BOCA RATON, Fla. -- To best illustrate the way Lane Kiffin has changed hearts and minds, let's go back to the discombobulated Tennessee coaching search five months ago.
Kiffin -- persona non grata in Knoxville after his brief one-year tenure ended in bitterness, anger and, lest we forget, rioting in 2009 -- gained a foothold among some desperate Vols fans willing to forgive and forget, if it meant playing and winning like Florida Atlantic.
They tweeted at him. They signed a petition asking the administration to rehire him. They sent emails to then-Tennessee athletic director John Currie, begging for Kiffin to return. Kiffin watched with amusement from his office as he prepared FAU for its Conference USA championship game against North Texas: a man once burned in effigy, transformed into a savior.
"That article where they showed the emails that came to Currie?" Kiffin asks during a recent visit. "I don't think those numbers would have been that way a year ago. I'm not naive. That just shows how fast nowadays people's opinions change. Just think how fast that changed just based off one season."
In that one season, FAU won 11 games, its first C-USA championship and its first bowl appearance in a decade, all while Kiffin trolled his way through Twitter -- endearing himself to fans who would have rolled their eyes and called those same antics childish a few years ago.
Tennessee fans were not the only ones who wanted in.
Kiffin says there were conversations with several schools gauging his interest in their job openings, declining to say which ones. That should not come as a shock. Many have wondered how long he will stay in this job, viewed among outsiders as a stepping-stone to something bigger.
He says he sees it differently, that he is happy at FAU, living in South Florida in relative anonymity. He says he is not coaching for another job, the way many others do in their quest to move up the ladder. He calls last season one of the most gratifying of his career.
But as long as he keeps winning here, the calls from suitors will keep coming. Much bigger schools will make much bigger offers, believing a rehabilitated Kiffin has moved past his early career mistakes. Then he will have a decision to make.
"Ten years ago, when you're younger, the mindset is, how fast can you get the big job? How much money can you make? How big a house can you get?" Kiffin says. "Then you get to a point where you've had all that stuff, so you think differently. Am I saying I'd never go? No, I'm not saying that, but it would have to be a really special situation where I would look at things differently now. Who's the president? Who's the AD? How are they going to support us?
"So you're making sure it's the right place you can really win at, because as you get older, you realize how important it is. That's why I took this job. This president is 100 percent about football and doing what it takes to win. Gave us the highest assistant coach pool in the conference. That's a big deal. When you're younger, you don't even ask that."
Realistically, FAU will never get into the College Football Playoff, unless a massive realignment shakes college football's foundation. So a really special situation roughly translates to a school where everything Kiffin mentions is in place to compete for a national championship.
"I'm not driven by money anymore," Kiffin said. "I'm not driven by ego, of the attention being a head coach at one of those places. I'm very happy here on all fronts. The only drive is when you do see Kirby [Smart], you see Coach [Nick] Saban walk out on that field before the game, the national championship, holding that trophy. It's the drive of, OK, I get to play against the best, let's see if I can beat the best. It's different. That would not be what I would have answered even five years ago. Because your ego -- once you get rid of that, you have different motivations."
The fact that Kiffin is even having this conversation seemed improbable in May 2017. Despite a successful on-field tenure at Alabama, the way his career ended there -- leaving between the CFP semifinal and national title game, a decision Saban termed "mutually agreed upon" -- only furthered the perception that Kiffin was difficult and petulant. His previous head-coaching stops with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and Southern California ended in flameouts.
Asked whether he felt he needed a successful season to change the perception about him, Kiffin said, "I didn't need it for myself; I knew what I could do. But from a recruiting standpoint, from a national image standpoint ... yeah. I know that question's out there. Now, I know the facts of USC, when you lose 30 scholarships ... going 28-15 with those types of sanctions, people don't do that. Look at those types of penalties and what usually happens to programs -- look at Miami, getting blown out every week. ... People don't want to talk about that, they forget about that, they think we didn't do a good job there.
"But yes, it helps in recruiting, and I'm sure it helps in national image. I'm sure the articles are a lot different now based off one year. I didn't all of a sudden just become a totally different coach in one year."
Maybe not, but he is winning, and winning makes his Twitter takes, frank commentary and various potshots much more palatable. He mentions Steve Spurrier in that context -- a coach he viewed as a role model from the time he started watching his Fun 'n' Gun while growing up in Tampa, Florida.
"There's a lot of similarities there in saying things that aren't normal coachspeak, jokes, maybe throwing something in at another school," says Kiffin, who wears a visor as an homage to Spurrier.
"Everybody thought he was great. They loved it. He was funny, great personality, recruits loved it, media, everybody. Other fan bases didn't, but it was viewed as positive. If he was losing, what would people have done? Winning changes the perception of what you do, and whether it's a positive or a negative, even though it's the exact same thing."
Winning has made his job easier on the recruiting trail, where he no longer has to sell a vision of FAU under his leadership. He has all the proof he needs in the 2017 season: a high-scoring, seat-of-your-pants offense and an opportunistic, aggressive defense that allowed the Owls to close out the season on a 10-game winning streak.
But that's not to say everything has been easy. Quarterback Jason Driskel abruptly decided to retire from football in January, blindsiding the coaching staff.
That put FAU in a bind, with only two scholarship quarterbacks available for spring practice and zero opportunities to try to recruit another quarterback for the February signing date. Kiffin said FAU will look at bringing in a grad transfer just to build up its depth.
De'Andre Johnson and Chris Robison, both transfers themselves, will go into the fall competing for the starting job. Kiffin took a gamble on both: Johnson was kicked out of Florida State in 2015 after a video showed him punching a woman in the face. He enrolled at East Mississippi Community College before arriving at FAU last season. Meanwhile, Robison was dismissed from Oklahoma last summer. He had been arrested and charged with public intoxication. He served a one-practice suspension this spring for an academic matter.
Both are former ESPN 300 prospects and neither has an edge in the race right now.
Kiffin also had to hire new coordinators. In typical Kiffin fashion, he made headlines with his choice for offense: Charlie Weis Jr., son of former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis. At 25, Weis is the youngest coordinator in college football.
Kiffin shrugs his shoulders. "Age is irrelevant. Experience is relevant," he says.
Weis worked with Kiffin at Alabama as an offensive analyst, then briefly last year when he followed along to FAU. But after Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian offered Weis a job as an offensive analyst, Weis left.
When Kiffin called to offer Weis the offensive coordinator job in January, "I knew I could not turn him down twice," Weis said in a phone interview. "It was the easiest decision I've ever had to make."
"He's one of the brightest minds in football," Weis said of Kiffin. "He's been extremely good to me. He's helped me along the way, developed me as a coach, and I learn a lot of football whenever I'm around him."
Weis has never been a coordinator before, so Kiffin is considering calling the plays once again -- something he did as a head coach previously but that he allowed former coordinator Kendal Briles to handle last season at FAU.
Kiffin also has to answer to a new athletic director. Brian White takes over for Pat Chun, who helped bring Kiffin to FAU. White sat down with Kiffin during the interview process, though he knew all about him well before arriving from Missouri.
"In Columbia, Missouri, we're hearing about Lane Kiffin left and right -- you're in SEC, Big 12 country, and you're hearing about FAU a lot," White said. "He's proven you can win here, and win at a high level. He's exactly what you want in a football coach."
Everyone at FAU seems to think so. And after a year, so do many others -- even some in the unlikeliest of places.