When college football coaching staffs become family reunions

Lane Kiffin, along with brother Chris and father Monte, have had success in their first season together at Florida Atlantic.

Lane Kiffin, along with brother Chris and father Monte, have had success in their first season together at Florida Atlantic.

BOCA RATON, Fla. – Lane Kiffin can exit his office at Florida Atlantic University and take the second door on the left to see his brother, Chris, the Owls’ defensive coordinator, or continue to the end of the hallway to see his father, Monte, a defensive analyst and liaison within the school’s football program. Or, when sitting at his desk, he can turn his head to the right.

Two photos are scattered among the awards and knickknacks collected during his coaching career. The first shows Lane on Monte’s shoulders during the latter’s stint as the head coach at North Carolina State in the early 1980s. The other is of both Lane and Chris poolside in Hawaii for the 1988 Pro Bowl, where their father served as an assistant coach, standing and smiling beside two seated NFL stars: Chris Doleman and Herschel Walker.

“You don’t go to college to train to be a coach,” Lane said. “Your degrees are who you work for, who you’re around. So I feel like I’m Ivy League-educated, like a doctor, for football. Because of who I got to learn from.”

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Football and family have intersected at FAU, where two generations of the Kiffin clan have combined to lead the Owls through the most successful season in the program’s young history. A similar scene is taking place at more than 20 programs on college football’s highest level, although some arrangements have been under scrutiny as public universities and states seek to enforce nepotism laws and ensure fair hiring practices. 

“Not many coaches get a chance to do this,” admitted Monte.

But it’s different at FAU. Here, at a program still celebrating its second Conference USA championship, the staff includes not just two brothers but the father. And that’s not all. For the third time in his distinguished career, Monte works under his son, making the arrangement of coaches at FAU unique across the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“Monte and Chris have an emotional and invested interest in Lane’s success,” said FAU athletics director Pat Chun. “To our benefit, it’s worked out extremely well.”

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Navigating policies and laws

For the FBS coaching staffs with family ties, the hiring process can be complicated. There are laws and/or school policies to contend with and a redrawing of the normal line of administrative supervision that exists between a head coach and his staff of assistants. The process can raise a question: Would the family member deserve the position on his own merits?

At Purdue, for example, athletics director Mike Bobinski and two athletics department officials needed approval from the university’s vice president for ethics and compliance before allowing first-year head coach Jeff Brohm to hire his brothers, Greg and Brian. Exceptions to Purdue’s no-nepotism rule can be made “if employment of the individual would be to the benefit of the university or serve a useful purpose consistent with the university’s mission,” per university policy.

“Both Brian and Greg Brohm were selected because of their considerable experience in football and because of their familiarity with Jeff Brohm’s vision and his trust in them to fulfill key roles within the football program,” a university spokesman explained.

A similar situation at Connecticut has been under review since the summer, when the state’s Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board found that head coach Randy Edsall and the university had violated laws against nepotism when Edsall hired his son, Corey, as the Huskies’ tight ends coach.

Before hiring Edsall in January, the university contacted the ethics board and received a letter approving the hiring process and an altered management plan that would have any issues or reviews related to Corey’s performance run through the athletics department and not his father, said the Edsalls’ lawyer, Louis N. George.

In July, however, the board issued an advisory opinion contending that Edsall was a state employee when he worked with UConn officials to hire his son, and as such would occupy a position of influence in terms of negotiating Corey Edsall’s contract. The ethics board also recommended that Corey remain in his current position but that his one-year contract, worth $95,000 annually, not be renewed when it expires next month. George described the opinion as “highly contested and disputed” by both the Edsalls and the university.

While the ethics board’s advisory opinion did not classify as an enforcement action, the Edsalls in response filed an administrative appeal in Connecticut Superior Court based on their belief that Randy Edsall was not a state employee when he negotiated to add Corey to his coaching staff, and that they believed the management plan put into place by UConn changed the supervisory nature of Corey’s position.

At FAU, meanwhile, adding Chris and Monte to Lane’s Kiffin staff demanded a shift in the chain of command. On staffs where the possibility of nepotism doesn’t exist, assistant coaches report to and receive employee reviews directly from the head coach. At FAU, Chris and Monte report to Chun, who conducts the annual review with Lane’s input.

“We made it clear to him when he got here that there is a nepotism rule on campus,” Chun said, “and our way of abiding that and managing it is to make a clear and concise reporting line.”

But there was no conflict of interest in the hiring process – Chris “could’ve got the job on his own merit,” said Chun, and “Monte is extremely overqualified for the position he’s in,” as a defensive analyst prohibited by NCAA rules from any hands-on coaching of the Owls’ student-athletes.

Recent events have made the relationship more complicated. As part of its findings in last week’s issuance of penalties against the University of Mississippi’s football program, the NCAA handed Chris Kiffin a two-year show-cause ban through November of 2019 for rules violations committed while he served as the Rebels’ defensive line coach.

Viewed as one of the top recruiters in the Southeastern Conference during his stint with the Rebels, Chris will be prohibited from participating in any off-campus recruiting for the length of the show-cause ban, and any program that wished to hire him away from FAU at any point during the next two years would need to appear before the Division I Committee on Infractions to argue its case.

“While these infractions by Chris Kiffin occurred at a different institution, we respect the decision of the NCAA,” Chun said in a statement provided to USA TODAY Sports. “Florida Atlantic University will do everything necessary to cooperate with the NCAA in ensuring compliance with the provisions of the ruling.”

Chris Kiffin’s three-year contract is the longest among FAU’s assistants, not an uncommon situation for a defensive coordinator. At $300,000, he is the second-highest-paid assistant to offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, who is completing a one-year contract worth $350,000.

Briles is the highest-paid football assistant at a Conference USA public school, but his pay is a long way from the seven-figure amounts Monte Kiffin made as an assistant to his son at Tennessee in 2009, and then at Southern California.

Those amounts – a product of Monte Kiffin’s NFL renown and pay – helped set the stage for current assistant coach pay. This season, at least 14 assistants are making more than $1 million. Lane Kiffin was making $1.4 million as Alabama’s offensive coordinator last season – or $450,000 more than he’s making this season at FAU.

But in addition to getting to be in charge of a program again after runs at Tennessee at USC, Lane Kiffin is getting an additional kind of opportunity.

No, that Coach Kiffin

A given weekday afternoon in FAU’s football offices may lead to an Abbot-and-Costello routine. An individual will walk into a meeting room and ask for “Coach Kiffin,” and three heads will turn to the door. No, that Coach Kiffin, the asker will clarify.

Monte Kiffin, left, worked as an assistant head coach from 2010 to '12 while his son Lane was head coach at Southern Cal.

Monte Kiffin, left, worked as an assistant head coach from 2010 to ’12 while his son Lane was head coach at Southern Cal.

The sons have autonomy. Lane runs the entire program from his desk, with emphasis on the offense. Chris oversees the defense, setting up a friendly sibling rivalry, if such a thing exists, when the Owls’ first-team offense and defense meet on the practice field.

“This is not to be arrogant, but I grew up in a shadow of what some people call maybe the best defensive coordinator to ever coach. I grew up right in his runs. That’s a shadow,” Lane said. “(Chris) is in a unique spot. He’s got two of them. Now, Chris’ articles are almost always probably ‘son of’ or ‘brother of,’ especially with all the attention on me. Good, bad or indifferent, whatever it is, however you describe it.”

Monte’s role is that of mentor, and not just to his sons. While he’ll contribute to the Owls’ game-planning – leaving little notes and tips in Chris’ locker on game days, for example – Monte will also spend time with the program’s graduate assistants, teaching that group how he watches game film, and has even taken to giving impromptu pep talks to the university’s marketing department and ticket office. It’s earned Monte an award: Chun, who called Monte “just a jewel,” recently named him the Teammate of the Month for the athletics department.

“He’s always been about mentoring players and mentoring coaches,” Lane said of his father. “Everything is about watching down on other people and helping other people. Nothing’s ever about him.”

FAU’s championship season has led them to this month’s Boca Raton Bowl, in which they will meet another family-packed team – Akron. The Zips’ head coach is Terry Bowden. Their wide receivers coach is Terry’s brother, Jeff. And among their graduate assistants is Jeff’s son, Hunter.

But beyond the Owls’ on-field success, the 12 months since Lane, Chris and Monte arrived on campus has meant something more to the Kiffin clan: Coaching alongside one another has brought the family even closer, especially the brothers. 

Separated by six years, the two “weren’t super close” growing up, Lane said.

“But I think he sees me now as a father and a husband,” said Chris. “As you get older, the childish ways part and it’s more about respect for each other.”

Proximity and a shared cause, that of building the Owls into one of the leading teams on the Group of Five level, have led to evenings like this: On Thanksgiving, the Kiffin boys and their older sister, who lives in Tampa, gathered at their parent’s home near campus to celebrate the holiday – talking a little football but more so enjoying the moment, one made possible only by the family ties that bind together FAU’s football program.

“Family is everything. Family is just the glue that keeps everything together. At the end of the day, it all comes back to family,” Chris said. “When you get in these moments you really don’t have time to think about it. I’m sure we’ll look back at this for the rest of our lives and think it did mean something more because we were together.”

 

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