Back Lane Kiffin’s Time in the Sun

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Lane Kiffin’s Time in the Sun

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Both as a play-caller and a personality, Lane Kiffin has challenged the status quo.

"It was a really good fit and a good situation...we thought we could (win) down here and that is why I'm at FAU".
~Lane Kiffin

Before the big stage, for Lane Kiffin, there was always the game. Prior to becoming the youngest head coach in modern NFL history with the Oakland Raiders and leading traditional college football powers Tennessee and Southern California all in his 30s, Kiffin was, first, a coach's son and, second, a quarterback. Born to the then-defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Kiffin grew up following in his father Monte's footsteps, with progress measured ten yards at a time.   

Given what he has accomplished at such a young age, along with his influence and pull, the now-Florida Atlantic head coach is one of this football era's most compelling figures. The story is still being told.

Kiffin was a star signal caller at Bloomington Jefferson High School in Minneapolis, where his dad was on the Vikings' staff. Ultimately, Kiffin signed a scholarship with Fresno State, playing for the Bulldogs for three seasons before beginning his now-storied coaching career as a student assistant. Also on the depth chart were 12-year NFL passer Billy Volek and David Carr, the number one pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. Jeff Tedford, currently the head coach of the Bulldogs, was the offensive coordinator.  

The son of a legendary coaching veteran, it didn't take long for the younger Kiffin to find his way. Though Lane's first professional job came in 2000 as an offensive quality control coach in Jacksonville, and his official college position came in 2001 as the tight ends coach with USC, his introduction to coaching came years before.

"Growing up around it, you're getting a head start compared to most coaches so it allows you at an early age to have experiences that most kids don't. Sitting in meetings as a ball boy at a young age was really unique and awesome," Kiffin told Ben Troupe, a former All-American tight end at Florida and former player of Kiffin's in Oakland, on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network.

Raised around football, Kiffin wasn't just living the life, he was learning it.

"Seeing him and how intriguing it was to see coaches gameplan, coaching having so much to do with the outcome based on the gameplan and decision-making during the games," Kiffin reflected, "I was just really fortunate to grow up around it."

Still only 43, the Kiffin you see today already has more perspicacity than a room full of accomplished coaches. The Boca Raton sunshine aside, his deep tan comes from time spent in the spotlight.

Groundbreakingly, Kiffin was hired by the Oakland Raiders at 31, notably younger than some of the team's standout players. He was hired by Tennessee, stepping into the fire of the SEC, at 33. By 34, he was leading a college football superpower in USC. At those respective jobs, Kiffin replaced legends Art Shell, Phillip Fulmer and Pete Carroll. Needless to say, pressure came with each position.   

The iconic Nick Saban was 39 years old when he earned his first head coaching job at Toledo. By that point, Kiffin had already been in charge of three of the biggest brands in football and, interestingly enough, was Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama. That fall, in 2014, the Crimson Tide set program records for most plays, most total yards gained, most yards per game and most touchdowns scored in a single season. In Tuscaloosa, Kiffin's career came full-circle with a ring.   

While Saban's legacy clearly stands on its own, Kiffin, expanding the scope, helped add to it.

"It was great from a learning perspective to spend three years under him, he will go down as the greatest football coach ever," Kiffin stated.

Both as a play-caller and a personality, Kiffin has challenged the status quo. There have been actual similarities in scheme and style as he has been aggressive, bold and unpredictable alike. Kiffin embraces opportunities full-speed, which has sometimes led to him learning on the fly. Through ups and downs, Kiffin has proved he can push through adversity. He, along the way, has become a celebrity beyond the boundaries of sport.

Kiffin has always had a unique perspective and a way with words. From silent to resilient, all you add is the phoenix of prefixes and an extra "i".

Whether stirring the pot at press conferences or rattling cages online, Kiffin has used his wit and bravado to reach the masses. That bold persona has long stood out in a world of coachspeak and cliches and has, additionally, resonated with a younger audience. In some ways, Kiffin has grown bigger than the programs he represents. He, regardless of his role, is a fixed part of the college football conversation.

With regards to social media, Kiffin has become a trend-setter of sorts. He engages with fans, comments on pop culture and, in doing so, relates to the general public and to potential recruits. Such an outlook, from a high-profile head coach, is refreshing and unique. Kiffin, on Twitter alone, has over 410,000 followers.

"I think it's awesome. I don't take it as serious as a lot of people probably do," he explained. "We tell our kids, life is short, it's okay to have fun."

Social engagement is an important piece of the Kiffin puzzle, helping him stay front and center in the minds of those who matter. 

"To be able to communicate with them that way and get things out, they like it and their parents do, too," Kiffin added. "You go into the parent's home and they go, 'hey, we love following you on Twitter,' so that's part of the job and anything with your job you want to do well."

For everything Kiffin has done and everywhere he has been, no stop has been quite like his current. Florida Atlantic debuted in 2001 under the direction of Howard Schnellenberger, the architect of the Miami dynasty a generation prior. Jumping into the FCS, then the FBS three years later, was an ambitious plan for the Owls. Schnellenberger led FAU to the FCS semifinals in 2003 and a Sun Belt co-crown in 2007. Now, Kiffin's Owls are fresh off eleven wins, an outright Conference USA title, the largest victory of bowl season and are even in some pre-season polls.   

Florida Atlantic is nationally-relevant and Kiffin, quite frankly, is a big reason why. The Owls are winning and putting up points in the process. Florida Atlantic ranked eighth in the country at 40.6 points per game in Kiffin's first year, a dramatic boost from 26.4 the season before. Running back Devin Singletary recently paced all of college football with 32 rushing touchdowns and is a legitimate All-American candidate. 

Kiffin has been able to package the program's momentum with his image, making the Owls a suddenly-hot commodity. Florida Atlantic is a destination -- and not just because of Deerfield Beach.

Even if others didn't, Kiffin saw a chance to shake things up.

"It was a really good fit and a good situation. They have been down a number of years, but they are right in the middle of a ton of good players down in Florida and if you just look at history, every school has had some really special seasons, really made some runs, whether it's UCF last year or USF before that and obviously the big three," Kiffin acknowledged. "We thought we could down here and that is why I'm at FAU".

The future comes with even more opportunity. First and foremost, a season-opening test at recent College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma. Beyond that, perhaps a run at the New Year's Six? Kiffin's squad is talented, confident and, despite the program's youth, experienced, not dissimilar from the head man himself. Florida Atlantic may very well be one of the game's most interesting teams.  

Down the road, who knows where Kiffin's future lies, ranging from no change at all to, potentially, anywhere he wants to be. Clearly, however, Kiffin has people talking, just as he did a decade ago on another coast. Though the location has changed, the name and the narrative has not.

"We have a really great situation here," Kiffin detailed. "You know, I'm never going to say we're going to be here forever, but we love it here, love the city, love the people, love the ability to recruit here and continue to win at a high level."

Bigger than any destination is Kiffin's destiny; at the end of the day, he is a football coach. Furthermore, Lane is continuing the Kiffin legacy. Monte, as he assisted at Lane's previous stops, is on the Florida Atlantic staff as as a defensive analyst and pro liaison. Just like a lifetime ago, hashmarks continue to take father and son home. Together, the duo has combined for over 70 years in coaching.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. With a wry smile, a clipboard and a visor, Lane Kiffin is somewhere in the middle.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports