until the second week of September, didn't play until the last month of the season and was a bust.

You might be able to win big in college football with Blake Sims, but it's not happening in the NFL with the equivalent (Josh McCown, Daunte Culpepper at the end of his career).

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

"He and Al had a very strong difference of opinion as it pertained to player personnel issues," says Amy Trask, the Raiders' CEO under Davis. "Many were critical of Al for cycling through as many coaches as he did as his life drew to an end. Maybe he didn't give him enough time. But I don't know that any of us, when we're approaching 80 and in ill health, would have the patience we had at 40 or 50.

"I do believe [Kiffin] can succeed in the right environment."

I can take good news, I can take bad news. I can't take surprises.

This was one of the ground rules Saban laid out for Kiffin when he first saved him from exile in 2014. "It didn't take long to figure out what he meant," Kiffin says.

The thought process Saban approaches coaching with is so very Saban. If a scenario comes up during a game where a decision has to be made, the staff has already talked about it.

Saban's Saturday morning game-day routine is legendary, a snapshot of all things obsessive and controlling. And of winning. Every possible scenario of what will and could happen is meticulously played out, right down to pulling out a print of the opposing team's stadium, identifying the loudest end zone and deciding where you'll take the ball if the game goes to overtime. The starting 22 is broken down by player and potential scenarios in case of injury or specific substitutions—and analyzed three teams deep. That's a detailed plan for 66 players.

"When I first experienced that, I thought, We won 34 straight at USC [when he was an assistant to Pete Carroll] and we didn't have meetings like this," Kiffin says. "Then I thought, He's talking everything through to hear people's thoughts and explain what he's thinking and to cover every single thing so he doesn't have any surprises."

Kiffin knew that if he were to ever get another head coaching job, this was what he had to emulate.

It was the one way to make sure he wouldn't screw it up again.

How devoted is he to Saban's process? Not long after Kiffin was hired at FAU, he gave up the one thing that sets him apart from just about every other coach: developing quarterbacks and calling plays. He hired Briles to run the show at FAU, and he promises he won't interfere.

"It's hard not being part of it. Boring, really," Kiffin says. "But it has also allowed me to visit in the defense meetings and the special teams meetings and get a better grasp on the team as a whole."

This is in direct contrast to Kiffin's last job as a head coach, where the job of play-caller was too often placed ahead of running the team. It hit rock bottom for Kiffin at USC in the final game of 2012, a season the Trojans began ranked No. 1 in the nation despite still having a depleted roster due to NCAA sanctions from the Pete Carroll era.

USC was playing Georgia Tech in a meaningless bowl game in El Paso, Texas. It was brutally cold, and Tech was doing what it does to any team that hasn't experienced the triple-option: pounding them mercifully. Kiffin spent the entire second half of the game wrapped in a big white parka, with a hood over his head and his face buried in his call sheet, trying to save a game with the right play and oblivious to what was happening all around him. After the ugly 21-7 loss, a fight broke out in the locker room, frustrations from a lost season of hope spilling out.

Five games into the following season, Kiffin was fired.

"I think back to USC at times, where I'm the head coach, and I've got to go over and talk to the quarterback and wide receiver about something in the middle of the game because we have to score points," Kiffin says. "And then all of a sudden, I hear on the headset, 'Hey, Coach, you gotta make a decision on this penalty, to take it or not.' And I'm not into what's going on—only what we needed at that point from the offense.

"That won't happen anymore."

Not everyone is buying it.

"I'll believe that when I see it," says one former Kiffin assistant. "If he can do all of that, and he can focus on big picture and not his play sheet, he might have a chance.

"Some guys are really good at doing multiple things. [FSU coach] Jimbo [Fisher] is really good at calling a game on offense and managing the game as the head coach. Lane is not a guy that can do both."

There's a half-moon circular drive that runs through the campus at FAU, flowing right past the best stadium in Conference USA and dumping back out on Glades Road and a short skip to Interstate 95.

One way in, one way out.

"Kind of fitting, right?" Kiffin says with a laugh.

There's only one way out of this mess he has made over the last decade, one way of proving himself and finding somewhere from nowhere.

"People's perception changes so fast," Kiffin says. "You win, and people say, 'Well, he had all of those sanctions at USC, and that's why he lost.' You lose, and, 'OK, he's a bad head coach, and he's just a good play-caller wherever he has been.'

"This is a defining job, one way or the other."

It's about what you'd think it is. You can see first class from FAU, but just barely.

He can't screw it up this time.


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