FAU savoring its championship moment with Kiffin

December 2, 2017
Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin prepares to hand the Conference USA trophy to his players after defeated North Texas in the championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Boca Raton, Fla. (Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) — Lane Kiffin is leaving Florida Atlantic. Someday.

The Owls aren’t living in fear that it’s soon.

Kiffin figures to have many of the things that athletic directors and search committees at Florida State, Central Florida, Arkansas and, yes, even Tennessee would want as they look for home-run coaching hires right now. He’s still young. He has charisma. He’s a top recruiter. He’s learned from some of the game’s best like Nick Saban and Pete Carroll.

And in just one year, he took Florida Atlantic from 3-9 to 10-3 and a Conference USA championship.

“I try not to worry about the things I can’t control, just for my own personal sanity,” FAU athletic director Pat Chun said. “Our last coach left the program better than he found it, which was good, specifically to the quality of young men he recruited here. Lane is building this program to a place it’s never seen before. If and when the market calls, it calls, and we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”

Kiffin makes just under $1 million a year at FAU. In the coaching world, that’s a bargain. Jimbo Fisher just left Florida State for a $75 million, 10-year deal at Texas A&M. Just about every athletic director in the Football Bowl Subdivision has deeper pockets and a bigger checkbook than Chun has to play with at FAU.

But even Kiffin will be the first to say that he’s loved his year at FAU. And that has to be worth something. His father is on his staff. His brother is his defensive coordinator. His kids helped dump a celebratory water bucket on their uncle in the waning moments of FAU’s 41-17 victory over North Texas in the C-USA title game. And when the topic of the rumor mill and bigger jobs comes up, Kiffin just laughs it off.

“I’m immature and all those things, but life’s too short,” Kiffin said. “It’s all right to have fun.”

That’s another valid point to take into account when thinking where Kiffin might be in 2018 or 2019 or beyond.

FAU has been fun.

His three years at Alabama as Saban’s offensive coordinator weren’t always fun. The Crimson Tide won a lot — just about every week — but there was always a sense that he and Saban were never particularly close. It wasn’t uncommon to see Saban berating Kiffin on the sidelines, and even last year as ’Bama won a third consecutive SEC title it seemed to some like Kiffin wouldn’t be welcomed back this season. After he got the FAU job, he did not coach the Tide’s national championship game.

Winning the title Saturday, though, was a moment Kiffin savored. He said all the right things: He thanked the fans, said it was about his players, and he meant every word. But he’s also clearly appreciating success more now than he perhaps would allow himself to in the past.

“He’s been very clear to everybody here: He loves Boca, he loves Florida Atlantic, he loves our student-athletes and he knows we have a dynamite team coming back next year,” Chun said. “I would also argue, I get the sense he really enjoys coaching this team. For a guy who’s been at the highest levels and in the biggest media markets, it has to mean something.”

Chun also thinks the spotlight Kiffin’s presence has shined on FAU “has changed the university.”

In fairness, the university also changed for him. The Owls invested a ton of money when they made the hire; Kiffin’s $950,000 is more than Charlie Partridge made as head coach, and the salary pool for assistants was deepened considerably. Kiffin brought a strength coach he liked from Alabama, which was huge. And the Owls even did little things like buy a lot more blenders, because Kiffin wanted players to have more protein shakes.

The result: FAU is a 10-win team for the first time at the FBS level, and the Owls are getting more national attention than ever.

“You knew right away that he’s a brand to himself and he has a national following because he’s had a long career in the spotlight,” Chun said. “The attention we’ve gotten in the last eight weeks are a byproduct of Lane being Lane, on top of him doing an incredible job as a coach. Because if we weren’t winning, the attention would be very different.”

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