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When Florida Atlantic University announced on Monday that it had signed Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to be its new head coach, the college football world scratched its head in bewilderment.
For one thing, how had a middling Conference USA program landed such a high profile name in Kiffin? For another, why had Kiffin taken the job?
According to Dan Wolken of USA Today Sports, the answer is a simple one: FAU was the only school that wanted to hire him.
Considering Kiffin’s resume, this may be hard to believe. Just 41, Kiffin has already coached the Oakland Raiders, at the University of Tennessee, and at USC. His time at Southern Cal may have ended in infamy – fired on the tarmac after a 62-41 loss to Arizona State – but in his ensuing seasons running Alabama’s offense as Nick Saban’s top lieutenant he helped produce a national championship, a Heisman Trophy winner in Derrick Henry, and an undefeated team heavily favored to repeat as college football champs in the coming weeks.
Common thought had it, then, that Kiffin’s success in Tuscaloosa would set him up nicely for another job at a high-profile school in a Power-5 conference next year.
Wolken, though, reported on Monday that football programs felt otherwise – still skeptical after his various falling-outs throughout his career.
“As it turned out, Kiffin’s cavalier attitude toward pushing boundaries in his one year at Tennessee, the train wreck ending at Southern Cal plus questions about his personal maturity (Kiffin’s divorce earlier this year didn’t help matters) had all conspired to leave such a negative impression on the industry that administrators largely shied away.
Though Kiffin’s name was brought up for multiple jobs across the last three years, nearly all of it was speculation and smoke rather than genuine interest in him. One person with knowledge of the matter, who had investigated Kiffin for a job, said reference calls to people who worked at USC and Tennessee basically rendered him unhireable.”
The closest Kiffin actually came to landing the sort of job many believed he would came – and promptly went – at Houston. After the Cougars lost Tom Herman to Texas, reports swirled that Kiffin was in the running for the opening. Instead, the job went to Major Applewhite.
Said Houston regent Tilman Fertitta upon hiring Applewhite:
“Lane Kiffin did not show me anything that Major Applewhite did not show me. Sure, he’s been a head coach and he’s been an OK head coach. But I can tell you this: [Kiffin] was not a safe hire.”
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On Tuesday, Florida Atlantic formally introduced Kiffin at a press conference. Before Kiffin addressed the media, the university’s athletic director Pat Chun offered a few words. Most tellingly of all, Chun said this:
“Kiffin emerged as the coach because he wanted to be the next head coach more than anyone else interviewed,” Chun said.
Kiffin, for his part, would not admit that he took the FAU position simply because it was a head coaching job.
“This was not, ‘I got to be a head coach,'” he said. Instead, he said it was because he wanted to build a championship at FAU.
That, frankly, is difficult to believe. Later on, Kiffin did admit that had Owls not offered him the position, he’d likely be back in Tuscaloosa next season. It’s worth noting, too, that Kiffin’s job as the offensive coordinator is more than he will make as the head coach of FAU. The same is true if he’d left to work for Ed Orgeron at LSU.
Another telling quote from Kiffin’s presser on Tuesday came when he thanked Saban for taking a chance on him after he was fired at USC.
“My phone was not ringing very much at the time after getting let go by USC,” Kiffin said. “That was a very humbling experience.”
As was the case then, it sounds as though Kiffin’s phone was again rather silent this year. And so he took the FAU job, betting on himself and his football brain at the only school that would hire him. As Wolken noted, we’ll see in a few years whether the big schools were wrong to pass on Kiffin, or if their skepticism was justified.
Toward the end of his press conference, Kiffin was asked about what he told the FAU team.
“You don’t get what you want,” Kiffin said. “You get what you deserve.”
As CBS Sports’ Jon Solomon pointed out immediately afterwards, the same could be said about Kiffin’s coaching career.