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The Peaks and Valleys of a Decade With Lane Kiffin

From Al Davis’s ire to Bitmoji, it’s time to take stock of the most interesting coach in football

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

Ten years ago this week, Lane Kiffin entered the national spotlight. At just 31 years old, he was hired into his first head-coaching job by the Oakland Raiders, and was expected to turn around a franchise in turmoil.

Of course, that didn’t exactly happen, and in the decade since, the world has been subjected to the Lane Kiffin Coaster — a jumble of shiny new opportunities followed by burnouts, head-scratching decisions, and transportation-related mishaps. Each experience has given us a little more insight into one of the more … interesting characters in football coaching. But while Kiffin will undoubtedly face scrutiny as he begins his new position at Florida Atlantic, it will be the first time in 10 years that he’s done so in relative obscurity. So, before he recedes from the national spotlight, let us take this time to celebrate the peaks and valleys of 10 blessed years with Lane Kiffin.

PEAK: Lane Kiffin Becomes the NFL’s Then-Youngest Head Coach

The Raiders were coming off of a 2–14 season in 2006 — their fourth straight with five wins or fewer. The organization had reached laughing-stock levels around the league and was looking at coaching candidates from across the country to fill the vacancy — Jim Fassel, Mike Martz, their own Rob Ryan — but Kiffin’s name wasn’t initially mentioned.

After Steve Sarkisian — Kiffin’s USC colleague — took himself out of the running for the Oakland job, Kiffin started to get a serious look. To that point, Kiffin’s only NFL experience was one season as defensive quality control coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and his highest-level position in any league was offensive coordinator at USC. But he got the job in January 2007, and the Lane Kiffin Hype Machine was created.

“Kiffin’s always been light years ahead of others his age,” read an East Bay Times headline. Lee Jenkins wrote, “Kiffin is just young enough, and bold enough, to proceed undaunted.” (One more-negative blog post referred to Lane as “Doogie Kiffin, O.C.”) The cautious optimism surrounding the wrinkleless face of Lane Kiffin survived the offseason. Then Oakland went 4–12 in his first season. In 2008, the team started 1–3.

VALLEY: Kiffin Sends Sebastian Janikowski Out for a 76-Yard Field Goal

VALLEY: Kiffin Is Fired After 20 Games in Oakland

Sure, the canning was bad for Kiffin’s reputation as a coach, but coaches get fired all the time in the NFL — it happens, and the media cycle moves on. At least, that’s generally the norm. But Kiffin apparently brought out a special form of ire in Al Davis.

All of Davis’s anger was laid out in a press conference so long that the video is broken up into five separate segments on YouTube. In it, Davis called his former coach a “flat-out liar,” said he was “embarrassed” watching his team under Kiffin’s leadership, and concluded, “I picked the wrong guy.”

Even after Kiffin fled to Tennessee, the Raiders continued to haunt him, sending a three-page letter to his new employer that aired more of their complicated history with Kiffin (the organization apparently has a fondness for being critical in letter form).

VALLEY: Kiffin’s Off-Field Year in Knoxville

While Kiffin’s evacuation to Tennessee seemed like a fresh start, the denouement there came faster than in Oakland. The general act of coaching football was the least newsworthy part of Kiffin’s time at Tennessee. Here is a list of three story lines (nonscandal edition) that were more interesting than the team he coached:

3. Kiffin fostered a public feud with Urban Meyer in spring 2009, incorrectly accusing Meyer of recruiting violations at Florida. Steve Spurrier joined the fray in the spring SEC meetings, defending comments he made that questioned whether Kiffin contacted recruits on behalf of the Volunteers before he was eligible to do so. The drama that unfolded eventually earned Kiffin a tongue-lashing and some reportedly Serious Eye Contact from then-SEC commissioner Mike Slive during the meetings. “[Slive] didn’t address anybody in particular,” an ESPN story said, “but was looking directly at Kiffin the entire time during his rant.”

2. After Kiffin decided to leave Tennessee to take the head job at USC, he held a meeting with the Volunteer players. Accounts of that meeting were overwhelmingly … let’s say, negative. At least one player reportedly walked out in the middle of Kiffin’s speech, and another was heard yelling, “They’re nothing but a bunch of traitors.”

1. A literal MOB OF ANGRY FANS gathered outside Tennessee’s football complex and Neyland Stadium the night Kiffin announced he was leaving, burning mattresses and attempting to force their way into the press conference. After that was unsuccessful, they waited for Kiffin to emerge like Mr. Larson waiting for Shooter McGavin in the parking lot.

PEAK: Kiffin’s First Two Years at USC

Kiffin returned to Southern California — the site of his first coordinator job — to take over a Trojans team that had been a powerhouse under Pete Carroll, but was now facing NCAA sanctions. He managed to keep the program afloat in his first season and excelled in his second year, 2011, when the 10–2 Trojans finished no. 6 in the final AP poll and picked up big wins against no. 4 Oregon and UCLA, throttling their crosstown rivals 50–0.

VALLEY: Kiffin’s Third and Fourth Years at USC

With his team ranked as 2012 preseason no. 1 and finally bowl-eligible after a two-year hiatus, expectations were high. The Trojans started 6–1, then lost four of their final five regular-season games before losing to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Lane wouldn’t last more than five games into the 2013 season before being fired (more on that in a minute!).

PEAK: Hired by Alabama

After the end of his third head-coaching stint in six years, Kiffin was hired by Nick Saban in January 2014 to be Alabama’s offensive coordinator. The oft-cocky Kiffin was, personality-wise, an interesting choice for a man who has been called “conservative,” “analytical,” and “the devil himself,” but it proved to be the perfect place for a Kiffin renaissance — a return to the offensive prowess that landed him that first head-coaching job.

Kiffin and Saban’s sideline interactions were legendary, ranging in tone from buddy-cop movie, to nagging spouses, to choreographed performance art. Kiffin overruled timeouts when Saban second-guessed his play calls. He earned glares, eye rolls, and dismissive head shakes, each caught on camera and broadcast to an enamored audience. In the few times he was allowed to speak to the media (Saban generally keeps his assistants locked away, presumably in a film room under Bryant-Denny Stadium), Kiffin was as light-hearted as ever.

“Hey Lane, I love you so much,” Kiffin said in a 2014 press conference, jokingly imitating Saban. “Thank you so much for coming here. Can you please stop throwing the ball so much and just run it a few more times, please?”

Their most infamous interaction came in September 2016 when, in a game against Western Kentucky, Kiffin’s offense lost a fumble that later led to a WKU touchdown. Mind you — that score merely cut the Alabama lead to 38–10 with less than a minute remaining in the game. But by the way Saban lit into Kiffin, you would have thought the game was lost.

Saban’s “ass-chewing” was true performance art.

VALLEY: Kiffin’s Overall Relationship With Transportation

Following a 62–41 road loss to Arizona State in September 2013, USC’s plane landed at a private airport near LAX. Shortly after touching down in L.A., Kiffin was fired. Rumors swirled that the 3 a.m. meeting between Kiffin and AD Pat Haden took place right there on the runway after landing, but Kiffin has since clarified: “I was a good 20 yards off the tarmac.”

Much more dignified.

Kiffin has been able to laugh about it since — most recently in a September tweet that ended with the hashtag “#3:14AM-LAX” — but it hasn’t been his only negative experience with travel.

After winning a national title with Alabama in January 2016, Kiffin was riding high. Until he missed the bus. He SAW the buses starting up as he wandered the bowels of University of Phoenix Stadium, WATCHED as they started rolling, and WHISTLED for them to stop. It didn’t work.

There’s no way to make this next part up: 11 months later it happened again. Kiffin was the last straggler giving interviews in a Peach Bowl media session in December, and he walked out of the Georgia Dome locker room only to find the buses were, once again, gone. These were probably accidents, and maybe Kiffin just needs to sync up his watch, but I prefer to think that Saban found the lone funny bone in his body and hustled everyone to the buses in secret.

PEAK: Kiffin Finally Has Reason to Celebrate (If Prematurely)

Lane’s had more chances to celebrate at Alabama than at any other point in his career, and once in a while those celebrations started a bit prematurely — like, before the quarterback threw the ball.

OK, so it happened more than “once in awhile.”

“I do that 30 times a game,” Kiffin said at a Sugar Bowl press conference. “They only show it when it works,” he said. “A lot of times I just, I’m not, I don’t even know I’m doing it really. It’s just in my head that they’re in this coverage and so there’s an excitement because you’re calling plays to get a defense.”

Has he ever been wrong?

None of us are infallible.

PEAK: Lane Discovers Bitmoji

April 27, 2016: A monumental day on planet Earth. It marked the first time Lane Kiffin shared his Bitmoji identity with the world. Clad in basic T-shirt and visor, Kiffin’s first-ever Bitmoji dabbed over large word art letters that said “HUMP DAY.” This was no fluke. Kiffin proceeded to spend the rest of the day sending out Bitmoji (to the point of exhaustion) because he’s not one to just test the waters: He cannonballs in. From April through early August, Bitmoji were a frequent presence on Kiffin’s Twitter account, and it was perfect.

Bitmoji Lane dabbed. He dressed up as superheroes. He crossed his fingers and pictured a brighter future. He served his country, investigated crime, and kept it 100.

(At press time, movie options for KiffMoji were still available.)

Cartoon Lane has shown up less and less frequently on Kiffin’s Twitter, no doubt a result of the 2016 football season, job hunting, and acquiring new real estate. But for a solid few months, Lane Kiffin was Alabama’s embarrassing dad.

VALLEY: Lane Goes to FAU

In December, Lane Kiffin’s image rebrand was proven successful: he accepted Florida Atlantic’s head-coaching job — his first since USC.

But earlier that fall, Kiffin was being vetted for much stronger coaching positions. He lost out on the Houston job — one he was rumored to be a front-runner for, and a solid program ready to succeed. He was also linked to Oregon’s head job, Willie Taggart’s vacated seat at USF, and various other head-coach and coordinator positions.

VALLEY: Separated From Alabama Before National Championship Game

The week before the national title game between Alabama and Clemson, Saban announced that Kiffin would not coach in the game, and that he was done with the team effective immediately. The two said it was mutual, and that Kiffin needed to focus on his next career move, but any person who’s ever been dumped knows those are just the clichés you spew to save face. Whatever truly sparked the decision, it couldn’t have been easy for Kiffin to lose out on a chance for a second national championship at Alabama (even though the Tide eventually lost, making Kiffin the only undefeated coach in college football last season: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

LEVEL GROUND: Kiffin Settles Into Life in Boca

We’ve reached a level plane on the Kiffin Coaster. He’s back in a head-coaching role, but it’s the lowest-profile job he’s had in a decade. He’s been in the media, but (so far) has not incited any feuds with other Conference USA coaches. There are no angry mobs in Boca Raton, no bowl sanctions left over from previous coaches, and no all-time great coach to push him on the sidelines.

We just have Lane, trying to simultaneously build up a program and a reputation for success on his own. Maybe he’s gained enough tools and experiences over the past 10 years to make that happen. Maybe not. Either way, the coaster keeps rolling.