BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Dr. John Kelly, Florida Atlantic University's president, strides proudly into a raucous postgame locker room with the game ball tucked high and tight, just the way Lane Kiffin coaches his players to do.
Over and over again, FAU's players and coaches belt out the school fight song until their voices are hoarse. The Owls just put the finishing touches on a 52-24 beatdown of Florida International to extend their win streak to seven games and clinch home-field advantage in the school's first Conference USA championship game.
Suddenly, a piercing whistle brings the party to a brief halt. Kiffin, wearing an easy grin, enters the locker room and positions himself right beside Kelly, the guy who hired him back in December while skeptics around the country wondered if Kiffin might be damaged goods as a head coach.
"Not one person picked you to be here and do any of this, to be Conference USA East champions," Kiffin says, his voice rising and the players howling. "What's the first thing a championship team does? They show up every week, and [FIU] knew the only chance they had to win this game was if you didn't show up. That wasn't going to happen."
Kiffin keeps his postgame comments short and sweet, and the party resumes. Plumes of cigar smoke billow out of the locker room as Kelly presents Kiffin with the game ball from the Shula Bowl. There's a dance-off in which Kelly shows off a few of his moves, much to the delight of the sweat-soaked players, and even Kiffin takes a turn.
"This is great, better than I'd even imagined," says a beaming Kelly, who came from Clemson's faculty and saw what Dabo Swinney did for that campus. "If I'd known it was going to be this good, I would have hired [Kiffin] sooner."
In just one season, Kiffin has orchestrated a complete transformation of an FAU football program that was running on embalming fluid before the Lane Train pulled into Boca Raton. The Owls have gone from three straight 3-9 seasons to unbeaten in Conference USA play. Their eight wins match the most in the program's 13-year history as an FBS school.
"Coach Kiffin has made us all believe," FAU senior running back Buddy Howell says. "People see all the stuff on Twitter, but he's about his business on the field. He's not going to keep you roped up. He's going to let you be who you want to be as long as you're on your game, on your details and taking coaching. He just wants to win, but he makes you comfortable. Everybody is comfortable with being themselves and isn't scared to go out there and execute. Sometimes, guys get uptight and play uptight, but not here and not with Coach Kiffin.
"You love playing for a coach like that."
Yes, he's the famed Lane Kiffin, the Twitter-trolling, stir-it-up, live-it-up savant of a football coach. But there's a lot more than meets the eye to this Lane Kiffin Reality Show that has captivated college football for much of the past decade.
Kiffin, whose Owls have lit up teams to the tune of 48.1 points per game during their seven-game win streak, gave ESPN full access to his program for the week leading up to the FIU game, including practices, meetings, film sessions and the locker room before and after the game.
"It's fourth-and-2, but do we take knees here? No, we have a no-knee mentality. ... So, yes, it's the last play of the game, but run their ass over. Finish them. Knock their ass out."Lane Kiffin
"Whoever said that you can't have fun and that everything has to be so serious?" Kiffin says while scrolling through his Twitter account to find new material to retweet -- even while getting in his afternoon workout. "My whole deal is that I want to win, want to help these kids do things they've never done before and have a blast doing it. What's wrong with that?"
Kiffin's confidence is unbridled. He does a "good, bad and ugly" segment during Monday's team meeting. He informs his team that his favorite play of the 48-23 road win at Louisiana Tech came when Howell scored on a 3-yard touchdown run with 37 seconds left.
"It's fourth-and-2, but do we take knees here? No, we have a no-knee mentality," Kiffin says. "Does a boxer who's winning on the card in the 12th round all of a sudden stop punching? When Tiger Woods is on the 18th hole and up by seven strokes, does he settle for par? No, he knocks them out. So, yes, it's the last play of the game, but run their ass over. Finish them. Knock their ass out. Don't wait for the scorecard to come in. We don't want any TKOs."
Kiffin isn't much of a screamer, but his voice amplifies with conviction when he shows Kerrith Whyte's 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half. It was the first kickoff return for a touchdown in FAU history.
"We need to find out how many kickoffs we've received around here in 17 years. Probably 1,000 -- and most of those were last year," Kiffin cracks.
The room erupts in laughter. The Owls allowed an average of 39.8 points per game in 2016, including a total of 171 points in their last three losses.
FAU practices in the mornings, a necessity in South Florida with all the afternoon thunderstorms and no indoor facility. Kiffin is sporting his customary long-sleeve FAU T-shirt, baggy workout shorts and visor. His attire on the way to the office every morning is a little more formal: swim trunks, faded T-shirt, ball cap and flip-flops.
"Hey, I'm at peace here. I can go wherever I want and not many people recognize me, and who wouldn't love living in Boca?" says Kiffin, who bought a place on the water, owns a boat and two jet skis, and has a dock perfect for fishing.
This late in the season, Kiffin is careful to taper practices. The Owls played 100 plays of defense in the Louisiana Tech game, and he wants to make sure they're fresh for the next game.
"It's one of the reasons I was always fighting with Coach (Nick) Saban," Kiffin says. "About the only time we lost was when we were beaten down at the end of the year. We just never backed off in practice."
Kiffin says he still sends text messages to Saban, though Saban doesn't text back -- with anyone. However, Kiffin has conversed with Saban's wife, Terry, via text message.
"I know I get a lot of grief about some of the things I've said about Coach Saban, but working under him was like going back to school and getting another degree," Kiffin says. "I've been able to find that mix between Coach Saban and Pete Carroll, and because of that, I'm much more prepared as a head coach."
Traces of Saban's "process" are spliced throughout the FAU work week. In fact, Kiffin's situational meeting with his staff every Friday is right out of Saban's playbook. They go over every conceivable situation from who would be the third-string left guard if something happened, to which side of the field to play on in overtime, to where the student section is, to the direction of the wind.
"I never used to do that. That's all Saban," Kiffin says. "He's the most disciplined person I've ever been around. It can be July frickin' fourth, and he's still going to call five recruits that night. I mean, we win the national championship, and the next morning we meet, and he's ripping on guys about how far behind we are in recruiting. He's not going to relax and enjoy it -- ever. But that's why he's the best and why I'm a lot better head coach for having worked under him."
While appreciative of what Saban did for him, Kiffin goes where few do. He loves poking the bear and reveals that he still has a video of Saban dancing at one of the karaoke parties Saban throws for the parents of recruits during official visit weekends at Alabama.
"Maybe I will post that," Kiffin says, scanning his phone for the video. "Each new coach would have to get up there and do karaoke. The whole key when you're a bad singer like me is to pick something that the crowd you're around knows and will start singing with you."
Wisely, Kiffin picked "Sweet Home Alabama."
"I was going to do 'Rocky Top,'" Kiffin quips, "but didn't think Mrs. Saban would sing along too much."
Speaking of Tennessee, Kiffin is well aware of the Vols fans' obsession with Jon Gruden, and in vintage Kiffin fashion, he doesn't mind fanning the flames. Kiffin and Gruden text some, and Kiffin recently forwarded an article to Gruden that said Kiffin and Gruden should be the Vols' top two choices.
On Wednesday, Kiffin has former Yankees manager Joe Girardi come to practice to speak to the team. Girardi, who lives in Boca Raton, also attends the game Saturday with his family. Kiffin jokes that he and Girardi have a lot in common, with Kiffin having worked for Al Davis in the National Football League and Girardi for the Steinbrenner family in Major League Baseball.
Kiffin is an admitted Twitter troll, but what he likes best about the Twittersphere is the ability to make somebody's day. On Friday, he does just that for Bobby Reardon, an FAU student confined to a wheelchair as he courageously battles Cerebral Palsy. Kiffin sees a video chronicling Reardon's story and what a big football fan he is and immediately tweets for somebody on campus to find Reardon and bring him by the football office.
Within an hour, Reardon is sitting in Kiffin's office along with a friend of his, Madison Land. They're working together in their film studies class on a project on senior linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. Kiffin gives them sideline passes and invites them to the locker room after the game.
"The school has done a whole 180 since Coach Kiffin got here," Reardon says. "There's life everywhere now."
Kiffin's impact has transcended football. Case in point: Kelly notes that FAU's out-of-state applications for the 2018 fall semester are up 35 percent.
"And we haven't done anything else differently, so it has to be Lane," Kelly says. "He just gets it, both as a football coach and being able to attract attention to our university."
Dr. Kim Dunn, FAU's faculty athletic representative and associate professor of accounting, is the one who looked up Reardon's phone number and connected the two. Dunn concedes that she wasn't a big fan of Kiffin's when he got the job.
"I felt like he was going to make my job more difficult, the whole social media perception of him, and I thought he would only care about football," Dunn explains. "But from day one, he showed me tremendous respect and appreciation."
During the summer, a couple of football players weren't taking their academics seriously enough, and Dunn fired off a note to Kiffin.
"The next day, he pulled them out of practice and sent them to study hall," Dunn recalls. "The Lane Kiffin that I've gotten to know cares about the student as well as the athlete. I was set not to like him. That was the impression that I had, but I think very highly of him. I think he's brilliant -- and not just football brilliant. I don't say that lightly, either. I work around some very educated people, but Lane is one of the most brilliant people I've ever met, just his ability to sit in a meeting and contribute in a meaningful way and take away the most relevant points."
He does the same when his 11-year-old daughter, Pressley, calls from the West Coast. She's in tears and seeking comfort from her dad after being punished -- too harshly, in her mind -- by her mom, Kiffin's ex-wife, Layla.
"Take a deep breath and relax," Kiffin tells Pressley repeatedly. "You had to have done something for your mom to be so mad. Did you not get ready for school in time? Try to relax. I will talk to her."
Even though Kiffin's three kids are on the West Coast with their mom, he's surrounded by family in Boca Raton. His younger brother, Chris, is FAU's defensive coordinator, and Chris and wife Angela have four kids. Kiffin's parents, Monte and Robin, also live just a few miles away. The day after the FIU win, Monte, who serves as a defensive analyst for the Owls, sends Kiffin a note, telling him how proud he is of the job his son is doing.
"And yet again there in the staff meeting, you're still coaching up the coaches on how we can still get better. That's what separates the great coaches from the good ones," Monte writes to his son.
With Kiffin taking FAU to unprecedented heights as an FBS program, his name will be floated out there in what figures to be a dizzying head coaching carousel over the next month. Kiffin understands he's still seen as immature by some around the college football landscape, especially when it comes to some of his shenanigans on Twitter.
"And let's be honest, I can get away with it because we're winning," Kiffin says. "If we weren't, I'd be getting murdered, and everybody would be talking about how I should be spending more time coaching my team and less time on Twitter. But I'm going to be me. Life's too short not to have a little fun."
Obviously, if a Power 5 school came calling, Kiffin would listen. But he fully expects to be back at FAU next season and says it has been the most rewarding year of his coaching career.
"There's no entitlement with these kids. They're hungry, and every time we win, it's like they've just won the Super Bowl," Kiffin says. "That's a great feeling, seeing them get what they deserve."
One of the last things the FAU team does on Friday before leaving for the team hotel is reconvene in the team meeting room. Kiffin has a player from each position group get up and speak. But he closes the show.
His message: Play with focus. Play smart. And play with controlled anger.
"This is a rivalry game. You know a lot of these people. They're going to be chippy," Kiffin tells his players. "But that's not tough. Toughness isn't that you've got to fight with the guy after the play or punch him because he punched you. That's not tough. That's dumb. Toughness is beating the s--- out of the guy between the whistles. Toughness is what the scoreboard says at the end of the game."
For a school-record seventh straight game, the scoreboard is to the Owls' liking. They will try to make it eight in a row Saturday in the regular-season finale at Charlotte.
"It's the same thing I said when I took this job. To do the impossible, you must be able to see the invisible," Kiffin says.
After eight straight years of non-winning seasons, the Owls are hardly invisible anymore in the realm of college football, and the party is just getting started.