Lane Kiffin Is Recasting Himself and FAU Football One Witty Tweet at a Time

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterAugust 21, 2018

Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin attends media day for Saturday's Peach Bowl NCAA college football game against Washington in Atlanta, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Lane Kiffin's phone call is 14 minutes late. When it finally arrives, an Alabama area code flashes across the screen—a remnant from his former life.

It's late June, and he's calling from Los Angeles, where he was once fired on an airport tarmac after a football game.

"I've been here four days and haven't stopped for one picture or autograph yet, and I was head coach at USC," says Kiffin, now in his second season as head coach at Florida Atlantic University. "In Alabama, where I wasn't even a head coach, I'd have a hundred by the time I made it out of the airport."

After winning 11 games during his first season at FAU, with his team scoring more touchdowns than all but four programs nationwide, Kiffin is taking some time off in California, where he's attending his daughter's volleyball tournament.

Since he began his coaching career in 1997, the 43-year-old has been a part of national championships and College Football Playoff runs. He's worked for Pete Carroll and Nick Saban, establishing himself as a top-flight offensive play-caller and recruiter.

He's also experienced very sudden, very public exits from jobs with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee, Southern Cal and Alabama.

Despite some initial reservations about the call, 28 minutes go by and Kiffin gradually opens up. Football is the backdrop, but Kiffin is about much more than the game he coaches.

He talks freely about life, his boundary-less Twitter voice and his decision to say what he truly feels despite knowing it could ultimately work against him in the long run.

"I know it all sounds really deep," he says. "But this is a really good way to live."

Lane Kiffin @Lane_Kiffin

🤜 https://t.co/yaW52KsMQZ

He brings up Donald Trump on his own accord. Not to take a stance on his politics—that will come later—but to summarize just how different things are now than when he first started coaching.

"People don't think the way they did 15 years ago," Kiffin says. "America voted Donald Trump for president. Think about that. Would that have ever happened 15 or 20 years ago?"

Even still, the overwhelming majority of his peers wouldn't dare even go there. They would never allow themselves to make a reference that would generate an overwhelming response.

It is this verbal tightrope-walking that has allowed Kiffin to thrive on social media, specifically Twitter. It is also here, many could argue, where Kiffin's image rehabilitation truly began.

Kiffin originally joined Twitter to recruit, nothing more. It was a way to connect with high school athletes when the NCAA cracked down on text messages.

Before being fired from Alabama, Kiffin's Twitter account was like most coaches'. It featured stats, program information and the occasional photo of his children. But when he was hired by FAU in the winter of 2016, his tone changed. He just decided to be himself.

"It really wasn't some detailed, thought-out plan," Kiffin says. "We're all so worried about what people will say, how they look, what they wear and things like that. I'm not like that, obviously."

He pauses momentarily: "You only live once."

On Trump, Kiffin has retweeted (and supported with an emoji) a CNN article citing Arnold Schwarzenegger's displeasure with Trump's emissions proposal. This led to a tweet that showed support for LeBron James while he feuded with the president and finally a playful tweet targeting Donald and Melania Trump with the hashtag #Problemsathome.

But nothing moves the needle quite like talking about his former programs, something Kiffin isn't shy about. Specifically, Alabama and Tennessee.

A picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a Tennessee pullover that facetiously reported he had turned down the then-vacant coaching job has been retweeted nearly 44,000 times.

Lane Kiffin @Lane_Kiffin


Following Alabama's loss to Auburn in the 2017 Iron Bowl, Kiffin jokingly referenced the term "rat poison"—a phrase Saban used while talking about how positive media coverage negatively impacts his players. This has been retweeted 21,000 times and counting.

Kiffin knows the impact these tweets will have. Sure, he likes the freedom to be himself, but these retweets and eyeballs are also good for business—specifically recruiting.

His now-trademark phrase "Come to #thefaU" has been attached to LeBron James, Odell Beckham, Conor McGregor, Kenny Chesney, Ellen DeGeneres (along with guest Kim Kardashian West), Danica Patrick, random media members, his children, miscellaneous Twitter followers and many others.

Many times his thoughts are random if not odd. But they are real, and Kiffin makes it clear that everything that goes to his more than 400,000 Twitter followers comes directly from him.

"A lot of these coaches have their GAs [graduate assistants] or other people writing their stuff," Kiffin says. "How real is that? I don't want to read your tweets that somebody else did. I can look up your stats, your graduation rates and how many touchdowns you've thrown on my own."

There's an understanding inside the FAU locker room that the internet personality and the head coach are different people. Like everyone else, players at FAU can't help but check their coach's Twitter thoughts every now and then. By now, most are used to it.

But they also see a different side of Kiffin, a side that is far less interesting and controversial but far more important.

"You see him on social media, and then you see him in real life," says star linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, who finished last season with 147 tackles. "It's like two different people."

Kiffin can be demanding. He can be passionate. He can also be corny, the side Al-Shaair likes most—in large part because he has this side himself.

"If somebody were to tell me this man was in his 40s, I would've thought you were lying," Al-Shaair adds. "Because that's not how he is. He's a lot more laid back, a lot more relaxed. You see the mentality that he has, and it's just something that you want to bring on for yourself."

Adds the team's star running back, Devin Singletary, who ran for more than 1,900 yards last season: "He tells a lot of jokes. He's strict, but he's also pretty chill at the same time. He's got the perfect balance, I'd say."

BOCA RATON, FL - OCTOBER 21: Head coach Lane Kiffin of the Florida Atlantic Owls looks on prior to the game against the North Texas Mean Green on October 21, 2017 at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida. FAU defeated North Texas 69-31. (Photo by Joel Auerba
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Kiffin has also made it a point to rely on his players, and not just to win games but to have a voice inside the program. In many ways this goes against the image some might still have of Kiffin: son of famous football lifer Monte Kiffin with an ego he must learn to control.

From choosing uniforms to making other decisions within the program, Kiffin has empowered his players. When FAU traveled to Wisconsin early last year, the team was forced to extend its stay when Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida.

With the return home altered, Kiffin called in some of the team's leaders and asked them how they should handle the time away—how long they should stay and cope with unusual circumstances on the road.

"He told us that this was our team," says Al-Shaair, who was a part of that meeting. FAU played it safe, waiting for the storm to pass before returning home.

In practice, Kiffin has adopted a more flexible philosophy, "an atmosphere of 'want to' versus 'have to,'" he says.

He doesn't want his players to dread the work they have to put in. He wants to make it challenging, but to do it in a way that receives full buy-in.

You just see some of these coaches and you can tell they’re just miserable. Everything is negative when it comes to their players," Kiffin says. "I mean, this isn't prison. This isn't the military.We can let the kids enjoy themselves, and it doesn't mean they're undisciplined or unaccountable or don't do well in school. We do all of those things but at the same time, let them enjoy their college years."

This message is hitting home, especially with high school athletes around the country trying to figure out where they want to play next. While recruiting at FAU is harder than it was at Alabama, Tennessee and USC, Kiffin is still drawing the attention of some of the nation's bigger names.

Chad Johnson Jr., the son of former NFL wideout Chad Johnson, is an emerging wide receiver from Venice, California, in the class of 2020. Kiffin was the first to offer Johnson Jr., who has yet to make a decision. "You'll never see a coach say the things he does and still be a great coach," Johnson Jr. says. "At the same time, you can tell he really does care about your life outside of football."

Locally, Kiffin is trying to convince some of the best players in the state to commit to his school over such established programs as Miami, Florida State and Florida.

For defensive back Marcus Lafrance—FAU's top-ranked commit in the class of 2019 who holds offers from Miami, Texas, Nebraska and others—verbally committing to the Owls was in large part due to Kiffin's style.

"He is what I need in a head coach," Lafrance says. "He teaches his guys like they're his sons. I don't just want a head coach, but a father figure who cares about education and more than football."

Lane Kiffin @Lane_Kiffin

#Problemsathome 💔@MELANIATRUMP @realDonaldTrump https://t.co/3hGyYcPmIp

While his openness has unquestionably helped erase certain stigmas that have followed him for more than a decade, Kiffin's Twitter prowess is not solely responsible for his comeback.

"In my opinion," Kiffin says. "Perception has a ton to do with one thing. Winning. I just say just be yourself regardless because at the end there's a lot more judgment based off the winning than losing in what you do."

In Kiffin's first season with Florida Atlantic, the Owls finished 11-3. Two out of those three losses were to Wisconsin and Navy in the first three weeks. FAU's offense, Kiffin's specialty, was one of only eight to average more than 40 points per game.

This year's team returns Singletary, who was fourth last year in rushing. The defense also welcomes back Al-Shaair, who was third in the nation in tackles.

Momentum is building for Kiffin to deliver an encore. The Owls will open against Oklahoma and also get a crack at UCF, last year's undefeated mid-major darling in prime time at the end of September.

Given all the pieces in place, this feels like just the appropriate time for Kiffin to show that he's more than a brilliant offensive mind.

Other programs outside FAU that are considering a coaching change will unquestionably be watching. Administrators and athletic directors at schools in larger conferences will continue to gauge his performance. (And yes, they will likely monitor what he says on social media as well, to determine if they're comfortable with his other side.)

That is not to say Kiffin has made any indication he's in a rush to leave. In June, he signed a long-term extension with FAU that will keep him at the program through 2027. He seems comfortable being just far enough away from the major spotlight but still with an outlet to create news as he sees fit.

But he also knows that his openness could ultimately betray him.  

"You tweet from the locker room an hour before the game or make jokes about other schools while you're winning, and it's considered great," Kiffin says. "If you're losing and you do the exact same things, people will say he wasn't prepared and he wasn't focused."

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Kiffin is late again, this time to Conference USA media days in Frisco, Texas. As his fellow coaches gather at round tables scattered throughout the room in the Baylor Scott & White Sports Performance Center, Kiffin is noticeably absent.

Dealing with travel issues, Kiffin strolls in holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a cell phone in the other. He sports a gray suit, salmon-colored tie, brown shoes and a tan.

These days, his crowds are considerably smaller. After doing a handful of televised interviews, Kiffin parks at one of the tables, and seven or so media members swarm. At Alabama, on the limited opportunities when he was allowed to speak with the media, this number was often quadrupled.

Over the course of 30 minutes, Kiffin is asked about his starting quarterback (he doesn't name one), about playing Oklahoma (he jokes that MLB draft pick and likely Oklahoma starter Kyler Murray should stick to baseball) and who will call plays on offense (he politely sidesteps).

He speaks softly—soft enough that those on the opposite end of the table have to lean in so they can hear. His hands fidget back and forth before they finally settle on his lap. He doesn't look uncomfortable or nervous. But he doesn't look completely free and at ease, either.

While the majority of the questions are related to the season, Kiffin is asked about comments North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora made the day prior—adamantly disagreeing with rule changes to make the game safer and also discrediting the connection between football and CTE.

"What's the most important thing?" Kiffin responds. "Long-term health or how the game looks? I think the changes in the game that will continue to come are going to help people's concerns."

Within a few hours, articles featuring Kiffin's comments about Fedora flood the internet. Even when he delivers an appropriate, concise reply regarding something someone else said, nothing moves the needle like Kiffin.

The media session is free of the kind of controversy many were probably hoping for. Not once does he break into a tone resembling that of his Twitter page.

A few weeks later, he will fire off a series of tweets directed at the president of the United States and the first lady. But here, in the flesh, Kiffin's other side is at work.

Depending on what happens next, this could be the last time Kiffin sets foot in Conference USA media days. Another 11-win season could catapult him back into a spotlight befitting his personality. Or perhaps this is exactly what he needs and wants.

As the gathering progresses, Kiffin is asked a simple question that will be on the minds of fans, his teammates, recruits and administrators in the coming months: Will you be active on Twitter during the fall?

He takes a moment to think of the appropriate response. He could say something—something witty that would land him in a sea of articles over the next 24 hours. But instead he doesn't bite.

"If we're winning," he says with a smile that never fully forms.


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