Usually the Kiffin family retreats to a Florida beach for the Fourth of July holiday, but this year it ended up gathering at Chris Kiffin’s house, not far from where he works as a defensive line coach for Ole Miss.
His backyard was the perfect backdrop for swimming, grilling, grandkids setting off fireworks and brother Lane corralling everyone for their annual softball game.
Moments like these are rare. Lane, Chris and father Monte — a defensive assistant for the Jacksonville Jaguars — coach in different states. But when everyone gets together every July 4, they don’t spend the days sitting around being lazy. Lane doesn’t allow it.
“He’s like the cruise director,” Lane’s sister Heidi Kiffin said. “He’ll be like, ‘We’re going fishing,’ or, ‘Come on, we’re working out now.’ He just gets everybody together doing something fun.”
In the public eye, Lane Kiffin is Alabama’s surfer-dude, visor-wearing, preemptive-touchdown-celebrating, Bitmoji-tweeting offensive coordinator. Since being hired by Nick Saban three years ago — after he was famously fired at USC — he’s built a high-powered, no-huddle offense that’s helped Alabama to consecutive SEC titles, two College Football Playoff berths and a national championship. Chatter about when he’ll get another opportunity to be the head coach of a Power Five program — and why it hasn’t happened yet — are omnipresent.
Kiffin and the No. 1 Crimson Tide open the season against his former school, No. 17 USC, Saturday night in Arlington, Texas. He’s still trying to decide on a quarterback to pull together the talented weapons on offense and stay a step ahead of Tennessee, LSU and, of course, Ole Miss.
But what’s the most fascinating assistant in college football really like behind those Ray-Ban “hater blockers?” Attention will be on Kiffin as long as he’s successful at Alabama — and trolling Tennessee on social media.
Those who know him best can only laugh at the caricature Kiffin has created for himself. And despite what others think, they say there’s more substance to what his public persona lends.
Monte Kiffin knows the son who is proud of the work he has done in Alabama.
Last November, Monte visited his son in Tuscaloosa for the first time when Alabama played Charleston Southern. Before kickoff, Lane showed him around campus and let him experience the SEC game-day atmosphere.
“We walked by the trailers and tailgates and as you’re walking to the game, people are going nuts,” Monte said. “I think it’s not just the people there. He just loves it.”
Heidi Kiffin knows the doting father who tries to enjoy every moment away from the field.
Lane has three kids with Layla Kiffin — the couple filed for divorce earlier this year — and tweets goofy photos or videos of them all the time. Sometimes it’s son Knox dabbing after beating Auburn, or all three doing the Harlem Shake after winning the national title.
“I think that says a lot about a person, how much your children look up to you and love you. He’s a great dad,” Heidi said. “Unfortunately, he is working a lot, so he doesn’t get to spend as much time with his children as he would like to. But when they are together, he makes the most of that time.
“They’re not in the pool and he’s sitting in the lounge chair having a drink. He’s in the pool with them. They’re not playing on the beach and he’s sitting there laying out. He’s out there with them, he’s very involved.”
Heidi is six years older than Lane, but recalls a particular moment about 20 years ago when Lane was in college but acted like her big brother. She’d fallen in love with a man and decided to move to France and get married. Lane didn’t approve of her moving to Europe away from their family, and told her so.
“The conversation, we were pretty close at the time, he was in college at Fresno (State) and I was living in Malibu. And our conversation, I wasn’t expecting it, but he was angry,” Heidi said. “He was like, ‘You can’t do that, you’re leaving us.’ I didn’t expect it, but it came from a protective place. Like, ‘You can’t go there and be that far away from us.’”
Marqise Lee knows that side of Kiffin, too, the caretaker behind the football coach facade.
Lee was a member of Kiffin’s first recruiting class at USC in 2011 and played for him for two-and-a-half years. Growing up, Lee bounced around several foster homes and there were instances while he was in school when he needed to tend to “family stuff.” Kiffin was always supportive.
“He taught me to stay strong,” said Lee, now a receiver with the Jacksonville Jaguars. “There were situations at camp where he stepped in and just talked to me that night and helped me clear my mind and told me not to worry about anything. He’d give me the next day off or something to make sure everything was OK. It’s the little things that matter.
“You know, lots of coaches won’t do that. They’ll be like, ‘You deal with it.’ But Kiffin isn’t like that. He really cared about us.”
Kiffin was fired fives games into Lee’s junior season, but that’s not what Lee remembers from their time together.
“He was a legit players coach,” Lee said. “There were times when he’d get after you, but there would be times at lunch where he’d grab his meal and instead of going straight into his office, he’d come and sit at our table. He’d joke with us, eat with us. He had a new office in the new building and we played video games. He made school home.
“You’d never wake up and be like, ‘Ugh, practice, ugh Coach Kiffin.’ I mean, yeah, we had to wake up early for practice, but being around Kiffin made it better.”
Kiffin’s early-career rise began when Pete Carroll recognized his ability as a talented playcaller and named him co-offensive coordinator at USC in 2005. But problems didn’t start until Kiffin was named the youngest NFL head coach of the modern era — at 31 — with the Oakland Raiders in 2007. After a short tenure and 5-15 overall record, Kiffin was fired by Al Davis, who also called him a liar in a press conference. Kiffin then became the true villain of the game when he became the coach at Tennessee. In one season, he easily won over the fan base, won seven games (two more than the previous year) and accused Urban Meyer and rival Florida of breaking NCAA rules. Then he abruptly left for his dream job at USC, which didn’t end up working out, and UT fans still loathe him.
Now the 41-year-old Kiffin enters the third and final year of his contract with the Crimson Tide. And if it goes like the first two, he may be irresistible to a Power Five athletic director somewhere who needs a new coach in 2017.
After all, would Alabama have gone to consecutive playoffs or won the national title last year without him? In two years as offensive coordinator, he’s done exactly as Saban has asked: created up-tempo offenses and molded them around two first-time starting quarterbacks in Blake Sims (2014) and Jake Coker (2015).
Maybe a three-year rehab stint under Saban is the right amount of time needed for scars from previous failures to heal — and for future employers to feel more comfortable hiring him. Last fall, there were 13 head coaching vacancies in college football, but none were filled by Kiffin.
“You can’t write a perfect script,” Monte Kiffin said. “I think the most important thing now is he’s not really looking (for another job). If you just do your job — every year is an important year. I don’t care if you’re at the University of South Florida, it’s all the same. You can’t be looking for the next job.”
Kiffin has worked for Carroll and Saban and been the head coach of two Division I programs plus an NFL team before he was 40. He might never quit the Bitmoji game — it’s too late now anyway since it’s become part of his shtick (even though Saban has gotten on his case about social media). But it appears he’s growing up as a coach in Tuscaloosa without losing his true, boyish, albeit misunderstood, personality.
“He’ll stir some stuff up, he’ll do something or other, but it’s all fun,” Monte Kiffin said.
“That’s Lane being Lane.”
Source: USA Today Fan Sports Poll