By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Managing Editor
In his first season as the Florida Atlantic University head coach in 2017, Lane Kiffin was named Palm Beach County Coach of the Year after guiding the team to its 11-3 mark, Conference-USA crown and Boca Bowl victory. Kiffin joined the FAU Owls after three seasons at the University of Alabama, where he served as the Tide’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He has also been a head coach at Southern California, Tennessee, and in the NFL for the Oakland Raiders.
Kiffin offered his thoughts on coaching high school football in a recent interview with FNF Coaches.
What is your annual process for assessing trends in the sport and reacting to them?
“During the offseason, our guys go out recruiting for five weeks. I call my assistants my ‘infield,’ and the ‘outfield’ is the graduate assistants, interns, analysts, and personnel guys. My outfield starts on the 12 opponents for next year. We start researching them, and when guys come back from recruiting, we go through it all. Before summer break, we go through exercises where guys have to give reports on different opponents. I give them projects to research the top offenses and see what they’re doing. Our guys are doing Oklahoma now. They cut it up and look at what they did that we haven’t done before. They present it to our offensive staff, and we get a few ideas.”
What trends are you noticing across the game?
“It used to be that the college teams copied the NFL. The NFL trickled down. That’s when the NFL had the pro-style and college was too. We’d spend time visiting NFL teams. Now it’s gone backward. Now we have NFL teams come to meet with me. It’s kind of backward with Philadelphia’s success as more of a college style RPO. It’s gone backward. Now the NFL copies college rather than the other way around.”
When you accepted the job at FAU, what were some of the first things you did to generate excitement?
“When you take a head job at any level, it’s never going to be the same plan from one place to the next. It’s specific to where you are. When I got here, FAU wasn’t really on the national map. We took a more aggressive approach – on Twitter, and doing every interview that we could. I wanted to get FAU out there with an aggressive marketing plan. If you go into a powerhouse, it’s a little different.”
As a former NFL head coach, do you ever get tired of the salesmanship of college football? Or do you enjoy it?
“No, it’s part of the job. It’s no different than calling plays or recruiting or player development. It’s another aspect of the job. I actually like it – the change of seasons. In the NFL, it’s all football. You’re evaluating all the time. You develop more people skills in college with the change of season. It’s football, then recruiting, then spring ball, then recruiting. There’s more outside of the office than just sitting watching football.”
What new technology are you using that other coaches should know about?
“We use Sports Source Analytics. Over the last couple of years, we’ve studied the analytics of football. There another one too – Championship Analytics. Both of those have been beneficial. What you find when you study it is all of the tendencies of the teams we play. It might say, ‘It’s this down and distance from the 33. This is what they do 90 percent of the time.’ Analytics will tell you to be way more aggressive than how you were raised coaching. We led the country in fourth down attempts and conversions. That’s unusual for a team playing ahead as much as we were. That’s not just being aggressive; it’s using analytics and percentages.”
You’ve recruited more Junior College players at FAU. What are the challenges that those players present?
“The first thing is making sure they get here. High school kids have much higher percentages than JuCo kids when it comes to qualifying. Then there’s the transition. We’ve started to look at a lot more guys who have three years left rather than two. A lot of the time, that first year is just about learning and not playing much. So, you only get one year out of the guy. We look for guys that have three years left or at least two and a mid-year in January.”
What could high school coaches do more during the recruiting process?
“I think it’s a help for a lot of recruiters when there’s one sheet for a player with all of the info – grades, maybe a link to cut-ups. If they can hand you a sheet, it saves so much time. Otherwise, a coach has to repeat himself all day talking about the same five kids.”
What advice would you give a high school coach who is looking to make the jump to college?
“I think you used to go to camps, but now they screwed that up because of the new rule. I’d try to get in front of people as much as I can. Go to clinics, go visit. If you can do camps, have great energy. Be different, don’t just go through the motions. We’d find guys that way. Take a leap of faith and believe in yourself. You might have to take a low-level quality control job to get on the right staff with the right people. There might be a pay cut and you might have to leave a head coaching job. But if you want to go to college, you have to take a leap of faith.”
Kiffin’s Career Path
Kiffin was the youngest head coach in NFL history when he was hired by the Oakland Raiders in 2007 at the age of 32. He was fired after 20 games before becoming the Tennessee coach in 2009. He left that job after one season to become the head coach at USC from 2010 to 2013. After getting fired from that position, he served as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama for three seasons.
He has worked under two of the most successful college football coaches of the modern era – Pete Carroll and Saban.
“I think they took a while to get where they’re at in terms of building a philosophy and how they were going to be,” Kiffin said. “They went through experiences to get there. This is Saban’s fifth head coaching job and Carroll’s fourth. You think you have it figured out when you’re young. We really don’t.”
Kiffin admits now he may not have been ready for some of the high-profile positions that he held in his 30s.
“Every blessing has a curse,” Kiffin said. “I got so much so fast when I was young. Then I went backward. Nick Saban started at Toledo, I think Urban Meyer started at Bowling Green. If you make mistakes there, no one notices. You’re not on a national stage. Years later, I’m a much better coach because of experience.”
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