Introspective and at Peace, Lane Kiffin Talks About His Path to a Happier Place

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterSeptember 24, 2019

B/R illustration
B/R illustrationSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

BOCA RATON, Fla. — In Lane Kiffin's reasonably-sized office, it's the expansive library that grabs your eye first.

Not the ceremonial rings and watches stationed on the front of his desk—tokens of previous coaching tenures that are recruiting ammunition for him as the head coach at Florida Atlantic. Not the pictures of his children scattered throughout the room. Not the flat-screen television frozen on a practice rep—four days before FAU will take on Ohio State as a colossal underdog in the season opener.

Not the "Winning in Paradise" sign or the satiric name plate that reads "Mr. Wonderful."

No, as Kiffin leans back in his chair, his feet propped on the desk, it's the books collected behind him that stand out, largely because of what they are not. They aren't playbooks. In fact, they apparently have nothing to do with football at all. But these books have had an impact on Kiffin far greater than anything strictly to do with his profession. 

There is Ego Is the Enemy. Next to that, The Coffee Bean: A Simple Lesson to Create Positive Change. And, in the stacks of hard and soft covers, a book that Kiffin is particularly fond of: The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?

Call them self-help books. Motivational reads. To each person, they may mean something different. To Kiffin, they've meant everything as he explores the kind of person he hopes to become.

Two years ago, The Purpose Driven Life was sent to Kiffin by the Tennessee team chaplain. The first sentence on the first page was highlighted in neon yellow.

"It's not about you."

"I didn't understand that when I was young because it was about me," Kiffin says as he flips through the pages. "I do more with the players now. I genuinely care about their development and want to help them through things. I used to help them, but I helped them with one thing: football.

"I'd get you drafted higher than anywhere else," he continues. "I was going to give you everything in that aspect. But did I do anything else for you?"

By leaving the spotlight that trailed him from one high-profile coaching drama to the next, Kiffin has found serenity. He recognizes the stigmas that exist about him. He also understands he probably won't change them, no matter how good his tweets are.

Twitter has unquestionably helped him remake his image. But the flood of honest, witty tweets he unleashes on a daily basis fail to capture the true transformation.

Lane Kiffin @Lane_Kiffin

True https://t.co/GgWdKp7iKH

Once the poster child for expedited coaching ascension, Kiffin has found tranquility in a sleepy Florida town that is still learning to love its program—a program that's in its 19th season and has won eight or more games only four times. Under Kiffin, FAU has gone 11-3 and 5-7.

Curious about how one of the sport's most recognized and polarizing coaches has adjusted to life away from the spotlight, Bleacher Report went behind the scenes with Kiffin as his third season at FAU was about to kick off. It is clear the drive and the passion haven't disappeared. But there's another side to Kiffin taking shape—a side most assumed he never had.

"I want to win football games," he says. "That's important and everything, but that's not the only thing. Because if that's truly the only thing, you won't be very happy. I've lived it."

The sound of jet engines coming and going from nearby Boca Raton Airport Authority breaks up the silence of the offensive staff meeting, as coaches settle into their chairs and eat their lunches.

There's plenty of youth in this assemblage, starting at the head of the table with Kiffin, who's wearing red basketball shorts and a long white-sleeve shirt soaked in sweat from practice. The former head coach of USC, Tennessee and the Oakland Raiders is 44 years old.

Compared with some of his assistants, he's almost ancient. His offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis Jr., is 26 years old. His tight ends coach, former Florida State-turned-West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett, is 28. His running backs coach, UCF great Kevin Smith, is 32. 

This week, the assignment for one of the nation's youngest staffs is daunting. Preparing for a team with the talent and resource advantages of Ohio State is never easy. This particular year, it's more demanding than usual.

"It's a very complicated game," Kiffin says. "[Ohio State has a] new head coach, new quarterback and then a new defensive system, but you don't exactly know which system it is. It's like you've got no idea what to watch."

For the first part of the meeting, Kiffin and his assistants focus on the team's practice from earlier in the day, projected on a screen near the center of the room. After one of the sloppiest practices in recent weeks, the head coach's frustration builds as the miscues add up.

"Get it going," Kiffin says while watching his offensive line. "We're gonna get murdered if it looks like that on Saturday."

Lane Kiffin is in his third season as head coach of Florida Atlantic.
Lane Kiffin is in his third season as head coach of Florida Atlantic.Michael Reaves/Getty Images

For much of his professional life, Kiffin was on the other side of lopsided season openers. After coaching and recruiting some of the nation's most elite athletes, getting accustomed to underdog status has taken some time.

Kiffin accepted the job at FAU after three seasons as the offensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama. While he knew that he would be recruiting different players than he did for the Crimson Tide, he felt confident that he'd be able to successfully navigate the football-rich state of Florida.

"You have these profiles in your head of how every single position should look," Kiffin says. "This is the height, the weight, the speed; and it was that way for a long time. But you're not going to get that here. There's never been an offensive lineman drafted in the history of the school. Not in any round."

As the film session jumps from the team's practice reps to Ohio State's spring game, the obstacle seems to grow larger. Although FAU has faced Oklahoma and UCF and Wisconsin in the last few seasons, life as a cupcake is still relatively new to Kiffin.

"You've got to get some breaks in a game like this," he says. "That's just what happens when you're close to a 30-point underdog. 

"Were the players ready to play? Did you manage the game well? Did you substitute well? That's kind of how I look at it now, which is hard to even say. But you've got to be realistic."

No book on Kiffin's shelves offers a closer parallel to his life over the past 10 years than The Coffee Bean: A Simple Lesson to Create Positive Change.

Kiffin dives into an analogy for how he found himself in Boca.

"Put a carrot in boiling water, and it will soften and ultimately weaken," he says. "If you put an egg in boiling water, it will become agitated and harden. But the coffee bean will take that water and change it. It'll turn it into coffee that smells good, embracing the adversity going on to make everything around it better."

When Kiffin was fired from USC in September of 2013, he became a carrot. Then, he became an egg. The spectacle of his firing—a raw moment that played out in the open—left him heartbroken and bitter.

"When you're in L.A. and you get fired at the airport at 4 a.m., you don't want to go anywhere," he says. "It was painful and embarrassing. And I felt miserable and angry at everybody for a little while. I realized then that I was defined as the head coach at USC, and that's all I was defined as."

The months that followed, a time of self-reflection, allowed him to come to terms with all that brought him to this point. The string of turbulent stops that culminated with the lowest point of his career—from Oakland to Tennessee and finally USC—brought him to this life stage at FAU.

"If that night had never happened, I think I'd still be so just drawn by the chase of the championships and the ego," he says. "I just look at things different now."

Kiffin's tenure with Alabama helped him find a fresh perspective on his coaching career.
Kiffin's tenure with Alabama helped him find a fresh perspective on his coaching career.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Kiffin started over by pairing up with Saban, first in an observing role that December and soon after as Alabama's offensive coordinator.

For a coach whose path had been a whirlwind of turbulent climbing, this was a much different opportunity.

"You go back to being an assistant learning from the best that has ever coached," Kiffin says. "That kind of move will humble you. Knock down your ego. It certainly did for me."

The goal was to relearn what it took to run a football program, with the hope that another opportunity would eventually surface.

He also knew that if he was given another chance to lead, he would treat the people around him better. He would view program success differently—not just through the lens of wins and losses.

This was his coffee-bean moment.

His press conferences these days are outside of the national glare. Most of the time, a handful of local reporters ask him about the depth chart and injuries in a classroom that moonlights as an interview room.

While he still knows how to generate a buzz when he feels it's necessary, mainly through social media, Boca Raton has provided the seclusion he was seeking.

At night, Kiffin can travel to restaurants without being recognized—something he was never afforded at his previous stops.

Unlike most football coaches, Kiffin has never played golf: The water has always been his escape. And in Boca that escape is readily available.

"I am happier on a daily basis when I wake up and come to work," Kiffin says. "They love that you're here, and I can go home, take the boat out every day and catch snook in my backyard."

He pauses momentarily, intersecting his personal and professional life.

"Coaches leave jobs for two things: their ego and money," he says. "So what if I don't make three times or four times more money?"

Over the past couple of years, networks have shown interest in doing behind-the-scenes programs at FAU. It's no question that Kiffin's presence has made these opportunities possible. And while they could provide significant publicity to optimize recruiting and elevate interest in his program, Kiffin has denied each request.

"I just felt it wasn't the right timing for now," Kiffin says. "It felt really good to be able to just coach."

One of the other reasons Kiffin is uneasy about doing an all-access show is because he worries about his assistants having to publicly endure criticism in practice—an experience that hits close to home.

"There's a lot of head coaches that love that," he says." I don't want these guys to go through that with cameras around."

FAU Owl's Nest @FAU_Owls_Nest

Lane Kiffin (@Lane_Kiffin) and Monte Kiffin looking on. Over 70 years of coaching experience between the two. https://t.co/CFmr609TCt

One of the assistants on the defensive staff is his father, Monte Kiffin, who started his career as a graduate assistant at Nebraska in the 1960s. 

The luxury of being able to work alongside his father, a football lifer at age 79, is not lost on Lane as he lives his mid-40s. But he also doesn't see himself coaching and consuming football like his father for 30 more years.

He laughs at the notion that he could one day coach alongside his son, Knox. But his commitment to the sport and FAU is significant: He's on a 10-year contract that will keep him with the Owls through 2027. It's a commitment he intends to see through.

What actually happens before or after 2027 remains to be seen. Kiffin isn't sure what he would do without football in his life.

"My mom says I could've been a lawyer just because I used to like to argue a lot," he says with a smile. "I used to argue a lot and always had to be right."

Whatever comes next, right now he is clearly comfortable. Content. Relaxed. Which are not emotional states this profession often allows or encourages.

The first quarter at Ohio State goes as expected. Undersized and overwhelmed, FAU falls behind 28 points to the Buckeyes almost instantaneously.

But in a natural course of play, the game begins to tighten. It's never in doubt, but the Owls turn what initially has the look of a momentous blowout into a satisfactory 45-21 loss filled with moral victories.

The following week, FAU falls to UCF by 34 points. The first win comes at Ball State the next Saturday, when Kiffin and his players break through 41-31.

In his previous coaching world, a 10-point victory over Ball State wouldn't have meant much to Kiffin. But here, it's a springboard and a potentially season-saving win. (The Owls are now 2-2 after beating Wagner this past Saturday.)

In the next six months, FAU will open the Schmidt Family Complex for Athletic and Academic Excellence—a state-of-the-art facility with locker rooms, a weight room, practice fields and amenities that will change the way the football program operates and recruits.

Lane Kiffin @Lane_Kiffin

So cool our players put this up after a visit from ⁦@damonwest7⁩ #coffeebean ⁦@JonGordon11⁩ https://t.co/z1H4Y80HC6

The distance between FAU and the extensive list of programs it is chasing will grow shorter. Kiffin, who has been active in the construction of the facility, recognizes how much this could impact his professional life. It's also not a new factor that will sway his loyalty to his current job one way or another.

"As I've gotten older, I've realized I'd rather make less and live in a place that I really love," Kiffin says. "I'm at a place in my life where what's important to me is just different from when I was 30 years old."

The road to get here has been long. Painful. Maddening. Revealing. It has taken many years and jobs for Kiffin to find happiness—a situation that is not defined by status or money.

Failure, in many ways, was the best thing that could have happened to him. It's what brought on his own coffee-bean moment. In the years to come, he will still be defined by the success of his football program. As a head coach, the wins and the losses are inescapable.

But one thing will be very different. It will no longer just be about him.


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