Chris Kiffin free of family shadow

Chris Kiffin, Ole Miss defensive line coach and co-recruiting coordinator, is living up to his famous coaching family name in his own way. Mitch Sherman/ESPN.com

OXFORD, Miss. -- The longest hours of Chris Kiffin's coaching life began in January in a hotel room near Mobile, Ala., a week before national signing day, as a deadly outbreak of storms spawned tornadoes in Georgia, floods in Tennessee and wild weather in general from New York to Louisiana.

Kiffin, the 31-year-old defensive line coach and co-recruiting coordinator at Ole Miss, planned to take a private plane to Indianapolis to meet other Rebels coaches for a visit with Elijah Daniel, a heralded defensive end who less than two weeks earlier had delivered a pledge to sign with their program.

The storms ruined Kiffin's flight plan, so he set off to drive five hours across the Deep South to Lake City, Fla., where a crucial visit awaited the next day, Thursday, Jan. 31, with prospect Laremy Tunsil, ESPN's No. 1-rated offensive tackle.

Already frustrated by missing a chance to further impress Daniel, who later spurned Ole Miss for Auburn, Kiffin felt helpless as he monitored the events in Lake City. Alabama had visited Tunsil on Tuesday, and as Kiffin arrived on Wednesday, Georgia had Tunsil's attention.

Coach Mark Richt spent the morning at Tunsil's Columbia High School, then flew out to Atlanta to see running back Alvin Kamara -- who ultimately landed at Alabama -- before planning to return to Lake City for an evening at Tunsil's home. The weather wrecked Richt's travel, too. The Georgia coach never made it back, igniting a celebration of sorts from Kiffin, who was receiving regular updates via Facebook from Tunsil's Ole Miss-friendly girlfriend. They traded hundreds of messages over the fall and winter.

"People can call it what they want -- maybe a little over the top," Kiffin said. "But if I'm recruiting a kid and he tells me that his uncle and his girlfriend are the two most important people in his life, I'm going to reach out and let them know we want to include everyone who's close to that player in our recruiting process." The next morning, with the storm clouds cleared, Kiffin descended upon the high school. The visit went well. Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, offensive line coach Matt Luke and running backs coach Derrick Nix joined them for dinner.

Tunsil committed to Ole Miss during the meal. He signed six days later, a gem in the Rebels' fifth-rated recruiting class that also features defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1-rated prospect in the class, and top-ranked receiver Laquon Treadwell, along with seven other members of the ESPN 300.

Kiffin played a lead role with many of them, notably Tunsil, who had no connection to Ole Miss when the coach initially contacted him a year before the banner class came together.

"Chris did a tremendous job of setting himself apart," Freeze said.

An image of Tunsil remains posted on the wall in Kiffin's office nearly four months later. Around Tunsil's head are the logos of Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama -- his three finalists last winter. It's a reminder to Kiffin of the work he has devoted to recruiting and the rewards for those who work hardest.

Kiffin learned that lesson from his father, longtime coaching icon Monte Kiffin, who preached to his two sons the value of outhustling your opponent. Tunsil's story offers Chris proof of his father's wisdom. "In coaching, you can always outwork the guy next to you," he said. "And that's why recruiting has been our [family's] niche. There's no end to it. It's just really a matter of how badly you want it."

Chris offers a rare mix in the college game -- his youthful exuberance and unending thirst to succeed blended with the seasoned perspective of a veteran coach. Recruiting is his outlet today, but football at large rates as a Kiffin family obsession that covers generations.

It has armed Chris with the tools to emerge in two years at Ole Miss as a force on the cutthroat SEC recruiting battlefields.

Lane Kiffin is 6 years, 8 months older than his brother, yet to Chris, they competed constantly as kids.

Before their father's legendary 13-season run as defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he served two stints with the Minnesota Vikings. There, Lane developed a liking for hockey. According to their mother, Robin, Chris always tried to tag along.

The kid just flailed on the ice as the older boys watched in amusement, but to Chris, it was competition. He wanted to be like Lane.

"There was a time in my life where I had a little bit of jealousy," Chris said.

Aspects of their childhood relationship hold true two decades later. Now married with two children, Chris watches Lane from afar through the eyes of a little brother.

To most observers, including their mother, Lane and Chris are nothing alike. Lane was born six weeks early. He played quarterback at Fresno State. Attention found him as soon as former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis made him the youngest head coach in NFL history at age 31.

From the Raiders to Tennessee and now entering his fourth season as the head coach at USC, Lane remains a lightning rod for controversy.

By contrast, Chris toils in obscurity. After playing defensive tackle at Colorado State, he worked at Idaho, Ole Miss (under Ed Orgeron), Nebraska and USC in support-staff positions before being named Arkansas State's defensive line coach. Freeze gave him his first full-time position as Arkansas State's defensive line coach in 2010.

Lane has banned his mom from interviews, she said; Chris handed this reporter her cell number.

Chris was born late. He always wore a smile as a kid.

"He's flashy and I'm not," Chris said. "But we are completely the same person. It's scary. My mom can't tell us apart on the phone."

She refuses to compare any of her children -- Lane, Chris or the eldest, Heidi.

"I'm going to help [Chris] out and say his personality is very different than mine," Lane said. "He doesn't realize it, but that's what he should be saying."

Regardless, their careers have followed undeniably similar tracks. Same goes for their determination. Their father never pushed his boys into coaching. He told them to choose their own paths, but it was a conversation born out of obligation, Chris said. No one in the household believed they would leave the family business.

A workaholic to all who know him closely, Monte shows no signs of decline. At age 73, he recently became the new defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys. He still takes his laptop to the Kiffins' beach house in Florida. Still watches film, constantly scribbling on notepads.

Lane and Chris grew up around coaches. Herm Edwards, Rod Marinelli, Lovie Smith and Mike Tomlin coached with Monte on Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa.

"The game becomes a part of you," Chris said. "If your dad's a mechanic and you're in the car shop every day, you're just naturally going to know how to fix a car."

Their mother tried to steer them elsewhere.

"They loved animals," she said. "I told them they could be veterinarians. They'd just look at me, then go jump on dad's lap and watch film.

"They all just have a passion for football. There must be a football gene."

Lane married a coach's daughter. Chris actually married a coach, Angela Timmons, an all-conference point guard at Creighton who coached basketball at her alma mater, then at Nebraska before she met Chris in 2008.

Early in their relationship, Chris warned Angela about his family. You can't get away from football around them.

"Five minutes after I met them all, I understood," Angela said.

But here's the thing that makes Angela happy as she watches her husband: That smile is still there.

Chris works crazy hours. His phone buzzes constantly, especially during the key recruiting periods -- nine or 10 months out of the year. Still, she said, he never complains about his job.

"He's lucky," Angela said, "because this is truly what he loves to do."

If you thought the Ole Miss recruiting bonanza of last fall and winter could be explained as a one-year run of good fortune, you haven't met Freeze. Or his defensive line coach, for that matter. Kiffin got a full-time job in the SEC at age 29 because Freeze realized what the young coach could help orchestrate.

"I knew he understood the 12-month recruiting plan," Freeze said.

Their victories began with the 2012 signees. When Freeze was hired in December 2011 and brought Kiffin along from Arkansas State, Ole Miss had only two months to complete the class. Kiffin helped forge relationships with defensive linemen Issac Gross and Channing Ward, both top-50 players in their class.

Yes, both played high school football in Mississippi. And sure, Gross had committed to Houston Nutt's former staff at Ole Miss. But before the Rebels lured them back, Gross and Ward seriously considered Alabama. That's not just any other recruiting foe.

"Coach Kiffin broke it down for me," said Gross, a graduate of national high school power Batesville (Miss.) South Panola. "He told me how he was going to fit me into the scheme. He's just a great person to be around. He made me a believer. I stayed here because I wanted to follow him."

After signing day 2012, Kiffin got right to work on the 2013 class. He made initial contact over social media with about 200 elite players.

He had to search for some connections, like Treadwell's friendship with 2012 Ole Miss signee Anthony Standifer, while others were obvious. Nkemdiche's brother, Denzel, plays linebacker for the Rebels. Antonio Conner, the No. 2-rated safety, attended South Panola, 25 miles from campus.

About 100 prospects stayed in touch. Kiffin felt strongly enough to visit about 50 during the April and May evaluation period. Several, including Tunsil, displayed real interest.

From there, Kiffin was relentless, evoking memories of his father, who told him stories of staking out the home of a running back prospect for 48 hours as a college assistant in the 1970s.

"Once you get so far in, there's no pulling back," Kiffin said. "With Laremy, I took every opportunity that the NCAA allowed to go see him."

Kiffin traveled to one of Tunsil's road games, some 50 miles outside of Lake City, last fall. It was a blowout, and Tunsil sat the whole second half. Kiffin couldn't talk to Tunsil that night, but the coach stayed to watch every play. He wanted the player and his family to see that he wouldn't leave early. That he doesn't cut corners. That Ole Miss would be there for him.

When Nkemdiche initially committed to Clemson in June 2012, Kiffin took it hard. The Rebels stayed persistent, though. Kiffin and Wesley McGriff, who left Ole Miss for the New Orleans Saints in February, won over Nkemdiche's mother, Beverly. Nkemdiche decommitted in November. By January, he was committed and doing his own recruiting for the Rebels.

"I knew we'd get in the [recruiting] game because of the way we do things," Freeze said. "I wasn't sure if we could close. It's new here, but [Kiffin] didn't waver from our plan. And it paid dividends."

Ole Miss also signed three of the top 100 junior college players in the 2013 class, including defensive tackle Lavon Hooks, the No. 1-rated juco prospect. Want to guess who recruited him?

"He told me that we can do anything that anybody out there in college football can," Hooks said of Kiffin. "You don't have to go to LSU or Alabama. We can do it at Ole Miss. It's going to happen here."

It's such a random story, Angela Kiffin said. Insignificant, really. But Chris' mother remembers every detail.

Last year before Christmas, Chris shopped for gifts for Angela and their daughters, Grace, 3, and Taylor, 2. He bought different wrapping paper for each and shut himself in an upstairs room at their home for about two hours to make everything look right.

Chris, it seems, has found a balance between the old-school Kiffin coaching life and the responsibilities of a father and husband.

"He's not just a grinder," Freeze said. "He has a little different perspective."

Years ago, Chris said, he and Lane both stated it a goal to become the youngest head coach in NFL history. Chris, today the same age as Lane was when he snagged that distinction from Jon Gruden, has adopted a new aspiration.

"There's still so much for me to learn," Chris said. "I want to be a great position coach before I take that next step."

He's happy with his position.

"That's a product of him maturing," Lane said. "He's in a great place."

Chris wants to climb the ladder. He wants to be a head coach. For now, he's thrilled to trade the fast lane of NFL coaching for a moment like Jan. 31 in Lake City, Fla., when a year of work paid off with a win over the big boys of the SEC.

In early July, Kiffins from Texas, California and Mississippi are set to meet at the Florida beach house to swim and relax. Let's face it, they'll watch film, too, and talk of an even bigger moment on tap three months later.

Angela is due Oct. 6, one day after the Rebels play at Auburn. It's a boy -- Monte and Robin's third grandson.

Will he arrive early or late? Like Lane or like Chris?

It doesn't matter. Angela said she's never seen Chris so happy.

"I told him I'd introduce him to his son when he's 4 months old," Angela said. "After signing day."