Tak­ing step back to find the right path

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - DERON SNY­DER

There’s no com­par­i­son be­tween the Alabama of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor job and the Florida At­lantic head coach job in many re­spects. The former has more of ev­ery­thing — salary, ex­po­sure, re­sources, glam­our, prob­a­ble suc­cess — ex­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity. The lat­ter is a step­ping­stone to big­ger and bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties — like run­ning a Power 5 pro­gram.

Lane Kif­fin has run two Power 5 pro­grams, head coach stints at USC and Ten­nessee. He also has run an NFL team (though the Oakland Raiders didn’t al­ways act the part), be­com­ing the youngest head coach in the mod­ern era when Al Davis signed the 31-yearold in 2007.

Coaches with those stops on their re­sume don’t land at FAU at this stage of their ca­reer. Maybe when they’re 61 and re­turn­ing to the game af­ter an ab­sence, or look­ing for a cozy spot to down­shift to­ward re­tire­ment. Like­wise, even with­out the prior ex­pe­ri­ence, coaches who spend three years as the Crim­son Tide’s OC and help Nick Sa­ban win a

na­tional ti­tle typ­i­cally stay within the Power 5 upon snar­ing a top job.

But there’s noth­ing typ­i­cal about Kif­fin. Which makes his hir­ing at FAU seem odd and nat­u­ral at the same time.

This is case of tak­ing a step back­ward to move ahead af­ter reach­ing the pin­na­cle the wrong way.

Why go from co­or­di­na­tor at the na­tion’s No. 1 football school to lead­ing a school that’s ar­guably No. 6 in its state? Why ac­cept $950,000 from the Owls (his Crim­son Tide salary is $1.4 mil­lion) and walk away from nearly half a mil­lion dol­lars? Why turn down the LSU of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor job that would’ve paid him in the neigh­bor­hood of $2 mil­lion?

Be­cause at this point, no mat­ter what Kif­fin says, FAU is his only hope for re­turn­ing to the bright lights in a cor­ner of­fice.

“This was not about be­com­ing a head coach again,” he told SI.com Tues­day af­ter his in­tro­duc­tory news con­fer­ence. “This was not about ‘You have to take a job.’ We were do­ing great things at Alabama. It’s a very ex­cit­ing time there. I had a great re­la­tion­ship with coach Sa­ban. I think this is a spe­cial place.”

Aside from stu­dents, alumni and fac­ulty, he’s the only per­son who thinks that.

Alabama, Ohio State, Michi­gan and Texas are spe­cial places. Closer to his new home, Florida State, Florida and Mi­ami are spe­cial places. FAU is just a place, unim­por­tant, un­re­mark­able and undis­tin­guished. It’s the com­plete op­po­site of Kif­fin’s other stops.

But maybe it’s per­fect spot to be the com­plete op­po­site of his former self.

Few, if any, 31-year-olds are ready for an NFL head coach gig when they never held the top job at any level. Kif­fin was no ex­cep­tion, He went 5-15 un­der the ec­cen­tric Davis, who fired him over the tele­phone in 2008 and later dis­par­aged him in a news con­fer­ence. The di­vorce turned ugly and went to ar­bi­tra­tion, where Davis won a rul­ing that Kif­fin was fired with cause and didn’t need to re­ceive the $2.6 mil­lion left on his con­tract.

A lot hap­pened af­ter that, but lit­tle to sway opin­ions of Kif­fin as a brash, im­ma­ture and some­what shady char­ac­ter. He be­came the youngest ac­tive coach in the FBS, at 33, when Ten­nessee hired him one month af­ter Davis ter­mi­nated him. Kif­fin caused waves from the be­gin­ning — ac­cus­ing thenFlorida coach Ur­ban Meyer of cheat­ing; earn­ing a pub­lic rep­ri­mand from the SEC com­mis­sioner; den­i­grat­ing the town of Pa­ho­kee, Florida. All of that oc­curred in just one sea­son (7-6), as he de­parted in Jan­uary 2010 to re­place Pete Car­roll at USC.

Coaches work their en­tire lives with­out lead­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions as sto­ried as the Raiders and Tro­jans. Kif­fin ac­com­plished the feat be­fore he was old enough to be pres­i­dent of the United States. When USC fired him in 2013 at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port — pulling him off a bus at 3 a.m. af­ter a 62-41 de­feat — Kif­fin ap­peared done.

But Sa­ban give him a life­line and Kif­fin ran with it, pulling him­self up for an­other shot at CEO. Ex­cept this time he’ll have to earn his en­try into the big leagues, if he makes it back at all.

“I’m in a much bet­ter po­si­tion now, when things come up, to hav­ing an­swers in­stead of fig­ur­ing them out,” he said dur­ing his new con­fer­ence. “That’s ma­tu­rity and growth, if you learn from those things.”

The lessons will be ap­plied in Boca Ra­ton, not the Big 10 or Pac 12. He’ll bat­tle proven re­cruiters Charlie Strong (South Florida) and Butch Davis (Florida In­ter­na­tional) for play­ers who don’t re­ceive love from the Big 3 or aren’t poached by na­tional pow­ers that rou­tinely cherry-pick the fer­tile state.

If all goes well and he acts like a grown-up, he’ll prob­a­bly be else­where in two or three years. Not that he can state the ob­vi­ous. Asked about longevity, he said, “Why not build some­thing spe­cial and take it to where it’s never gone be­fore and con­tinue to do that?”

Be­cause some­one his age, with his back­ground, would never be at FAU in the first place.

It stands to rea­son he’ll stay only as long as nec­es­sary.


Lane Kif­fin is the new Florida At­lantic coach af­ter run­ning two Power 5 schools and one NFL team.

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