At Florida Atlantic, Lane Kiffin swears the fourth time’s the charm

Photo credit: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Lane Kiffin knows how backwards this all looks. To go from being the head coach of the Oakland Raiders at 31 to taking a pay cut to become the head coach at Florida Atlantic at 41 isn’t the way this job is supposed to work. He recognizes now the warnings he missed, the blinking DEAD END – TURN AROUND signs he simply looked past, too focused on the bright, blinking destiny promised to him, blissfully unaware the bridge ahead was out.

It started in 1999, when, as a 24-year-old graduate assistant, Kiffin couldn’t see why his Colorado State head coach Sonny Lubick would pass over an open Miami job. “I remember thinking, ‘What is he doing not taking that?’ He talked about building something special there,” Kiffin said Tuesday. “I didn’t learn from that.”

He also spurned the advice of his father, who warned him not take a job following a successful head coach, knowing everything Lane did would be compared to the last guy. “You don’t want to follow someone that’s been on a phenomenal run,” Kiffin quoted Monte Kiffin saying. “You want somewhere that’s won nine games in three years.” He learned that the hard way, abandoned at LAX in the middle of the night for the crime of going 28-15 in three-and-a-half seasons at USC.

But those failings have made him wiser, Kiffin said. Those months sitting by a silent phone before Nick Saban called put him face to face with the mistakes he made and his place in the coaching world. “You don’t get what you want, you get what you deserve,” he said.

There was some evidence the old Kiffin doesn’t live in that brilliant head of his. The only shots Kiffin took Tuesday were at himself — and there were plenty of those. “Where do we start?” he said when asked to name what he leaned from his mistakes at Oakland, Tennessee and USC. Kiffin also joked it took “eight to 10” years to win his way back into Urban Meyer’s good graces after accusing him of cheating at Florida. (There’s also a reality check at play here. Punching upward at Urban, owner of two of the last three national titles at the time, is pragmatic headline-grabbing. Lobbing those same verbal grenades at Rick Stockstill and Skip Holtz comes across as desperate and weird.)

With no other option available to him, Kiffin accepted his lifeline from Saban and made the most of it. And that’s where this whole experiment gets interesting.

On the surface, Florida Atlantic is getting a 41-year-old coach, trained under Saban and Pete Carroll, seasoned by a 7-year tour through the Head Coaching School of Hard Knocks, that owns one of the most brilliant offensive minds in the game today. Not anyone can win three straight SEC championships with three different quarterbacks — each of them with little to no college experience before that. Kiffin also has major recruiting bona fides, as he reminded us Tuesday of the times he pulled Keith Rivers and Mike Williams out of Florida in the time before USC became USC.

If all the pieces of the puzzle fit as they should, Florida Atlantic has the potential to take off.

Kiffin wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise, he said, insisting he was happy to be Alabama’s offensive coordinator and would’ve returned had this opportunity not arisen — despite not being under contract beyond this season. But Kiffin said he met with an FAU brass determined to win big. “When we met I came away from that meeting knowing that was something I really wanted. I did not walk in feeling that way,” he said. “I could tell they were doing something really special.”

“I know you’re not going to believe this,” Kiffin said, “but I sat in my chair in my office, the office (Howard Schnellenberger) designed, and I was more excited than any job I’ve had. We have a chance to build something that’s never been done before.”

That isn’t totally press conference bluster, either. The Owls play in a stadium that opened in 2011, and next month they’ll break ground on a new indoor facility. The players have always been there, waiting for the right head coach to collect and dispatch them in the proper way. “The singular thing that allowed (Kiffin) to be our next head coach is he simply wanted to be the next head coach at FAU more than anyone else we talked to,” Florida Atlantic AD Pat Chun.

The elephant in the room Tuesday was, of course, how long Kiffin really will stay in Boca Raton if things go as they should. It’s a question so obvious even Kiffin’s own daughter asked it to him — while he was on FaceTime with Chun sitting right next to him.

But that’s a worry for another day. In the hear and now, whatever Lane Kiffin does at Florida Atlantic is bound to be interesting. Because no matter how much time and experience may have altered his approach to coaching, some things truly never do change.