BOCA RATON, Fla. — Basking in the coastal oasis that is the luxurious Boca Raton Resort & Club, Lane Kiffin felt a lot more like he was in football purgatory back on Jan. 9.
The newly named Florida Atlantic head coach watched helplessly from his plush room as Clemson pinned a last-second 35-31 defeat on Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship, ending the Crimson Tide’s 26-game winning streak. Kiffin’s television was his only outlet. He couldn’t audible out of a play with one of his trademark whistles. He couldn’t draw up one of his favorite plays. He couldn’t tweak a formation and create the kind of mismatch that he did with regularity as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
All he could do was watch … and agonize.
“And it became a one-play game, so of course your mind goes, ‘Well, would it have made a difference [if I were there]?” Kiffin told ESPN.com.
“The hardest part was seeing [Jalen Hurts’] face, Reuben Foster, ArDarius Stewart,” Kiffin added. “Some of those guys have come down here to see me since then. It was really difficult because the players at Alabama work harder and dedicate more of their life to football than anyone in America. … So to see the look on their faces after the game was something that sticks with you.”
The specter of Alabama still looms large for Kiffin, who was an integral part of the Crimson Tide’s 2014-16 success, a dizzying run that included three SEC titles, a national championship and two other trips to the College Football Playoff — with a first-year starter at quarterback each season. And yet, Kiffin was also a lightning rod for drama and controversy, culminating with Nick Saban’s announcement the Monday before the title game that he was replacing Kiffin with Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. Kiffin was trying to juggle two jobs, and Saban was intent on eliminating any distractions.
Kiffin didn’t help himself any leading up to the Washington game when he zinged Saban in the media, namely referencing “dog years” when describing what it was like to work for Saban and answering a question about happy moments with Saban by joking he wouldn’t remember the happy moments, just the “ass-chewings.”
“I got a little too loose with my mouth,” said Kiffin, which wasn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last.
He still can’t help himself, joking, “I would like to think now that I’m the head coach that the bus won’t leave you anymore,” referencing the two times he was left behind after postseason wins at Alabama.
It’s the reason Kiffin’s father, Monte, jokes that one of his primary roles as a defensive analyst on FAU’s staff will be to have a roll of tape handy any time Lane is speaking to the media.
“That way, maybe I can cover up his mouth before he says something he shouldn’t,” Monte cracked.
To those who really know Lane Kiffin, there’s a saying they use to explain some of the scenarios that have landed him in trouble over the years.
“A lot of times, it’s just Lane being Lane,” Monte said.
Kiffin says his mother nicknamed him “Helicopter” as a kid because he would go from room to room stirring things up. He revels in poking the bear, even if it’s one who just happens to be rewriting the college football record books with four of the past eight national championships.
And while Kiffin has not kept in touch with Saban since heading to Florida Atlantic, he has brought a part of his former boss — and his famed “process” — to Boca.
“We joke about Coach Saban and my time there, but how dumb would I be not to copy a lot of what Nick Saban did?” Kiffin said. “He’s the best head coach in college football right now, and the good thing for me is that I’ve had a chance to work now for Coach Saban and Pete Carroll, two guys who do it totally different, and I can combine the two and take the parts I like from both and use them here at Florida Atlantic.
“As I’ve said many times, there weren’t a lot of people knocking on my door when Coach Saban offered me a job, so I will always be appreciative of him and having had the opportunity to work and learn under him.”
“How dumb would I be not to copy a lot of what Nick Saban did?”
Although Kiffin might have learned under Saban, nobody will ever accuse the two of them of being coaching clones. Kiffin’s practices at FAU are rife with booming rap music and even a few fans and boosters watching from a tent in the center of the practice fields.
Getting into the Pentagon is easier than getting into one of Alabama’s practices, which are noticeably void of any rhymes from Lil Wayne.
“It’s nice to hear a little music on the practice field. That didn’t happen in Tuscaloosa,” said Kiffin, who was once referenced in a Lil Wayne song when Kiffin was at Tennessee.
But similar to Saban, Kiffin wanders the practice field in what is now his fourth head-coaching gig and doesn’t just shadow the offense. Moreover, no detail is too small.
“Put the ball in the outside hand,” he yells to one of his running backs.
He’s also in the middle of special-teams drills and demands that the players do it over and over again until they get it right.
One of the staples of Saban’s teams at Alabama has been head strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran running around practice (and games) with unbridled energy and passion. The players swear by Cochran, so it makes sense that Kiffin took one of Cochran’s assistants, Wilson Love, with him to FAU. And just as Cochran does in Tuscaloosa, Love is all over the FAU practice field exhorting players, challenging players, even dancing with them on occasion when somebody makes a big hit or big play.
While Kiffin is heavily involved in all phases of the program, similar to Saban, he’s not going to call offensive plays at FAU. Kendal Briles will be the Owls’ playcaller.
“It will be a lot like what you see at Alabama with the defense there under Coach Saban,” Kiffin said. “Sure, Coach Saban is involved in preparing the game plan each week, but he also realizes that he needs to be more of an overseer of the program. He lets his coaches coach. Now, as you saw on Saturdays with the two of us on the sideline, he’s going to voice his opinion, a lot of times loudly. But I was the one calling plays, and it will be the same thing here with Kendal.”
Kiffin’s staff meetings — featuring his father, Monte, and brother/defensive coordinator Chris — can run long, in Saban-esque fashion, and Kiffin is quick to call out one of his assistants in front of the entire staff because a drill wasn’t run the way Kiffin wants it run.
“I’m looking down there and trying to figure out what you’re doing. If you’re going to change it up, run it by me,” Kiffin says.
One thing Kiffin won’t do is put a timetable on how long it will take to build a winner at FAU. He likes his staff, likes his first recruiting class and is especially heartened that FAU president Dr. John Kelly spent 28 years at Clemson and understands what a successful football program can do for an entire university.
“There’s not a day that I come to work that I’m thinking about money or that I’m making less money than I’ve made in the business in the last 10 years,” said Kiffin, whose five-year deal at FAU will pay him $ 950,000 per year. “Look at this place — the weather, the people, the possibilities. I drive to work every day thinking about what’s in front of us here at Florida Atlantic, not what’s behind us.”
Now 41, Kiffin acknowledges that too much might have come too soon for him in the way of marquee head-coaching opportunities. After all, he was named the coach of the Oakland Raiders and then the coach at Tennessee before he’d even turned 35.
“Sometimes, you need to learn from your mistakes,” Kiffin said. “I guess we kind of went backward. Usually, you start and move your way up as head coach and you make your mistakes where no one really sees them, but we made those mistakes at an early stage and on a national stage. It is what it is, but at the same time, there are things that you are going to change, too, to get better as a head coach.
“But we are not going to change who we are, either.”
In other words, Lane is still going to be Lane, just a somewhat more “process”-ed version.