In January 2007, Lane Kiffin was 31 years old and had the football world at his feet. As the offensive coordinator at USC, for five seasons the pre-eminent power in college football, Kiffin stood as a coaching scion with a limitless future.
Less than seven years later, Kiffin has gone through three head-coaching jobs. He was fired at two places and remains reviled at the third. He has built a reputation for immaturity and dissembling, for over-promising and under-delivering.
A year-and-a-half before the reality check that is a 40th birthday, at an age when any assistant coach hired for his first head gig would be described as "youthful," Kiffin has been fired from his dream job at USC. Kiffin so badly wanted to replace his mentor, Pete Carroll, with the Trojans that he endured a public relations nightmare of leaving Tennessee after only one 7-6 season to do so. Before Tennessee, he lasted only 20 games as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
At all three jobs, Kiffin left behind a legacy of controversy. By doing so, Kiffin has clouded over a simple fact. Anyone who studies his career for longer than it takes to read a tweet would understand that Kiffin has yet to take a job where he had a real, bona fide, honest-to-Tommy-Trojan chance to succeed.
Oakland in the last 20 years of late owner Al Davis' life proved to be a difficult place for any coach to win. And at both Tennessee and USC, Kiffin replaced a national championship-winning coach in a program rife with turmoil.
If nothing else, Lane Kiffin has embodied the nickname given him as a child. As a little boy, Kiffin was known as Helicopter, because the moment that he entered a room, he stirred things up. That nickname may have been more prophetic than anyone knew. What makes a helicopter unique is its sudden ascent, and, yes, its equally sudden descent.
The men who coached with him and for him at Tennessee and at USC speak of Kiffin with respect and fondness.
"He's all about recruiting and football," said Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who held that same position under Kiffin at Tennessee. "Anything that gets in the way … doesn't matter. It's all ball and all recruiting."
Bowling Green football operations director Dennis Slutak, who worked with Kiffin on Carroll's staff at USC, said, "It was just always about -- whether it was recruiting or football -- 'Let's watch more film.'"
The men who coached against Kiffin give him a respect beyond his still-tender head-coaching years.
"I thought he did a great job recruiting. I thought he had a great offensive mind. I thought he did some good things with his personnel," said Utah offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, who won 179 games at six schools over 23 seasons, not to mention two national championships (Miami, 1989, 1991).
Only months after Kiffin arrived, the NCAA took away 30 scholarships and two bowl trips from USC in the Reggie Bush extra-benefits case. No one outside of his immediate family knows that Kiffin, the coach USC fired for not getting the job done, went 28-15 with the Trojans. His USC winning percentage of .651 is higher than that of Gary Pinkel of Missouri (.609) or Kirk Ferentz of Iowa (.578), to name two successful coaches.
Kiffin is better remembered for Matt Barkley's deflated footballs, and pulling a jersey switch in a game last year, and saying he didn't vote the Trojans No. 1 in the USA Today coaches' preseason poll, only to have the newspaper reveal that he did.
A prodigy who grows up brilliant in one subject and lacking in others is known as an idiot savant. There have been times in Kiffin's career when he seemed bent on proving he was both. At Tennessee, Kiffin's Vols took eventual national champion Alabama to the very last play.
But what he is remembered for is calling out then-Florida coach Urban Meyer for cheating, and for sending the Vols hostesses on a recruiting trip to South Carolina, and for telling recruit Alshon Jeffery that if he went to South Carolina, he would end up pumping gas. (Jeffery went to South Carolina. On Sunday he set a Chicago Bears single-game record with 218 receiving yards.)
Most of all, in Knoxville, Tenn., Kiffin is most remembered for the abrupt way in which he left for USC.
Arriving, stirring things up, and departing suddenly.
The Helicopter grew up in a football family. The coach's office is where Lane's dad, Monte Kiffin, has lived since 1966, when he began coaching at his alma mater, Nebraska. After spending the past four seasons working for his son at Tennessee and USC, Monte, 73, is the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys.
In 2000, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin hired Kiffin, 24, as his defensive quality control coach. Kiffin's counterpart on offense, Garrick McGee, is now the head coach at UAB. He and Kiffin shared an office, their desks facing each other.
"I had to stare at Lane's ugly face every single day we were together," McGee said, laughing. "We were football-aholics, pretty much. We would leave staff meetings and we would come back to our office and go, 'Man, they are so advanced in their thinking.' We would talk about how Tom manages things, and how he uses coaches. We were both football junkies. We were coaches' kids."
In 2001, USC hired Carroll, a Monte Kiffin disciple who had watched Lane grow up. Carroll knew that Lane had a fertile football mind. He threw him together with another young former quarterback, Steve Sarkisian, under the tutelage of legendary offensive coordinator Norm Chow. After four seasons, two of which included national championships, Carroll trusted Kiffin and Sarkisian so much that he shoved Chow aside, telling him he would now coach only quarterbacks. Chow left for the Tennessee Titans.
"They were always trying to get [prospects] in camp, trying to visit NFL teams in the offseason," Slutak said of Kiffin and Sarkisian. "They weren't necessarily studying what other colleges do. They were talking with the NFL guys. I remember numerous times walking in and we weren't watching other colleges' [video]. We were watching NFL teams. Lane was constantly drawing up new plays."
A coach's life can be a hermetic existence, a 100-hour workweek in the caffeine-fueled, testosterone-filled man caves that serve as football buildings. The outside world, if it intrudes at all, exists on a wall-hung TV screen, usually on mute. Assistant coaches live their lives moving from their own small offices to the offensive or defensive staff rooms to the practice field to the training table and back. If they're not there, they're on the road finding players. All ball and all recruiting.
That is not the life of the head coach. The head coach is responsible for finding players and developing them. He must also be the public face of the program. He must talk to the media, whether it's the weekly news conference, the post-practice interrogations, the sports radio call-ins or the TV production meetings.
The college head coach also must keep his boosters informed and content, at least to the point that they don't turn on him. It is not a hermetic existence. It is not, in the strictest sense of the job title, coaching. It is public and it takes away time from what coaches like to do -- recruiting and X's and O's.
The men who worked with Kiffin saw him struggle with it. They didn't see the "guy's guy" who liked to laugh and have a good time. When Kiffin became head coach at Tennessee, he tried to go out for a pop with his coaches. Pulling a ball cap low doesn't hide a head coach in the SEC.
There were things he no longer could do. And there were things he no longer had as much time to do. In front of a whiteboard, Kiffin proved himself wise beyond his years. That's how he became the youngest head coach in the history of the NFL. But those who watched him work at close range say that Kiffin never became comfortable with the retail side of being a head coach at a high-profile college program.
You've got to sign little Johnny's jersey. Some guys get that. Some don't. Some places that undoubtedly matters. Tennessee is one of those places.
--Former Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton
"He was reserved and introverted and shy, more than a lot of people realize," said former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, who hired Kiffin. "He loved the X's and O's. I don't think that part [was a problem]. You've got to sign little Johnny's jersey. Some guys get that. Some don't. Some places that undoubtedly matters. Tennessee is one of those places."
Kiffin felt more comfortable out of the SEC head-coaching fishbowl.
"This is more like an NFL job," he said before the 2010 season at USC. "There's not as much outside football stuff you do here compared to other places, for instance, the SEC. It's just a different environment down there. You do a lot more stuff outside of X's and O's down there, a lot more events. That's always been the beauty of this job, that you can truly focus on football and recruiting."
One of Kiffin's assistant coaches said that Kiffin connected better with recruits than he did with their parents. Another former colleague said that Kiffin was counseled regularly about the importance of engaging the public. His inability to engage the public appeared even greater following in the footsteps of Carroll, one of the most open coaches in American sports.
Carroll treated the public with openness and trust. He didn't worry about whether it would affect his team negatively, perhaps because he knew he had better players. But he also, as a head coach in his 50s who had been fired by both the New England Patriots and the New York Jets, had developed a hide made of elephant skin.
"Pete told me once," said former USC assistant coach Yogi Roth, "'In Boston and New York, they killed me. When I came out here for this job, I was already dead once, so nothing's going to get me.'" Roth worked for Kiffin on Carroll's staff, and wrote a book with Carroll entitled "Win Forever."
Roth is now an analyst for the Pac-12 Network.
"You've got to do some things that Pete did because you had some of that success," Roth said, referring to Kiffin. "You've also got your own way of doing things. There's that balance with everyone involved, from players that are still there, to administration, to alums, to media and on and on and on. That's a tough balance. Most of the time you come into programs and they're a disaster. And your way is change and it's seen as a good thing. … I don't think you come in as strong or as bold if you're following someone who's had so much success."
After going 10-2 in 2011, USC, with four-year starter Barkley at quarterback, became a consensus No. 1. Kiffin, knowing his roster limitations -- he had 71 scholarship players -- fanned the flames of national contention anyway.
"I believe the SC people, if you had 10 scholarship players on your team, they're going to expect to win," Kiffin said before the 2012 season. "Those are the standards here."
The list of coaches who have replaced national championship winners and been successful is noticeably short. Tom Osborne, following Bob Devaney at Nebraska; Les Miles, following Nick Saban at LSU; Erickson, following Jimmy Johnson at Miami. And none of them tried it while saddled with crippling NCAA sanctions. USC, with little depth, ran into injury problems and lost five of its last six games last season.
This year, safety Josh Shaw played three different positions in the 17-14 victory over Utah State. Walk-ons are being plugged into the depth chart, and a school that costs $50,000 per year doesn't skim the cream off the top of the walk-on jug.
"They can all say what they want to say," Erickson said of Kiffin's critics. "You know when you have 56 guys on scholarship when you play your last game, that's pretty difficult. I don't care where you're at."
The laws of football applied to Kiffin, just as they do to every coach. He didn't have the players, and when he didn't have the players, he didn't succeed.
"At the end of the day," said Chaney, the Arkansas assistant, "all the personality and all that crap, that never got him. He just didn't win the damn football games."
Kiffin is a 38-year-old football coach with no hobbies, no outside interests and no job. He is home with his wife, Layla, and their three small children. A couple of his friends said they hope he remains in coaching exile for at least a year, as Carroll did before he went to USC, as Meyer did before he went to Ohio State. The NFL may beat down his door. But his friends believe he is a college coach.
He will get another opportunity. He loves recruiting, and he loves X's and O's. Maybe, next time around, Kiffin will not stir things up. Maybe the Helicopter will be grounded.