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Bucky Gleason: Kiffin circles back to Buffalo with career on track

Bucky Gleason

Before hanging up Thursday, Lane Kiffin made sure to share his personal taste of Buffalo. It was nine years to the day since he was last in town. He was in his second year as coach of the Raiders and was cruising toward a victory in Ralph Wilson Stadium when everything fell apart.

Oakland was in full control and sitting on a 23-14 lead with the clock winding down toward the final four minutes before Trent Edwards and Roscoe Parrish, two blasts from the Bills' forgettable past, connected for a touchdown. Edwards led the team down the field for a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Buffalo won the following week, marking the last time it opened the season with four straight victories. Kiffin lost the following week, marking the last time he coached in the NFL. Late owner Al Davis accused Kiffin of being a con artist while sending the 32-year-old coach to the curb with a 5-15 record.

"I hope my trip to Buffalo this weekend is better than my last one," Kiffin, who returns Saturday when Florida Atlantic University visits the University at Buffalo, said with a laugh. "I remember we rushed the ball well against the Bills. I remember we lost right at the end. Hopefully, this is a better trip."

What a trip it has been for Kiffin, who lived in Western New York during consecutive 2-14 seasons in the mid-1980s when his father was Bills linebackers coach under Hank Bullough. He recalled attending elementary school in Iroquois School District, but his memories of the region faded over time.

Years later, he evolved from NFL coaching prodigy into one of the most polarizing figures in college football. He has been treated like many child stars, high achievers at young ages who turned into train wrecks faster than you can say Danny Bonaduce.

Maybe this time will be different with Kiffin, whose greatest gift outside of coaching is alienating people who never met him. For what it's worth, he was gracious with his time and friendly Thursday. Maybe he was having a good day. Maybe he has changed his ways. Maybe it was both or neither.

Regardless, how the next few years unfold at Florida Atlantic will largely determine his fate as a head coach. Nobody has ever doubted his football acumen but, like the struggling program he took over, Kiffin's reputation paid a few visits to the Land of Humpty Dumpty. The goal now is putting the pieces back together.

The trajectory for many coaches is starting on the college level and eventually taking over a major Division I program or reaching the NFL. Kiffin's career has run counterclockwise. He was an NFL head coach, then a college head coach, then a college assistant and now working for a mid-major.

"It is kind of backward a little bit," Kiffin said. "You usually start smaller and go up. When you do that, when you're young, you make mistakes and get better as you go. You go through coaching situations, player situations, you know, all that stuff. You should get better with age."

Kiffin had an inauspicious beginning to his tenure at Florida Atlantic, which dropped its first two games to Navy and ninth-ranked Wisconsin before running over cupcake Bethune-Cookman, 45-0, its first shutout in a decade. FAU was a three-point underdog against UB, which also has a 1-2 record against similar competition.

You know things are off to a rough start when the weather in Boca Raton, Fla., of all places, fails to cooperate. FAU's opener at home against Navy lasted nearly six hours after getting delayed by several lightning strikes. A few days later, the Owls lost starting quarterback DeAndre Johnson for the season.

Johnson, featured prominently in the Netflix series "Last Chance U" while playing for East Mississippi Community College last year, had surgery for a career-threatening blood clot in his passing arm. If that wasn't enough, Hurricane Irma forced FAU to stay in Wisconsin to prepare for Bethune-Cookman.

"We've had some strange things," Kiffin said. "We always look for the bright side, the positive thing in every situation. It allowed our players time to bond. Wisconsin was unbelievable. They let us use their weight room, practice field, meeting rooms. It was good in a way because it took some focus away from all the things here."

Kiffin and Florida Atlantic seemed strange bedfellows when he was hired last December, weeks before Alabama coach Nick Saban replaced him as offensive coordinator while preparing for the national championship game. After three quiet years under Saban's rule, Kiffin was thrust to the forefront of another controversy.

It was enough to wonder: Why would anyone hire him?

The mere mention of his name makes people in cringe in certain outposts: Oakland, after he was named the youngest head coach in NFL history; Tennessee, where he stayed one season and bailed; USC, which hired him to clean up a mess and fired him at a private airport after he created another one.

At every stop after he became a head coach, stories emerged about him causing trouble with childish behavior that minimized his achievements along the way. He came across as the bratty son of Monte Kiffin, the revered godfather of the Tampa 2 defense who is now serving under Lane as a defensive assistant.

But there are good reasons to believe Lane Kiffin's relationship with FAU could evolve into a perfect marriage. He suits their need for relevance. He gained experience the hard way when it came to damage control. He has bungled many a message, but he always understood the tenets of coaching. The man knows football.

"I just say how it is," Kiffin said. "When I was young, I watched Steve Spurrier. He was just himself, and it was awesome. He says what's on his mind and doesn't care what everybody else thinks. If you win enough, it's a good thing. People say, 'Oh, he's honest.' If you don't win enough, it becomes a negative thing."

At some point, on some level, FAU reconciled with the notion that any publicity is good publicity. Kiffin has the biggest name in Conference USA and is the type of a high-profile coach who can generate interest in an obscure program. The approach worked with Howard Schnellenberger, who steered Miami to a national title in 1983 and coached FAU through its infancy.

The Owls were 16-42 under Carl Pelini and Charlie Partridge, two other coaches who remained for a full season and failed to gain traction or make any noise. FAU believed Kiffin could win and draw a crowd. Name recognition alone should help a 14-year-old program overlooked in a state saturated with college football.

In May, he offered a scholarship to Kaden Martin, the seventh-grade son of former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin. The only thing that would be more surprising than Kaden Martin going to FAU in five years would be Kiffin greeting him at the door when he arrives.

Kiffin hired Kendal Briles, son of former Baylor head coach Art Briles, as offensive coordinator amid questions about whether he played a role in the sexual assault scandal at Baylor. Kiffin recruited the aforementioned Johnson, who was booted from Florida State after video surfaced of him punching a woman in a bar.

In all cases, it made headlines.

"Pat Haden called it the 'Kiffin Factor,' " Kiffin said. "No matter what you say or what you do, it's broadcast everywhere. The majority of time, it's twisted into something negative. I can't control that. I don't worry about it. People who work around me, my players, the majority would have positive things to say."

Still, there were self-inflicted wounds he suffered along the way. Two years later after the Raiders fired him, in his first season at the University of Tennessee, Kiffin publicly and falsely accused Urban Meyer of recruiting violations at Florida. He bolted from Tennessee for USC after one year, with five seasons left on his contract.

He planned to guide USC through the turbulence that accompanied NCAA rules violations under Pete Carroll. The Trojans were stripped of their 2005 national title, banned from bowl games for two years and lost 30 scholarships. The idea was that Kiffin would return the program to national prominence.

In fairness, his work was impressive under the circumstances. The sanctions left him shorthanded and greatly hindered his recruiting efforts. The Trojans were 8-5 in his first season and finished 10-2 in his second. Pressure began mounting after they finished 7-5 in his third year and were 3-2 when the bottom fell out.

Behind the numbers revealing marginal success, there was Kiffin's disruptive nature. For years, he had been prone to running his mouth. At one point, in a juvenile decision typically reserved for win-at-all-costs Pop Warner novices, he had players switch jerseys to throw off the other team.

It was classless.

Haden, a former USC star quarterback who was hired as athletic director to restore respect and credibility to his alma mater, was done with Kiffin in 2013. He pulled aside his coach after exiting the team charter, following a humiliating 62-41 loss to Arizona State, and fired him on the spot.

"When the ball is kicked, everybody forgets about the sanctions," Kiffin said. "When it first came down, it was basically the death penalty and the end of USC football. We managed to go 28-15 with 30 less scholarships than everybody else. The program has had a lot of success since. I'm happy that they're doing great now."

Know this about Kiffin: No matter his shortcomings, he's an offensive whiz who knows talent. Ten years ago, when he strongly argued against the Raiders' decision to draft JaMarcus Russell first overall over Calvin Johnson, he was right. He recruited great players and built great offenses at USC.

And that's why Saban hired him as offensive coordinator. It seemed an odd match considering Saban's reputation as a task master and Kiffin's loose behavior, but Saban found value in Kiffin. He believed an attack similar to the style played in the NFL would attract better players at skill positions.

In his three years at 'Bama, Kiffin produced three SEC offensive players of the year in Amari Cooper, Derrick Henry and Jalen Hurts.

"It worked," Kiffin said. "We were 40-3 together with three SEC championships. The last three times we've been apart — two games before I got there and the national championship game – that's three losses where we weren't together. Sandwiched in between that was three losses in three years."

And sandwiched in between his visits to Buffalo is a fascinating journey Kiffin wouldn't have expected. Man, what a trip. He's a different coach and a different person than the one who was here nine years ago.

He's not getting fired anytime soon. If he turns around Florida Atlantic, he could ascend the college ranks again and perhaps return to the pros someday. If he fails, his days as a head coach could fade into the past like a childhood memory.

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