Kif­fin, FAU turn­ing into pleas­ant sur­prise

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL -

BOCA RA­TON, Fla. — Lane Kif­fin never defini­tively said what his ex­pec­ta­tion was for his first sea­son at Florida At­lantic, though one thing is ab­so­lutely cer­tain.

He did not ex­pect this. FAU is al­ready 7-3, with six wins in a row. And that un­ex­pected twist to this col­lege foot­ball sea­son is one that the Owls’ visor-wear­ing, sub-tweet­ing, swash­buck­ler of a coach is most def­i­nitely sa­vor­ing.

“Who would have thought that we’d be sit­ting here at this time of year and have more wins than Florida and Florida State com­bined?” Kif­fin said Mon­day. “That’s pretty neat.”

It might not seem so neat in Tal­la­has­see and Gainesville, where the wheels came off the Semi­noles’ and Ga­tors’ sea­sons long ago. And it’s not ap­ples-to-ap­ples when com­par­ing those three teams — Con­fer­ence USA has tal­ent, but no one would mis­take it for the At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence or the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence.

The Owls are thrilled any­way, rightly so when con­sid­er­ing they won a to­tal of nine games in the last three sea­sons and may ex­ceed that in Year 1 of the Kif­fin Era.

“Coach Kif­fin has done a re­ally nice job there,” Louisiana Tech Coach Skip Holtz said.

He ab­so­lutely has, and will surely be linked to plenty of job open­ings at big­ger schools af­ter this sea­son. FAU is al­ready as­sured of its first bowl trip since 2008, can clinch the right to host the C-USA ti­tle game if it beats Florida International — an­other turn­around story of 2017 that’s also led by a big-name new coach in Butch Davis (Spring­dale) — on Satur­day, and might even get the chance to play a bowl game in its own sta­dium.

“You need to en­joy it. This is not a nor­mal story,” Kif­fin said. “You don’t go from three three-win sea­sons and the me­dia, no one picked us to win the con­fer­ence let alone even the di­vi­sion. We’re in the mid­dle of a re­ally unique story and we need to keep it go­ing.”

ESPN’s Col­lege Game­Day fran­chise went to Coral Gables, Florida last week­end, broad­cast­ing from Mi­ami’s cam­pus be­fore the Hur­ri­canes rolled past Notre Dame and vaulted to No. 2 in the Top 25.

But even on that stage, Kif­fin be­came a story.

There were huge cutouts of Kif­fin’s head, his eyes peer­ing over the top of dark sun­glasses. There were signs with what’s be­come Kif­fin’s catch phrase du jour on Twit­ter, the “(hash­tag) come to the faU” slo­gan that’s a less-than-sub­tle nod to­ward The U — Mi­ami’s moniker. There even was a ban­ner plane cir­cling the cam­pus bear­ing the words “Come To FAU.”

“I think it’s great,” said Kif­fin, who thinks some­one at FAU — though he wouldn’t say for cer­tain — hired that plane.

It’s so ob­vi­ous that he’s hav­ing fun right now. FAU was fac­ing fourth-and-1 at its own 21-yard line last week­end, on the first pos­ses­sion of the game at Louisiana Tech. Most coaches would au­to­mat­i­cally punt the ball away in that sit­u­a­tion, not want­ing to risk giv­ing an op­po­nent such great field po­si­tion in the open­ing minutes of a score­less game.

Kif­fin called a run, got the first down, and the Owls would go on to post an easy 48-23 win.

“Ev­ery minute and ev­ery yard line is bro­ken down in this book that we use,” Kif­fin said. “It’s all based off per­cent­ages and not just in gen­eral but for your team that game. Fourth and one, you’re sup­posed to go back there. Now, 99 per­cent of the coaches don’t do it be­cause if it doesn’t work then you guys rip us in the me­dia. That’s the easy way out.”

The easy way out is not Kif­fin’s style.

FAU isn’t Alabama, or Ten­nessee, or USC, or the Oak­land Raiders — his past four coach­ing stops. That doesn’t mean he wants to win any less, but he has learned to ap­pre­ci­ate what’s hap­pen­ing a bit more now than he has any­where else.

“This team, it’s a special deal,” Kif­fin said. “I’ve been through these, you know, and I didn’t re­ally en­joy them be­cause I was al­ways like, ‘OK, what’s the next game’ and win­ning and are we slot­ted to go to the national cham­pi­onship and look­ing at the out­come rather than en­joy­ing the process.”

AP/JIM RASSOL

Lane Kif­fin has led Florida At­lantic to a 7-3 record in his first sea­son at the school, sur­pass­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions many had for the Owls.

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