BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Cody Sparks showed up early and was shouting louder as the game started, drawing the attention of a stadium security worker to the front-row commotion.
Hands and eyebrows raised, Sparks pleaded like a man who wasn’t making a conscious choice: “I have got to give Lane Kiffin hell.”
So it went Saturday afternoon at Western Kentucky with Florida Atlantic in town.
Sparks, a Western Kentucky University fan and native of Beaver Dam, Kentucky, called himself “kind of” a Tennessee fan, too.
“It’s so easy to rag on Kiffin,” Sparks said at halftime. “It’s special just because he’s a new coach in Conference USA. … I’ve been giving Kiffin hell the whole game.”
Sparks wasn’t alone. It was a lively front row behind FAU’s bench as Kiffin was heckled about the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and Alabama. Between catcalls about being left by Southern Cal at the airport or the infamous Joey Freshwater (Kiffin’s reported – and unconfirmed – social alias), Kiffin heard plenty.
And you know he heard because at one point during the second quarter, Kiffin — holding a play sheet on FAU’s sideline — raised his other hand in a wave without even turning to look at his hecklers. He then pointed a finger on that hand toward the scoreboard.
Florida Atlantic was up 17-7 at the time and went on to win 42-28, leaping into first place in C-USA’s Eastern Division. Saturday’s road win at WKU made four in a row for the surprising Owls, who are now 5-3 overall and 4-0 in league play. They had failed to win more than three games in any of the previous three seasons before Kiffin arrived after three seasons as offensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama.
“A new tradition. The standards have really changed around here,” FAU junior defensive back Andrew Soroh said.
At 295.9 rushing yards per game, FAU’s ground game ranks eighth in the NCAA’s top division. The weekend prior to running for 368 yards at WKU, FAU amassed 804 yards of total offense and 69 points in a rout of North Texas.
Kiffin recounted a story of a guy named Jim Willis handing him a check for $24,804 after the game to put toward FAU’s program. Willis told Kiffin the 24 was for 24 first-quarter points and the 804 was for the yardage total.
“I don’t think I saw 800 yards coming,” Kiffin said, “but they ended the year last year with some decent offensive games with a lot of guys coming back. So defense was really the issue, a huge issue. It’s really started clicking. At the end of the day, if you run the ball and you don’t get sacked and you don’t turn it over, you’re going to win a lot of games. That’s what we’ve kind of been doing lately.”
Saturday’s jabs from a few WKU fans, Kiffin admitted, hardly compared to what he has received elsewhere in years past. Well off the national college football radar, FAU does feel a bit out of place for one of the most precocious — and eventful — coaching careers the sport has witnessed.
At age 42, Kiffin has already done more in his coaching career that most ever will.
At 31, he was hired as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, a move that made him the NFL’s youngest head coach since the 1940s.
Two years later, he took over Tennessee’s program for the 2009 season, replacing Phillip Fulmer before leaving after one season to return to Southern Cal, where he’d previously coached under Pete Carroll. The decision infuriated Vols fans to the point of public disturbances in Knoxville.
“It’s human nature,” Kiffin said when asked if he thinks back on what might have happened had he stayed longer at Tennessee. He remembers the transition as the craziest point of his career.
“There were just so many memories (at Southern Cal), my kid being born there, all those things. It was a dream job,” Kiffin said. “Now, in the dream, nobody said there was going to be 30 scholarships lost and a two-year bowl ban and all your juniors and seniors can transfer when you get there. So that dream wasn’t exactly what I thought it was.”
In 2011, Kiffin went 10-2 with the Trojans, who were mired in NCAA sanctions stemming from Carroll’s tenure. But he was fired in 2013, five games into his fourth season.
“When the ball is kicked and the game is going, everybody forgets” about NCAA sanctions, Kiffin said. “When they were first handed down, everybody said, ‘Oh, this is basically the death penalty. This is a bad as you can get except the death penalty. USC is going to be losing for six, seven years.’ Then all of a sudden, we started winning and the year with (quarterback) Matt Barkley and were No. 4 in the country, and everybody forgot.”
Kiffin’s next landing spot was a surprising one.
Working for the demanding Saban was “polar opposite” of working for the laid-back Carroll, Kiffin said.
“Alabama is run very different from the majority of programs,” Kiffin said. “It’s kind of like people refer to it, it’s like coaching rehab. You go there and you learn a ton from him. Is every day the funnest place in the world? No, it’s not. But that’s not his job. His job is to win games.”
The Tide won 40 games and three SEC titles in Kiffin’s three seasons there before FAU came calling.
Odd as it may appear, FAU fits Kiffin in a way those other jobs did not.
For the first time in a while, he’s the hunter as opposed to being the hunted. He’s an underdog, and he seems to enjoy thriving when it’s unexpected and there is much to prove.
After a touchdown Saturday at WKU, Kiffin celebrated with a skip, raring up to raise and swing a fist toward the ground, as if punching a chair hard. Then he stole a glance at the opposing sideline.
Yeah, how about that?
He repeated the celebration on later touchdowns and on a fourth-quarter fake punt that helped secure the victory. After a final touchdown, he made a more subdued, underhanded bowling motion, again toward the opposing sideline.
It’s not exactly trash talk, but it’s got an edge to it that Kiffin has always displayed. It’s in this way he’s unlike most football coaches, enjoying attention and lacking constraint, which makes him a compelling personality in the sport.
Unlike most in his profession, Kiffin knows how to cause a stir. Good or bad, his coaching career has been marked by them.
Kiffin’s exits have been eventful, controversial even. The late Raiders owner Al Davis called a press conference to blast Kiffin. During Kiffin’s short tenure in Knoxville, his program was reportedly being investigated by the NCAA, though the probe ended up targeting Bruce Pearl’s basketball program more than the football team.
“The attention that he brought really got Bruce Pearl jammed up. So you wonder if he was still here, would Tennessee be on probation?” said Jayson Swain, a Tennessee wide receiver in the mid-2000s who hosts a morning sports call-in show in Knoxville. “From an Xs and Os standpoint, no one can question how smart Kiffin is as an offensive mind. But he was young and immature. You wonder if he would have got himself in a Hugh Freeze-kind of situation or a scandal like that or the NCAA looking to possibly jam Tennessee over some stuff.”
Asked how he is different now from the coach who took over Tennessee’s program, Kiffin said, “Well, you mature. You should learn from things and learn from mistakes that you make. That’s eight years ago. So that’s a long time, and a lot of things happen in-between.”
Then there was the end to the three years at Alabama under Saban, who opted not to keep Kiffin on staff for last season’s national championship game after he’d already taken the FAU job and the distractions that came with it.
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“It was hard watching it,” said Kiffin of Alabama’s loss to Clemson, “especially losing by one play and seeing the look on those guys’ faces. So that was difficult. But there’s just no use looking backwards.”
He credited Saban, “the best in college football,” for the lessons he learned that are being implemented now at FAU.
Saban’s secret is simply “His work ethic in recruiting,” Kiffin said.
“The plays are great, the schemes are great, all that stuff,” Kiffin said of Alabama. “But, look, the coaches keep coming and changing, coordinators, offense, defense, everything, Kirby (Smart). All the guys change over time. At the end of the day, it’s great players. And it’s not because it’s Alabama. It’s him. It’s because he works harder at recruiting than anybody in the country, and that’s why.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, well, he’s got better players than everybody.’ Well, they didn’t just show up there. They came there because of how he recruited them. He outworked people and showed them why to come there and why to play for him. So then he’s got better players by far in every game that he plays, but that’s a positive. I mean, that’s because he got them there.”
Some coaches, like Saban, dislike clutter or outside noise. But Kiffin admitted, “I kind of like all the other stuff.”
There’s his Twitter account, for example. He’ll tweet at celebrities to promote FAU, such as Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson recently. He’ll also pick his moments on Twitter, like tweeting a picture saying “BETTER THINGS ARE COMING” when word broke Sunday of Jim McElwain’s coaching exit at Florida.
“I think it’s hilarious, just to see the reactions and how serious people are,” Kiffin said of his tweeting habits. “You know, you’re not a good football coach if you make people laugh on Twitter. I’ve never really concerned myself with people’s opinion that don’t know us. I just think it’s funny.”
Each time, the internet eats it up, creating new headlines about Kiffin and his program, which hasn’t exactly been getting many headlines in the past.
Deliberate? You bet.
“That’s a big part of it,” Kiffin said, “getting our name out, getting our brand out, where people see it over and over and over again, that’s obviously by design.”
Kiffin’s first-year success at FAU now comes at an interesting time in college football. There’s a chance he won’t be there a lot longer.
With current coach Butch Jones on the ropes in Knoxville, Tennessee’s fan base might soon be warming to Kiffin. Same goes for Florida, Ole Miss and any other Power Five program in search of a coach in the coming weeks and months.
Kiffin appeared Thursday on a radio show in Nashville and was asked about the possibility of returning as the Vols’ head coach.
“I just said I’m not going there” in discussing it, Kiffin said. “I gave them coachspeak, which normally I don’t give coachspeak at all: ‘We’re very happy here and we’re focusing on this game this week. We’re not commenting on anything else.’ So there’s your coachspeak answer.”
It’s an interesting debate in the works: Would Tennessee fans want Kiffin back this time?
“If it came down to, ‘OK, Kiffin wants to come back, and your vote is the last vote,’ I don’t think fans would push it through,” Swain said. “They hate Butch, but I don’t understand why fans would want him back. I believe in second chances, but it’s not like Bobby Petrino, where he had won and took Louisville to new heights. Kiffin was only here one year. … I just don’t take Tennessee fans serious as a whole when they say they want Kiffin back. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
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At this point, Kiffin said he doesn’t have a specific plan for the rest of his coaching career. He said he foresees staying in college, though, because he said he enjoys the passion of the players, unlike the NFL where professionals are drafted onto teams.
In college, there are moments like earlier this season, where a hurricane threat forced FAU’s team to travel a week early for a game at Wisconsin. The team stayed in Madison, and the Badgers’ graciousness as hosts before a 31-14 victory on Sept. 9 prompted Kiffin to take out a newspaper ad thanking the program and athletic director Barry Alvarez.
“They were great to us,” Kiffin said. “Coach Alvarez was unbelievable, let us use the weight room, facilities. We practiced in their stadium every day. They fed our players. … We tried to turn it into a positive. With all that stuff going on, we got to be around each other, coaches got to be around the kids. Obviously, there’s no school to go to, so the kids don’t really have much else to do besides football and each other. So I think it was a really good thing.”
And now as Kiffin points the front-running Owls toward the C-USA title game, there will be more signs that college football hasn’t heard the last of him.
“Usually you’re getting your first head-coaching job around your mid-40s,” Kiffin said. “We’ve been very fortunate to be in a lot of really neat places and get a lot of really special opportunities. It’s been an interesting ride.”
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