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An oral history of Lane Kiffin’s firing on the tarmac 10 years ago

For as long as there’s been college football, coaches have been getting fired. The annual discussions about who’s on the hot seat is as much a part of the game as a depth chart. But in the history of the sport — perhaps the history of employment — only one man’s termination is universally recalled with just a single word: “Tarmac.”

It’s been 10 years since Lane Kiffin was fired as USC’s coach, supposedly on the tarmac at LAX. The truth of what happened in the early-morning hours of Sept. 29, 2013, is, like so many things with Kiffin, a bit more complicated.

ESPN spoke to nearly two dozen people who witnessed Kiffin’s tenure at USC, as well as his unlikely second act as one of college football’s most colorful characters and brilliant offensive minds, in an effort to find out what really happened that night and how it changed the rest of his career.


Lane Kiffin, USC head coach 2010-2013
It was a dream job for as long as I can remember to be a major college football coach so you could be somewhere forever, like the Bobby Bowden thing.


Kiffin grew up around the game. His father, Monte, is recognized as one of the great defensive coaches in football history, but Lane’s genius is offense. His first full-time job came with USC in 2001, and he was on the sideline for the Trojans’ rise to the top of college football under Pete Carroll. He was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2005, and two years later, at just 31 years old, was named head coach of the then Oakland Raiders.

Raiders owner Al Davis fired Kiffin after two seasons amid much controversy. Davis held a news conference, complete with an overhead projector, and called Kiffin a “disgrace to the organization.” In 2009, Kiffin was hired as the head coach at Tennessee, and he immediately made waves in the stoic SEC with his brash demeanor and aggressive recruiting style.

At the end of the 2009 season, however, Carroll resigned at USC to take the head-coaching job with the Seattle Seahawks. The Trojans were eager to maintain the Carroll lineage, and set their sights on Kiffin.


Mike Garrett, USC AD, 1993-2010
I thought he was a student of the game, and I thought I had a maven in the works. I asked him to bring his father in, Monte. I thought Lane, offensively, could handle the load on that side of the ball, and Monte would handle the defensive side, and what a combination that would be.

Scott Wolf, USC beat reporter
They never would’ve hired him at SC except he made this pitch to them that he was bringing Monte Kiffin, who they thought was the best defensive coordinator in the country, and Ed Orgeron, who was a beloved figure at SC. That’s how he got the job.

Mike Locksley, Alabama assistant, 2016-2018
The one thing Lane never got credit for was, he’s a good coach. He’s one of the better playcallers I’ve been around. A lot of that gets lost because he had this looming shadow of one of the great D-coordinators and great people in Monte Kiffin, so a lot of people labeled him as the kid who got everything off his last name.

Clay Helton, USC assistant coach/head coach, 2010-2021
You could see how brilliant (Kiffin) was as an offensive mind, and he had a reputation as being an unbelievable recruiter. He already had Coach Orgeron on board, who is one of the best recruiters in football. … (Orgeron) would take me on the road recruiting with him all the time. You’d get in the car with him and he’d give you a Red Bull, a pack of peanuts and a beef jerky. That was your day of rationing, and he went from daylight to dark recruiting everybody — the principal, the counselor, the janitor at the school.

Dan Weber, former USC beat reporter
USC football was about as big as you could possibly be, and the town was L.A. You’d go to practice and Will Ferrell was there all the time. You’d have to fight your way into practice because Snoop Dogg’s bodyguards would be at the gate. I’d park and there’d be Sylvester Stallone in his Mercedes that was like 40-feet long.

Garrett
I loved (Kiffin’s) brashness. I loved the fact he had a lot of confidence. You could call it arrogance, being young and thought he could change the world, but I kind of liked that. I thought it was something that could work to his advantage.

Roy Nwaisser, Trojans super fan “USC Psycho”
When Lane Kiffin came to USC, there was some baggage. He kept moving up despite failures. But USC fans were super excited because he was part of the Pete Carroll coaching tree.

Tim Tessalone, former USC sports information director
I loved Kiff. Did he have his quirks? Certainly did. But he was just kind of an introvert. A lot of people’s perceptions of Kiff came from just that. He had a hard time engaging with people back then.

Wolf
Pat Haden told him not to do anything to get on the ticker at ESPN. That was the advice. He did seem to find ways to have problems.

JK McKay, former USC administrator
He was a young guy, and he was controversial. They said in the papers that I was supposed to keep him off ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

Kiffin
I had a very large ego. Kids who are given too much, too early sometimes — you see it in actors all the time. Sometimes you’re not ready for all that. I wasn’t ready at 31 to be the head coach of the Raiders, 32 at Tennessee, 33 or 34 at USC. I wasn’t ready for all that fame and that money. Some of that is my fault. And I think there’s also the factor of being really young, you leave Tennessee so you have part of the country that hates you and is pissed off at you. It’s human nature that there’s some jealousy from guys going, “He’s this age, and he’s got this and he’s got that and got a really attractive wife.” I know there was a lot of that. People want you to fail. That’s America.


People might have been rooting for Kiffin to fail, but the cards were also stacked against him. When he took the job, the Trojans were enmeshed in an NCAA investigation surrounding improper benefits to former running back Reggie Bush. Ultimately, the school was given debilitating sanctions, including a two-year bowl ban, and lost 30 scholarships over a three-year span.


Kiffin
When Pat Haden was hired, he said to me, “I need you to get us through probation. Do not cheat, do not have any violations.” He said, “I know you’re going to lose games, and I know the Coliseum is going to be half-full. … I’m prepared for it. But we need to get off probation.”

Wolf
They used to put out a weekly stat with how many players they had available because they were upset with the NCAA.

Kiffin
Even though no one had ever done it before and been successful, there was a kind of arrogance of, “Oh, we’re USC and it’ll be fine.” But I had a major concern that the numbers were taking their toll.

McKay
My expectations were unreasonably high. With the scholarship restrictions we were under, I just looked this up: A couple years ago a team backed out of a bowl game because they only had 58 players and they felt that was unsafe or unfair. We went years without having 50. I don’t think I understood it at the time.


Despite the sanctions, USC finished the 2011 season 10-2, adding ample hype for 2012. The Trojans opened that year as the preseason No. 1 team in the country. That’s when the wheels came off. USC finished 2012 7-6, including an embarrassing performance in the Sun Bowl vs. Georgia Tech.


Weber
(The Trojans) go to the Sun Bowl. They didn’t want to be there. Lane didn’t want to be there. They had a fight in the locker room afterwards. All these parents that are on the plane with me back from El Paso saying, “Did you hear what happened?” because all their kids had told them these stories. That’s the setup for the next year.

Kevin Graf, USC offensive lineman, 2009-13
The way (2012) ended, I didn’t know if this was a situation I wanted to really come back for. But SC is such a special place to me, and I wasn’t ready to leave it that way. But that (frustration) carried on into spring ball. Spring was a weird situation. And it carried into the season as well.


USC opened the 2013 season 3-1 with an ugly 10-7 loss to Washington State at the Coliseum. Then came a road trip to Arizona State that proved to be one of the most embarrassing losses in recent USC history.


Nwaisser
I don’t think going into 2013 people were expecting a huge turnaround. He was already on a short leash as fans were concerned.

Max Browne, USC quarterback, 2013-16
To think he was not on the hot seat would’ve been naïve.

Helton
As coaches, you’re so ingrained in routine and just getting ready for the next game, it didn’t come into my thought process. We were just trying to get ready each week. I never felt like, “Oh gosh if this happens we may be out of a job.”

Nwaisser
There was a hope, I think, among fans that the end would be coming soon. The “Fire Kiffin” chants had already started.

Kiffin
There’s not many professions that millions of people root for you every Saturday to get fired.

Helton
It was one of those shootout games. We put 40-plus points up, but they put up 60-plus. At that time, if you didn’t bring your “A” game, you’d get your butts beat. And we did not play our best game.

Mike Norvell, Arizona State offensive coordinator, 2012-15
I’ve still got a helmet. Coach (Todd) Graham gave me a helmet because it was the most points they’d ever scored against USC. It was a special night. Our players, that was a big game for our program.

Tessalone
By the end of that season, they had 44 scholarship players available because of NCAA sanctions and injuries. They were working some magic, and Lane really had a plan on how to deal with the limitations that were very severe — way more severe than they should’ve been. But at USC, they don’t take excuses.

Wolf
They decided to fire him — not at the airport. They were in the locker room, Haden, JK McKay and Mark Jackson. They stayed in there after halftime, and they decided in that little locker room to fire him. And they didn’t tell him until they got back to L.A.

Weber
I still remember talking to people in the press box. There’s (USC president C.L.) Max Nikias right behind the bench, and he’s talking to the head of the board of trustees. And you could see him call Pat Haden over, and I’m thinking, “This might not be so good.” And (the conversation) was happening right behind the bench. They weren’t trying to hide it.

Helton
It felt like normal after a loss, after you get your butt kicked. You’re trying to get to the tape as fast as you can to get it fixed for the next week.

Kiffin
Maybe I was naïve, but I was shocked. The whole airport story.

Tessalone
I had no idea what was going down until I walked onto the plane. I was one of the last guys, and Pat pulled me aside and said, “Hey, we need to talk. We’re going to make a change.” So now my mind starts spinning.

Browne
I remember sitting toward the front of the plane. Lane always sits in the very back. I remember him walking up to the front, and I remember thinking, “Hey that’s weird.”

Kiffin
I sat in the back with the players. Pat Haden sat up front in first class. I got a message saying Pat wants to see you after (we land). I’m certainly not thinking that I’m getting fired. I remember walking up there because I was going to ask him, “Hey, can we just talk on the plane?” I walked up and Pat was sleeping, and his wife, Cindy, looked at me and started crying.


The charter plane landed at LAX around 3 a.m. local time. What happened from there became part of college football lore — the moment the most reviled head coach in the country got pulled off the team bus so he could be fired on an airport tarmac. Only, that’s not exactly how it went down.


Kiffin
I don’t see (Haden) when I get off (the plane), so I get on the bus. JK McKay stops the bus and grabs me and brings me in. I said to him I was going back to sleep in the office because it’s 3 in the morning and I’m getting ready for work the next day.

Rick Carr, USC head of athletics security
For road games, I would drive over to (Kiffin’s) house on Fridays, pick him up, and drive his car over to the airport. Lane had told me before we got off the plane, “Just take my car home because I’m going to spend the weekend at the office.” I was walking from the plane past the buses, and Pat Haden stops me and says, “Where’s Lane?” I said, “He was going back to the office. He’s staying there.” And he says, “Well, bring his car around.”

Wolf
Steve Lopes was an administrator. He literally gets in front of a bus and stops the bus as it’s leaving the parking lot.

Tessalone
Obviously, lots of side stories came out about (Kiffin) getting yanked off the bus.

Browne
That whole bus story, the one that got a bunch of pub, as a player, it was not a drama-filled bus ride.

Wolf
(Kiffin) had this briefcase he used to take with him, and he left it on the bus because he thought he was going to talk to those guys for like 10 minutes and get back on the bus. He went to this little building, and they sent the bus to USC. He had to get someone to get his briefcase and bring it back to his house because he never went back to USC.

Carr
For complete transparency, it was not the tarmac. It was an office in the terminal.

Weber
Lane has developed a sense of humor, but he always used to talk to us about what the storyline was. I think Lane realized tarmac sounded better. He didn’t get fired on the tarmac. There was like a small building where the charter jets would pull up to. But it always sounded better, and Lane was smart enough to realize, “I’m going to go with tarmac.”

Tessalone
It’s a charter company. They have a little building there on the south side of the airport. They go into the building and have a conversation that lasts quite a while. It was very surreal for me, just sitting there waiting for a while, sitting on a couch in this tiny little terminal.

Kiffin
I even said to him, “OK, what’s the use of changing now? Even if you want to fire me, let me just finish with these players and coach the rest of the year.” Actually, I think I had him turned to not firing me because I’m reminding him we don’t have 30 scholarship players. He walks out. And he’s like, “Yeah, I get it, maybe we jumped the gun on this.” So he walks out and makes a call, and he comes back in and says, “No, I can’t take this back.”

Carr
Pat walks out, and Lane’s still sitting there. Pat takes a lap around the patio area and walks back in. Comes back out and does another lap. At that point, I see our sports information guy and our CFO, and they’re off in the corner of the parking lot, and I said to myself, “Wait a minute, he’s getting whacked.” It was like when Joe Pesci walks into the room in “Goodfellas.”

Kiffin
You get that dream job, and I say, you lose it and have it taken away. The reason I say it that way is, when you get fired, you lose your job, and you look at it and say, “I should’ve done it this way or that way. I should’ve hired different.” Whatever it was. It’s all the things you look at vs. saying, “I got screwed over.” In this case, I could’ve done things much better, but I also got it taken away for things that weren’t my fault because there were 30 scholarships lost and a two-year bowl ban. We lost recruits because they couldn’t play on TV. We lost current players because the juniors and seniors could transfer. But that was all forgotten. We’re playing with 30 less scholarships, losing at Arizona State but 3-2 (in 2013), 28-15 overall. Not 0-6 or whatever. Coaches with full rosters of 85 scholarship players, you don’t usually get fired at 3-2.

Garrett
(Haden’s) war was with me. Getting rid of Lane was a way to say I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was lucky with Pete Carroll. Lane was really a byproduct of all that. If (Haden) got rid of Lane, it reflected on me.


ESPN contacted former USC athletic director Pat Haden, former interim coach Ed Orgeron, and former university president Max Nikias. All declined to comment for this story.


Carr
Lane gets in the car and the first thing he says is, “I’m sorry that took so long. I didn’t mean to keep you.”

Tessalone
Lane lived in Manhattan Beach at the time. I lived in Redondo Beach, which was two beaches south of that. It was 3 in the morning, something like that. I told Lane, “Hey, I’ll follow you home.” So there’s Kiff, going down the deserted Pacific Coast Highway, and he turns off, and I kept going down to Redondo. And I got in after 3 in the morning thinking, OK, I have to write a press release that Lane Kiffin’s been fired.

Nwaisser
I remember getting up, it was still dark, and I saw the news on my phone, and I basically had a little minicelebration in our hotel room in Arizona.

Kiffin
It’s 5 a.m. The sun’s getting ready to come up. I’m sitting in the backyard, and I said to my wife, “When I go to bed, I don’t want to wake up.” She’s got a little more perspective, and she said, “You have three children upstairs. Don’t ever say that again.”


When news trickled out about Kiffin’s departure — and the details of how it happened — the story transcended college football and became a pop culture moment.


Nwaisser
Getting fired on the tarmac, the memes kind of make themselves. It was funny and it was sad. It sucked to be a USC fan and have all this happen to us but I don’t think a lot of people were sad to see Kiffin go.

Weber
I’m driving back from Tempe listening to ESPN Radio. The guy’s on, and he sounded half-asleep. And he says, “There’s some rumblings about USC.” I pull over, and I’m sitting there on I-10 with my laptop out trying to write the story. There wasn’t anybody you could call in the middle of the night.

Tessalone
I’d never written a press release at 4 a.m. I remember opening up Twitter, and it’s 7 a.m. on the East Coast, and you could just see the story traveling from the East Coast to the midwest to the West Coast as all these media people start waking up.

Kiffin
If you get fired at the end of the year, you have this disaster, and you have to deal with it, and then you get a new job. You’re in the media with 20 other coaches getting fired. When you get fired in Week 5 in L.A., you’re the story.

Wolf
I was live tweeting this from my hotel room at like 4 in the morning. I’d talked to some people who were on the bus, so I broke that story about the tarmac. I got savaged by people who say I was making it up. Now everybody talks about it — especially him.

Pat Chun, FAU athletic director, 2012-2017
The brand value of USC and Lane Kiffin and social media and it’s a perfect storm of awkward circumstances to separate a coach from his job.

Wolf
And now every time someone doesn’t like a coach, “They need to tarmac him.”


In the aftermath of Kiffin’s dismissal, USC still had games to play, and the Trojans turned to Orgeron to lead the program the rest of the way — or, at least long enough for them to hire someone else.


Browne
We got a text first thing Sunday morning that there’s a team meeting. At that point, you knew the writing was on the wall.

Graf
We were all somewhat relieved because we weren’t living up to what we needed to, and we felt like Lane — I don’t know if he was trying to pin players against each other, but we all felt like it was in our interests to continue on without him. Let’s start clean, have Coach O come in and lead, and you saw quite a switch.

Browne
When Coach Orgeron came in, it was an injection of personality and energy into our locker room. He was getting us fast-food trucks on Wednesday and Thursday. We started going to movies the night before the game. Trying to lighten the air for a team that had a ton of pressure. It was much more fun.

Helton
That whole season, to be honest, is one of my favorite seasons. You always get to see who you are when adversity hits … that group of men, saying our job is to go do our job and not look for the next job.

Tessalone

Ed was incredibly popular with our players and our fans. When he took over — he’s just this larger-than-life personality. He’d done a great job during his time at SC and got the team going. They had the big upset over Stanford at home. I think everybody kind of thought he’d get a shot.

Pat Haden, former USC athletic director, in 2013
I counted them actually. I had 136 pro-Coach O emails today. Those were just emails. That doesn’t count the tweets, letters and phone calls. In my day, they sent ’em by carrier pigeon. Now, I get ’em four or five ways.


USC rebounded after Kiffin’s termination and finished the regular season 9-4, but lost to both Notre Dame and UCLA. Orgeron felt he’d earned the job full time. USC felt differently. On Dec. 2, two days after the Trojans’ final home game, Steve Sarkisian, who’d worked with Kiffin as an assistant under Carroll, was named the new head coach. Orgeron was not pleased, and USC still had a bowl game to play.


Wolf
You had the tarmac incident and two months later Ed Orgeron is storming off campus in his SUV because he didn’t get the job. And nobody sees him again because he was so mad.


With Sarkisian in the press box, and none of the remaining coaches certain they’d have a job the next day, Helton’s staff led a surprising upset of Fresno State 45-20 for USC’s 10th win in a season in which the team had four different head coaches.


Graf
No one knew what we were going through, and so it bonded the team closer. We were in a bad spot, and to turn it around and make it as fun as he did and to win 10 games under four different coaches — other teams would fold, but it almost brought us together as kind of a brotherhood.

Helton
It kind of put an exclamation point on a year that when a group of men rally together and support each other, great things can happen.

Graf
As wild a year as that was, the closeness the team was able to have, the way we finished it off, I’m glad I left SC with a win.

Rece Davis, play-by-play voice for the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl
Tee (Martin) and the offensive coaches were in the booth next to us. As soon as the game was over, he held up a sign that said, “Will coach for food.” It was the proverbial gallows humor.


Sarkisian, too, was ultimately fired midway through the 2015 season. Helton again stepped in as interim and, perhaps aware of the mistake in letting Orgeron walk in 2013, USC ultimately kept Helton on full time. His tenure was marked by more disgruntled fans, a 46-24 overall record, and just one top-10 finish. Helton was fired two games into the 2021 season.


Weber
From August to December (2013), they had four coaches. They’re the only program who’s fired two coaches in the middle of the season two years apart.

Kiffin
You get far enough removed where then you don’t care. Right after I left, it’s human nature (to root against USC). It’s the ego involved. We think everyone’s comparing, which they aren’t.

Garrett
Haden didn’t know what the hell he was doing. So the place got worse, morale got bad. There’s no question in my mind if he gave Lane the time and the support and didn’t think of him as a Mike Garrett selection, Lane would’ve been successful.

Kiffin
I didn’t do well. (My wife) said, “Utilize this time with your kids and family.” I just sat around and felt sorry for myself and watched football games all the time.

I needed a job. I didn’t have balance. My job defined me. My job was my higher power. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to exist without my job.


Kiffin found salvation in the most unlikely of places — at Alabama, with staid, stoic, understated coach Nick Saban. The results on the field were incredible, with Kiffin reimagining the old-school Alabama offense as an up-tempo attack that brought the Tide in line with the modern game. Off the field, however, the Saban-Kiffin dynamic was … complicated.


Kiffin
(Saban) and (agent) Jimmy Sexton called me when I was (an assistant) at USC, we’d won the (2005) Orange Bowl. Offers me the offensive coordinator job (with the Miami Dolphins). He’d watched us in the Orange Bowl. We’d just smoked Oklahoma. I didn’t go. Then he gets the Alabama job (in 2007). After I was fired, he said, “Hey come out here and watch practice.” I did. I spent 10 days out there, got to know him a little bit, and the offensive coordinator job opened up a month later and he called me.

Weber
When Lane left L.A., he sold his house to Vince Vaughn, the actor. You’ve got to have a pretty good house if you’re able to sell it to Vince Vaughn.

Kiffin
That is accurate, yes. (Vaughn) was on “College GameDay.” He picked Alabama and not us. I thought maybe he’d say, “Well, I bought Lane Kiffin’s house, so I better pick them.”

Locksley
Lane and Coach (Saban) are probably more similar than they are different in terms of football. Lane’s a social media darling. That side is different. Coach is more reserved, more conservative. But if you spend enough time with Lane, they’re both high, high, high intelligence levels, great problem-solvers, tremendous ability to communicate. Now, the social media, the outside-the-box stuff that Lane does, that’s obviously different.

Kiffin
Two polar opposite people. The one common theme is ultracompetitive, but outside of that, very different people. Especially back then.

It had its ups and downs. If I were to redo it perfectly, I say you should get a two-day seminar from someone — like a previous offensive coordinator — I would have done it better if I’d had a 48-hour seminar with McElwain or something to explain how it works.

When you say, “Hey, Coach, what do you think about this?” and I think that’s just normal conversation. He’s interpreting it as I’m questioning the process. Because you sit in the staff meetings and nobody talks. I remember looking at Kirby (Smart) or Billy Napier and thinking, “Does anybody say anything but ‘Yes, sir?'” Coach could walk in and say, “This week we’re going to play with 10 players,” and everyone would say, “Yes, sir, great idea.”

But I take all the blame for that there was friction at first. The production worked. But communication and relationship didn’t. I take blame for that because it’s not his job to change. It’s my job to change.


For Kiffin, the on-field success did help him find closure on his exit at USC. At the conclusion of the 2015 season, Alabama won a national title with Kiffin calling the plays. It came almost 10 years to the day after the Trojans’ historic loss to Texas in the national championship game, when Kiffin had notoriously left Reggie Bush on the sideline in the game’s critical, final moments.

Then came Alabama’s 2016 season opener against a familiar adversary: USC.


Locksley
That was actually my first game I was at Bama for (as an offensive analyst). Going into the game, knowing the situation of Lane and USC and being fired on the tarmac, infamously he’d put something at the top of the call sheet that we all had — either the date or the time that he was fired.

Kiffin
It was the time.

Locksley
I remember in the middle of the game, we were winning pretty handily, and anybody who’s worked for Coach (Saban) knows he’s a class act when it comes to that stuff. He made the decision — when he tells you to take the air out of the ball, as he likes to say, that means slow things down. We don’t need to try to score. Keep the clock moving.

Well, Lane missed that conversation on the headset, and threw a Sluggo touchdown to Gehrig Dieter, and I can remember Coach on the headset saying, “Hey man, does it make you feel any better that you’re doing this? Does it get you your job back?”

And I can remember Lane saying, ‘No, it doesn’t, but it sure feels good.’

And Coach went off on him after that.


After the game, Kiffin posted a photo of his son with the game ball and the hashtag: “3:14AM-LAX.


Tessalone
We were talking one time and he goes, “You know my nickname when I was a kid, right?” I said no. He goes, “It was ‘Helicopter.’ Because when I was a kid, I would walk into a room and just stir everything up.”

Davis
Someday, when they write an epitaph for Lane Kiffin, it’s going to be, “He couldn’t help himself.”


Kiffin’s relationship with Saban ultimately blew up after the College Football Playoff semifinal in Atlanta. Kiffin had already accepted the head-coaching job at FAU, and Saban was supposedly concerned that his offensive coordinator already had one foot out the door. Kiffin and Alabama parted ways just a week before the national championship game. He was replaced, again, with Steve Sarkisian.


Nick Saban, Alabama head coach, in 2017
This wasn’t an easy decision, and we appreciate the way Lane handled this in terms of doing what is best for our team. At the end of the day, both of us wanted to put our players in the best position to be successful.

Kiffin
I think a lot of times, I was a jerk. Maybe stubborn is the better word. Just to remember, this is his program. If he says to wear pink underwear, you wear pink underwear. I was so used to the open communication thing, I really struggled with that transition.

Locksley
When I think of Lane, I think of the California cool kid. Being at Alabama really emphasized the importance of structure and having processes and building a program. You can see the role that Coach played — not just in Lane but in a lot of us that came through that program that Coach Saban has built.

Kiffin
Probably not a day goes by where there’s not something that I say (that’s) something he says or think of something (Saban) says. He’s kind of like a parent. I was raised by my dad and had, like, two stepdads in Pete Carroll and Nick Saban. You can still hear those voices. That happens to me a lot. Coach doesn’t pick up the phone and go, “Hey, man. What are you doing? Just driving home and going fishing.” That doesn’t happen. But a lot of times, out of nowhere, I’ll just (text), “Thanks again.”


It was at FAU where Kiffin finally found a fresh start. For the first time in his career, he was at a place that didn’t have national title aspirations. He was building, rather than inheriting, a program.


Chun
He was so well-prepared in his interview. He addressed all the Twitter rumors about himself, very upfront. But it was a very thoughtful, engaging presentation on him as a head football coach, the lessons he learned on his very unique journey and where that put him at in that moment and why he was prepared to be a head coach again.

Kiffin
After we won to go to a bowl game, they bowled in the locker room. I’d never been anywhere that celebrated six wins. And it was so cool because it was on a smaller stage where people were enjoying it — not for what it gives you, but for the enjoyment of the game. And you were giving players something they hadn’t had before. You’re supposed to start that way — Urban (Meyer) at Bowling Green, Saban at Toledo. You’re supposed to start down and work up. You’re not supposed to get your first job at 31 in the NFL and then Tennessee and USC.

Jon Gordon, author and motivational speaker
I’d never liked him. Never liked his public persona, and I didn’t expect to like him. But I went to visit him and I actually liked him a lot. He was beginning the process of wanting to make a change.

Kiffin
I saw a podcast the other day on the rapper Macklemore, and he’s talking about, he’s winning the Grammy. He’s on stage. He’s got everything. And he’s not fulfilled. And later, he’s in rehab. He’s making coffee in the morning for people. He’s serving others. And he says, “I felt more fulfilled doing that than when I was on stage.” I feel like I can relate to that. I can tell people, there are trophies and wins and new contracts and things. I’m not saying they’re not great, but that’s not true fulfillment.

I wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago.


Three years after being hired at FAU, Kiffin landed another Power 5 job — back in the SEC at Ole Miss. He’s still a lightning rod for public scrutiny, but he has shown he has a sense of humor about most of it, publicly tweaking Saban routinely, interacting with fans and critics alike on social media, and finding something approaching a sense of peace with his place in the college football universe.


Weber
He had a lot of learning experiences.

Browne
I remember the criticism around him, some people would champion the point that he was not great with the media, and he wasn’t personable, and you fast forward a decade and he’s maybe the most personable, real coach out there.

He’s set a standard for what it means to be a coach in the social media era.

Helton

To take a step back and it really jumps you three steps forward. I’m just so happy for him to see the maturity and really the peace that he has. He’s still innovative.

Graf
Looking at Lane now, he has a lot of fun. He talks s—. He has fun with his players. If he was more like that during his SC days, things may have panned out different.

McKay
I’m sorry for what happened to Lane at SC, but I think things happen for a reason, and he’s moved on and is a hell of a football coach.

Kiffin
I think people go their whole life without being glad that bad things happen. They hold anger and resentment — toward the people, the AD, the fans. They don’t ever let that go. And it only hurts them. It didn’t hurt USC if I was mad at them. So, I let that go. And I’m glad I’ve had this experience.

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