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 stepping stone 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-year-old 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 then-Florida coach Urban Meyer of cheating; earning a public reprimand from the SEC commissioner; denigrating the town of Pahokee, Fla. 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.