In the unfamiliar rung where Lane Kiffin finds himself, progress will be measured in nebulous terms. On the outskirts of college football, removed from the glare, he will be judged less on victories and losses and touchdowns called than on comportment. After so many big jobs and so many spectacular flops, Kiffin is a head coach again, this time in a small place.
Florida Atlantic is different from Tennessee or Southern Cal or Alabama, the three places where Kiffin left various forms of wreckage behind. Expectations are low, recruiting budgets are limited, and he can stop for gas without a season-ticket holder imploring him to run more seam routes. The question college football has for Kiffin, as he begins his latest chapter in Friday night’s opener against Navy: Is Kiffin different?
“Is he going to be the Lane Kiffin we saw at USC and at Tennessee?” ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “Or is he going to learn anything that he watched Nick Saban do? For his sake, he can’t be the Lane Kiffin we saw at USC or Tennessee. I don’t just mean coaching. I just mean the way he carries himself, the way he handles the media, the way he handles his players. To me, he was watching the dean of that in Alabama. Is he going to learn? Or will he be the Lane Kiffin who was looked at as being young and immature?”
For a coach of sparse accomplishment when in charge, Kiffin, 41, is a major figure in college football. From his early 20s, he has known only college powerhouses, with a brief interruption with the Oakland Raiders at age 31 as the then-youngest-ever NFL head coach. He engineered chaos for one year at Tennessee before skipping out for USC. He bombed for 3½ seasons before the school fired him at the airport in the wee hours after returning home from a road game.
Saban threw him a life preserver, and Kiffin repaid him with a reminder of why anybody puts up with him. Kiffin can game-plan and call plays with anybody. In three years with him as offensive coordinator, the Crimson Tide modernized its offense, claimed three Southeastern Conference titles, won one national championship and came within one play of another.
Of course, this being Kiffin, the end at Alabama was ugly. After taking the FAU job before the College Football Playoff, Kiffin gave Sports Illustrated a bombastic interview in which he claimed he had nothing in common with Saban and implied working for him was drudgery. Saban jettisoned Kiffin after Alabama’s lackluster offensive showing in the semifinal victory over Washington. Two weeks later, the Tide lost to Clemson in the final seconds.
Has Kiffin changed? Ask him about that night. He watched Clemson-Alabama alone, in a room at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. He felt like a coach, catching every mistake as his longtime friend, Steve Sarkisian, coordinated his offense.
“It was rough,” Kiffin said this week in a phone conversation. “It got really rough when you watched the game. At first, the idea of, ‘Okay, do your job. Focus on this one.’ But really when you watched it and because they lost and it was so close. If they lose by a lot, you don’t feel like, ‘Okay, would there have been a difference?’ You lose by one play, one second, it’s natural to think, ‘Okay, you could have made a difference.’ If they won, it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have just been happy for them. That was the hardest part, how it ended.”
It is one thing for Kiffin to feel his absence cost Alabama in that moment. What about now, eight months removed? If Saban hadn’t removed him, does he think Alabama would have won?
“I do,” Kiffin said. “It’s no disrespect to Steve. No matter who it was, you’ve been there all year long. You’ve been there for the quarterback. You’re all he knew. You were undefeated together. We’ve won  straight games together. You feel like, okay, it’s different. As great as Sark is, it’s just different. Again, if it had been 14 points either way . . . when it’s one play here or there, you think if those guys had the person they were used to, it would have made a difference.”
Kiffin’s view — and his willingness to share it publicly — fits into his persona. He’s not wrong, but other coaches — like, say, Saban — would have deflected rather than invite possible controversy.
Mostly, though, Kiffin has kept a low profile. When he arrived at Tennessee, Kiffin issued wild proclamations — such as falsely accusing then-Florida coach Urban Meyer of a recruiting violation — to drum up attention. Florida Atlantic is a program void of attention, particularly in a state saturated with Division I football, both powers and mid-tier programs. But Kiffin has taken a decidedly low-key approach.
“Different programs, different places,” Kiffin said. “The Tennessee thing, I just had to try to catch Saban at Alabama, Urban at Florida, Richt at Georgia. It just felt like when we got there, they were so far behind, we had to do things just to get attention to help us in recruiting.”
Kiffin has still invited criticism, sometimes in more sinister ways than running his mouth. He hired former Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, son of disgraced coach Art Briles, as his offensive coordinator despite Kendal Briles’s ties to the Baylor football program’s rape scandal. Court documents allegedly showed Briles asking recruits if they liked white women, promising Baylor had a lot who liked football players.
“We had to research,” Kiffin said. “Our administration did a lot of research on that and felt comfortable with it. So I don’t know. We wanted him to be part of this and hopefully do something special.”
As Kiffin spoke Tuesday night, he was driving from his office to FAU Stadium to speak at an event welcoming students back to campus. He said he wants to build lasting success and believes it can happen on a pretty campus set amid a dense pool of high school football talent. He thinks he can make a run to national prominence, as South Florida and Central Florida have in the recent past.
“I really don’t feel like I’m back to being a head coach,” Kiffin said. “I’ve done it before for so long that it’s just kind of like, you’re doing it again. But I do think that I’m much more prepared this time, having spent three years with Coach Saban, learning from him.”
For Kiffin, FAU will become either a springboard to another big job or further ammunition for those who believe he can be trusted as a play caller but not as a head coach. What he learned — and how he proves the lessons stuck — will determine the difference.
More college football coverage from The Post: