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All aboard the Lane Train

Hands up those that took in the Boca Raton Bowl? Or as its sponsors snappily call it – the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Raton Bowl. Yes, really.

Well if you didn’t, a quick summary reads Florida Atlantic Owls 50 – Akron Zips 3.

Now, I’m guessing that unless you are a FBS geek like me, the FAU Owls or the Akron Zips aren’t a regular feature on your ESPN player on a Saturday. And I don’t think you would be alone on that front.

So why am I writing about them and more importantly why are you reading this?

Well, the FAU Owls are the latest stop on the Lane Kiffin express. And an interesting stop at that.

Florida Atlantic University, based out of Boca Raton, Florida is a beautiful place to live but was a surprising stop for Kiffin whose CV reads like a who’s who of the NFL and College game. Head coach at Oakland Raiders and at the Tennessee Volunteers (University of). Offensive co-ordinator at USC in Los Angeles alongside Pete Carroll and at the pinnacle of the college game, Alabama, where he and Coaching God Nick Saban had a tempestuous but hugely successful relationship. But more of that later.

Kiffin is special. You only need to follow the Lanemeister on Twitter to appreciate the wacky world that Lane lives in. He trolls, he cajoles, he pokes the bear at almost every opportunity. It is compelling reading.

But here’s the thing. Kiffin is a brilliant if yet unconventional coach. At the time he took over at the Raiders he was the youngest head coach ever appointed to the NFL. Of course QB whisperer Sean McVey now holds that enviable record. Only Kiffin’s relationship with Al Davis, like so many before him was difficult. Kiffin’s record in his first and only season in Oakland was not good. 4 and 12 in anybody’s book isn’t the best way to keep your job and it was no surprise that Big Al wanted Lane to go. Except Lane didn’t want to go and it ended up, like so many things at the Raiders, a bruised and messy divorce. And that is a feature of Kiffin’s exodus from pretty much every coaching gig on his resume. He does like an acrimonious exit.

Kiffin moved on to the Tennessee Vols. For those not familiar, the Vols are the alma mater of Peyton Manning. Playing in the SEC East, the Vols attract over 100,000 passionate, noisy and wildly unrealistic but expectant fans every other Saturday. Kiffin became Vols Head Coach at the ripe old age of 33 and had a winning record in his one year tenure in Knoxville. But the Vols fans don’t recall him fondly as he quickly jumped ship back to California to return to the scene of his first coaching gig at USC, this time as Head Coach when Pete Carroll headed to Seattle. In fact not fondly is being kind. Vols fans, not strangers to the occasional show of dissatisfaction, rioted on campus such was their fury. Interestingly the Vols and their fans are often the subject matter of Kiffin’s twitter musings.

It is the Head Coach/ Offensive Co-ordinator relationship at Alabama which causes the most eyebrow raising. Called by many the “Odd Couple” of College Football, the relationship could be well described as the yappy, energy filled puppy running around the wise but grumpy old Alsatian.

Under Saban, Alabama have historically had a very strong running game. Despite producing a conveyor belt of receiving talent – Julio Jones and Amari Cooper to name but two, Bama run the ball.

Saban recognising the limitations of his schemes, brought Kiffin in to implement his west coast offence. If you don’t know Saban, he is as successful at his tenure at Alabama as Sir Alex Ferguson was at Manchester United. Except Saban makes Sir Furious look like a kitten with a ball of wool. So Kiffin’s pass heavy offence was ready made to provide conflict a plenty on the side-lines. And it did.

To this day Kiffin says they still speak. The truth is Kiffin texts Saban and well nothing else happens. Kiffin doesn’t take that to heart – he says Saban texts back no-one. But it doesn’t stop Kiffin from continuing to do so. The Alsatian ignores the pup.

So given that track record, the sleepy backwater of Boca Raton and the less than well known FAU Owls led to raised eyebrows across the coaching fraternity and media when they announced their new head coach.

Many commentators were of the opinion Kiffin was taking a cupcake job to rebuild his CV and once the big boys came calling he would be off.

Not so. With the coaching merry go round now in full swing post the end of the regular season, some plum jobs have become available. Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Nebraska, UCF – have all opened up in the last few weeks.  There are coaches out there who would forego limbs for some of those jobs. And yes the Lane Train was rumoured to be stopping at them. Even Tennessee would you believe. Presumably with a heavy police presence.

But he is still at FAU.

Watching the team he is building there is leaning towards fascinating. For those fans of “Last Chance U”, you will recognise the FAU wide receiver who is John Franklin III. Although we all know JFIII as the best quarterback in well, JFIII’s head. He’s not the only one from EMCC – legit QB De’Andre Johnson and DE Tim Bonner are also on the roster. And QB coach Clint Trickett is now the Owl’s tight end coach. In fact Kiffin has put together a hotch potch of misfits from other more serious programs such as Texas, Florida, South Florida and West Virginia. Even Kiffin’s brother, Chris comes with some previous, not faring well in the NCAA investigations being carried at Ole Miss.

And you know what? A team that has been, at best consistent – 3 and 9 losing seasons for the last 3 years is being turned around. In fact as I started this article, the Owls have a winning record and a Bowl win this year. The Owls know a good thing when they see it with Kiffin being offered a new 10 year contract. Which by even the craziness of College Football standards is a mind boggling offer.

So, to the Bowl game. Kiffin has been accused of running up the score against a Zips side who were woefully out of place. Turns out there was a whole lot of truth in that as with the Owls 34-3 up in the third quarter, Coach Kiffin went for a 2 point conversion following yet another touchdown. The reason? Apparently the Akron AD had engaged in some trash talk at the pre-game lunch. Of course Kiffin does this with the mischievous smirk of a schoolboy. Commentators say that like Trump, Kiffin should be forcibly removed from Twitter. That it’s not becoming of a head coach. But I have to admit it is entertaining. Like Mike Leach at Washington State (I implore you to Youtube Leach’s press conferences), it provides a pleasing alternative to the clinical yes/no interviews of other coaches. Kiffin has personality – whether you like it or not and is not scared to use social media as a tool for motivation or defamation. He keeps us guessing, which I think is exactly what he wants.

Love him or loathe him, Kiffin has put the FAU Owls on the map. Go Owls.

This guest piece was written by George Somerville who supports the Green Bay Packers and college team Alabama. You can follow George on @geosomerville.

 

Article written by:

Liz has covered the NFL for five seasons, and currently serves as Managing Editor for Ninety-Nine Yards and for her own website, NFLGirlUK.com. Since launching the website in 2014, she has made regular appearances on the TalkSport2 ‘All American Sports Show’ with Nat Coombs and in 2016 was ranked No.37 (of 400+) in the “Super Bowl: Top 50 UK Influencers” by marketing software producers Analytica for “igniting conversations” between fans.

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