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This Is Where I Lane You

After years of failing upward, Lane Kiffin might finally be back on a conventional career path

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It looks like Lane Kiffin is going to be the next head football coach at Florida Atlantic, which makes a certain degree of sense.

Kiffin is the wildly successful offensive coordinator at Alabama, where he’s transformed the Tide’s antediluvian attack into a state-of-the-art spread-option game. The Tide have gone 39–3 since Kiffin arrived in 2014. They’ve made the playoff in each of its first three years of existence, winning one national title and coming into this season’s contest as the overwhelming favorite. With the exception of Kirby Smart, who jumped straight to the Georgia job, many of Nick Saban’s star assistants have taken an intermediate step before landing a big gig, whether it’s Jim McElwain at Colorado State or Jimbo Fisher and Will Muschamp taking head-coach-in-waiting positions at Florida State and Texas, respectively. So while FAU, which went 3–9 in each of the past three seasons under Charlie Partridge, isn’t as prestigious as the Houston or Oregon jobs Kiffin had been linked with, it’s a reasonable next step for a Saban assistant.

Except, Kiffin is not your run-of-the-mill Saban assistant, the ovoid, shouty, Large Adult Son with a bowl cut who inevitably takes over at one of the SEC’s less decorated programs. He’s been a household name for 10 years, having done three much more distinguished head-coaching stints than FAU, and as an offensive coordinator, he’s won national championships and coached Heisman Trophy winners at two different schools. A fixer-upper like FAU feels like slumming it, but this is the first thing Kiffin’s done in years that’s made sense.

In 2007, then-77-year-old Raiders owner Al Davis made Kiffin, who was fresh off a successful stint as the offensive coordinator at Southern Cal but had never been a head coach at any level, the youngest head coach in NFL history. Kiffin was fired after a season and change in which he went 5–15, and he fell into the Tennessee job just vacated by Phil Fulmer.

In his one year in Knoxville, Kiffin went 7–6, and his most notable headline came when he told four-star high school receiver Alshon Jeffery that he’d be pumping gas if he went to South Carolina instead of Tennessee. Which is true enough — you pump your own gas in South Carolina. Except you also pump your own gas in Tennessee and in Illinois, where Jeffery’s posted more than 4,000 receiving yards in five seasons with the Chicago Bears. Not that it mattered to Kiffin, who bolted after one year to replace Pete Carroll, who fled Southern Cal for the NFL just ahead of sanctions for recruiting violations.

In his second stint in Los Angeles, Kiffin waited out the Trojans’ two-year bowl ban, under which he went 18–7, and headed into 2012 with the no. 1 team in the country, led by senior quarterback Matt Barkley, a contender for the Heisman Trophy and a possible top pick in that year’s NFL draft. Instead, that season turned into one of the funnier, more shambolic campaigns in recent college football history. Kiffin’s Trojans lost their first Pac-12 game to Stanford, then lost to Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, and Notre Dame. Barkley injured his shoulder against UCLA and dropped to the fourth round of the draft.

Kiffin capped off 2012 with a 1–5 finish. In late November, he watched his father, legendary defensive coach Monte Kiffin, pull a “You can’t fire me, I quit!” In December, he had a locker room shouting match with running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu (who he eventually fired). Kiffin’s team showed up late to the Sun Bowl dinner, then no-showed during the Sun Bowl itself, losing 21–7 to Georgia Tech as Kiffin coached under cover of sunglasses, makeup, and a hood to hide a mysterious and to this day unexplained facial wound. After the game, Kiffin released a statement that read, in part, “Contrary to media reports, there was not a brawl or altercation in our locker room after the Sun Bowl,” which is always a good sign.

Nine months later, after a 3–2 start and a 21-point loss to Arizona State, Trojans athletic director Pat Haden pulled Kiffin off the team plane to fire him right there at LAX.

Even if he hadn’t failed so often, and in such funny fashion, Kiffin would still be a controversial figure. As the son of a coach who was elevated to great heights at a young age, then kept failing up, Kiffin reeks of oblivious, frat-boy privilege, a reputation made worse by his lifelong struggle with Punchable Face Syndrome. He’s the kid who was born on third base, thinks he hit a triple, and crashed two of daddy’s BMWs on the way to home plate, then landed an investment banking job right after four years of gentleman’s C’s at Yale.

It’s under these circumstances that Kiffin arrived at Alabama under the tutelage of Saban, who is college football’s stern but loving father. Like a thousand 30- and 40-something white actors in a thousand indie rom-coms, Kiffin found himself. He was Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown, the haughty West Coaster returning home after the failure of his athletic shoe and reinventing himself in the process. (In this metaphor, Derrick Henry is Kirsten Dunst, Ryan Kelly is Paula Deen, and Blake Sims is Paul Schneider, the weird cousin with the band who sets fire to the hotel ballroom.)

At Alabama, Kiffin returned to the conditions under which he was successful at Southern Cal. As a coordinator operating under a venerable, defensive-minded head coach, Kiffin could maximize his strengths without exposing his weaknesses. He could recruit and coach quarterbacks without showing his ass to boosters and the media. And after three head-coaching jobs and more drama, failure, and humiliation than most people experience in a lifetime, Kiffin is still only 41 — born the same year as several rising stars, like Smart; Tom Herman, formerly of Houston and now of Texas; and Matt Rhule, who just left Temple to coach Baylor.

Now, Kiffin is leaving the nest once more, older and perhaps wiser and more prepared to be the face of a program. And it’s fitting that that program was built by Howard Schnellenberger, the colorful, controversial, and very successful former Miami and Louisville coach — maybe Kiffin will finally find head-coaching success there. Or maybe his tenure at FAU will also end in humiliation. But for the first time in a decade, Lane Kiffin is doing something normal.