THESE YEEZYS, MAN. You need, like, special dispensation from Kanye himself to get your hands on them, and a lot of people are mad at Lane Kiffin for snagging two pairs. The white sneakers conspicuously placed on the coffee table in the football offices at Florida Atlantic University are Yeezy Boost 350 v2s in “cream,” which can easily sell for close to $600, when you can find them at all. Kiffin’s shoe score has all the hallmarks of a Lane Kiffin yarn, but with a twist. Kiffin himself is nowhere in sight. His legend is being busily burnished by one of his graduate assistants while Kiffin wraps up a film session next door.
When he does put in an appearance, the new head coach of the Owls is quick to shrug off any celebrity footwear cred that might have been built up in his absence. He consulted with his former players at Alabama, he says, to see what he should be wearing at an Adidas school, then had the school’s rep send over some sneakers.
“I’m not a giant shoe person,” Kiffin says. “I just know kids like ’em, and I’m not supposed to get ’em dirty.”
It’s a tangible shift, seeing a coach famed for youth and immaturity emphasize the generation gap between himself and his players. And it’s a shift Kiffin wants you to notice. After flameout-filled stops as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Volunteers and USC Trojans, followed by a stint in football’s finishing school calling plays for Alabama, he’d very much like for you to think he is, at 42, at last an adult. So would his bosses in Boca Raton, Florida, in the FBS backwater of Conference USA.
The 2017 party line on Kiffin, beginning with Friday’s game against Navy (ESPNU & ESPN App, 8 p.m. ET), is one of metamorphosis. His time in Tuscaloosa, watching Nick Saban pull the puppet strings on Bama’s massive war machine, altered his thinking. Now, with him stepping out of Saban’s shadow, at a program where there is no Al Davis, Phil Fulmer or Pete Carroll’s way of doing things, we’re about to get our first look at a team fashioned solely by Kiffin. So what’s that look like?
Well, for what it’s worth, Kiffin did fire off a tweet to Kim Kardashian, thanking Kanye for the shoes and inviting her to a game.
FROM THE MOMENT Kiffin burst onto the scene in the college game, he has made such a bratty name for himself that it’s easy to forget he can actually coach. Shortly after being hired at Tennessee in December 2008, he said he looked forward to “singing ‘Rocky Top’ all night long after we beat Florida next year,” then, shortly thereafter at a breakfast with boosters, accused Urban Meyer of cheating.
That lone season in Knoxville might be remembered more charitably today had he not (A) spent the entire time tweaking his elders and betters in the SEC; (B) invited quite so much NCAA scrutiny, racking up secondary violations and casting a spotlight on the kind of recruiting hostess operation that many power programs would rather you not think too much about; and/or (C) fled town under literal cover of darkness to take the USC job.
The highlight reel of ignominy he went on to assemble in Los Angeles ranged from the merely associative (a $25,000 fine levied after a student manager deflated footballs during a loss to Oregon) to the unnecessarily petty (denying visiting teams walk-throughs of the Coliseum before games, beginning with the lowly Hawaii Warriors) to the patently disastrous (the variegated debacles of the 2012 Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech, in which, among other things, Kiffin’s offense scored only one TD). Here, too, the ruckus masked the fact that he strung together three straight winning seasons — with a roster nearly half-obliterated by NCAA sanctions — before being fired midseason in 2013.
It took college football’s most notoriously tight-lipped coach to shut college football’s most irrepressible mouth, and even that didn’t take right away. Alabama famously keeps its assistants walled off from the media, but behind the scenes in the country’s highest-pressure program, Kiffin hit wall after wall, charged with the unenviable task of updating an offense not everybody agreed should be altered. He can pinpoint the exact moment during the 2015 season, his second year in Tuscaloosa, when he finally knuckled under: “Coach Saban said something to me, which I really get now: ‘You’re not here to judge the program. You’re here to do what I say.'”
Now at FAU, that irrepressible mouth calls Bama’s media blackout curtain “a blessing.”
IN POINT OF fact, Kiffin claims to have made great strides of progress, leading him to the conclusion that it’s time to give up calling his own plays. It’s a bold move, and not his usual kind of bold: Kiffin’s talents on the offensive side of the ball, particularly with quarterbacks, are the one area where even his legions of critics can agree he has marketable skills. The genesis of this shift, he says, goes all the way back to a postseason player interview at USC that led him to feel as if he might be coaching just half a team.
“One of our defensive leaders said, ‘You know, Coach, we don’t really feel you on defense,'” Kiffin says. “‘Offensive players are always on your couch, watching TV, playing video games in your office. You have that relationship with them and not with us.’ I really hadn’t thought about the individual players caring about the head coach’s attention. Now I’m able to sit in meetings on defense. Kids have problems, I can spend more time with them.”
“There’s good and bad,” he says as he chuckles. “Practice is a little bit boring now.”
The most significant aspect of his evolution, Kiffin says, has to do with the development of his own cognitive processes. “Where I’ve changed is, I slow down. At first, at Alabama, I didn’t get it. I was like ‘God, these meetings take forever.’” He recalls a 15-minute meeting before one game dedicated solely to all possible outcomes after the pregame coin toss, but says he later came to understand the advantages of deliberate mental routines.
“Saban’s really just talking through what he’s thinking. So we can hear him, so he can hear himself. And it’s gonna be slow.”
This shift toward a more orbital view of coaching made a lasting impression on FAU president John Kelly at their first interview this past December. “As we left that meeting, as we were going down the escalator, I told our athletic director, ‘If we can get that guy, that’s the top drawer. We’re dealing with somebody who’s really top drawer.'”
Athletic director Pat Chun concurs. “I can assure you, no one puts more pressure on Lane Kiffin than Lane Kiffin. He wants to prove to everyone that he’s grown as a head coach, and from where we sit today, I think we’re all ecstatic with the work he’s done.”
Back in front of live mics, Kiffin has stuck mostly to signal-boosting his own team, though he’ll readily retweet jokes at his expense. “#Feel4U,” he tweeted, after reports surfaced of White House chief of staff Reince Priebus’ unceremonious tarmac firing, a callback to his own airport firing at USC.
He’ll still give his opinion, more freely than many of his peers, on big-picture issues such as the inherent unfairness of legislated amateurism and the nebulous future of football — including, he says, hearing from people whose opinions he trusts that football won’t exist in 15-20 years. He says he has gained a newfound perspective on his own truncated playing career at Fresno State University when discussing the bombshell CTE study, published in July in the Journal of the American Medical Association and subsequently detailed in The New York Times, which revealed that the brains of 110 of 111 deceased NFL players revealed damage from the degenerative disease.
“They say, like, you never know why things happen. Like blessings in disguise. You know what I didn’t realize at the time is a really good blessing, is that I was a really crappy player. In college I was so mad I wasn’t playing. The two guys in front of me were Billy Volek and David Carr, but I just realized that was a blessing in disguise, that I was so bad and I never played, so my brain’s good.”
“Smarter coach, probably.”
IN RELINQUISHING CONTROL of his own offense, Kiffin’s worth as a coach will be judged in wins and losses, but also in administrative steps and missteps. Just shy of a full offseason into his new job, the only substantive decisions we can measure so far are personnel-based. And if you buy into the existence of this newly profound deliberative process of Kiffin’s and apply it to key decisions made since his introduction, it’s easy to be confused.
Two incoming players with disciplinary issues — De’Andre Johnson, recruited by the previous staff after being kicked out of Florida State for punching a woman, and Chris Robison, dismissed from Oklahoma over the summer for an unspecified team rules violation — augment his quarterbacking corps. Kiffin himself referred to the program as “Last Strike U” — a nod to the Netflix series “Last Chance U” about a junior college football program — at an August media day. The hashtag #LastChanceFAU erupts online after the announcement of each addition, putting to immediate rest any pretense that this program might be rebuilt methodically rather than overclocked for immediate wins.
There’s another personnel move that can’t be casually dismissed: If we’re buying Kiffin’s reformation, we’re also being asked to believe he took several days of careful thought to conclude that Baylor’s Kendal Briles — who told CBSSports.com that he was texted “out of the blue” by Kiffin, whom he’d only met on a Baylor staff trip to Alabama two years ago — was the most suitable candidate to bring in as offensive coordinator. Briles is noted for being something of a line-stepper in Big 12 recruiting — he was suspended for a game in September 2015 and admonished by the NCAA for being “more interested in finding loopholes to exploit the rules instead of trying to follow the rules” — and for his strident defense of his father, Art, after the latter’s documented enmeshment in a program-shattering web of sexual abuse cover-ups at Baylor.
The Kendal Briles hire has put FAU on the defensive more than once since the announcement in December. Most recently, the Sun-Sentinel reported that Art had been consulting with his son and Kiffin in their process of constructing the Owls’ offense. Kiffin downplayed the ex-Baylor head coach’s role in follow-up interviews, telling ESPN: “That’s classic ‘Somebody trying to make it a story’ because it’s Art Briles and Lane Kiffin.”
Still: Was this really the time for him to deploy his contrarian streak? At the very least, it’s an institutional headache that has flared up multiple times before the Owls’ offense has played a single series, and it could’ve been avoided by hiring a coordinator off literally any other staff in the country.
Which idea is worse: That Kiffin might not have thought this one all the way through, or the fear that maybe he did?
The closest Kiffin gets to an answer is to say he doesn’t care for your question. “I don’t sit here and say, ‘OK, I’m figuring out whether to do something, what’s the media gonna say?'” Kiffin says of the decision. “And a lot of people think that way. I don’t think that way.”
SUCCESS AT FAU means the ability to leave FAU, and for Kiffin to do that, he needs wins. He also needs, for all his insistence he doesn’t care, to shift his own public perception — but not for the reasons you might think. This transition to a more “mature” style of management is a key component of his rehabilitation not because it’ll make him a better football coach but because it gives administrators cover to do what they really want to do, which is always — always — to find an excuse to hire the guy who can win.
The thing is, he probably will win. Past a walloping opening one-two slate of a home game against Navy and a road trip to Wisconsin, the schedule sets up pretty nicely for the Owls, with the strongest conference opponents, Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech, conveniently slotted in the back half of the season.
“It’s the nature of our business that success begets success,” Chun says. “The reality, I’ve always said, is if he wins in whatever time he’s with us, and is provided a different type of opportunity, that’s awesome, because that means he’s left FAU in a better place than he found it.”
Kiffin is here because the FAU brass wanted their program to make headlines; whether they find those headlines to their liking is something we’ll all get to discover together. But “a better place,” in this case, is quantifiable entirely by the Owls racking up wins before both parties agree to part company. It might not take long. Kiffin’s greatest verifiable sin, to date, is being a heel. The only real question left might be whether Kiffin can stay out of his own way long enough to get back to the bigs. His pattern of behavior in Boca so far suggests that he not only listens to his own worst impulses but has learned he doesn’t have to tune them out to succeed.
Somewhere along the way, Kiffin has even learned to speak in convincingly glowing terms about bringing football success to a community that has never been much of a football community. More than anything, he says the FAU job appealed to his inborn contrarian streak. “I just like to do things that aren’t supposed to be done.”
He tries again.
“I guess I should say I like to do things that people say you can’t do.”
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