BOCA RATON, Fla. — Lane Kiffin never definitively said what his expectation was for his first season at Florida Atlantic, though one thing is absolutely certain.
He did not expect this.
FAU is already 7-3, with six wins in a row. And that unexpected twist to this college football season is one that the Owls’ visor-wearing, sub-tweeting, swashbuckler of a coach is most definitely savoring.
“Who would have thought that we’d be sitting here at this time of year and have more wins than Florida and Florida State combined?” Kiffin said Monday. “That’s pretty neat.”
It might not seem so neat in Tallahassee and Gainesville, where the wheels came off the Seminoles’ and Gators’ seasons long ago. And it’s not apples-to-apples when comparing those three teams — Conference USA has talent, but no one would mistake it for the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Southeastern Conference.
The Owls are thrilled anyway, rightly so when considering they won a total of nine games in the last three seasons and may exceed that in Year 1 of the Kiffin Era.
“Coach Kiffin has done a really nice job there,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said.
He absolutely has, and will surely be linked to plenty of job openings at bigger schools after this season. FAU is already assured of its first bowl trip since 2008, can clinch the right to host the C-USA title game if it beats Florida International — another turnaround story of 2017 that’s also led by a big-name new coach in Butch Davis — on Saturday, and might even get the chance to play a bowl game in its own stadium.
“You need to enjoy it. This is not a normal story,” Kiffin said. “You don’t go from three three-win seasons and the media, no one picked us to win the conference let alone even the division. We’re in the middle of a really unique story and we need to keep it going.”
ESPN’s “College GameDay” franchise went to Coral Gables, Florida last weekend, broadcasting from Miami’s campus before the Hurricanes rolled past Notre Dame and vaulted to No. 2 in the Top 25.
But even on that stage, Kiffin became a story.
There were huge cutouts of Kiffin’s head, his eyes peering over the top of dark sunglasses. There were signs with what’s become Kiffin’s catch phrase du jour on Twitter, the “(hashtag)cometothefaU” slogan that’s a less-than-subtle nod toward The U — Miami’s moniker. There even was a banner plane circling the campus bearing the words “Come To FAU.”
“I think it’s great,” said Kiffin, who thinks someone at FAU — though he wouldn’t say for certain — hired that plane.
It’s so obvious that he’s having fun right now. FAU was facing fourth-and-1 at its own 21-yard line last weekend, on the first possession of the game at Louisiana Tech. Most coaches would automatically punt the ball away in that situation, not wanting to risk giving an opponent such great field position in the opening minutes of a scoreless game.
Kiffin called a run, got the first down, and the Owls would go on to post an easy 48-23 win.
“Every minute and every yard line is broken down in this book that we use,” Kiffin said. “It’s all based off percentages and not just in general but for your team that game. Fourth and one, you’re supposed to go back there. Now, 99 percent of the coaches don’t do it because if it doesn’t work then you guys rip us in the media. That’s the easy way out.”
The easy way out is not Kiffin’s style.
FAU isn’t Alabama, or Tennessee, or USC, or the Oakland Raiders — his past four coaching stops. That doesn’t mean he wants to win any less, but he has learned to appreciate what’s happening a bit more now than he has anywhere else.
“This team, it’s a special deal,” Kiffin said. “I’ve been through these, you know, and I didn’t really enjoy them because I was always like, ‘OK, what’s the next game’ and winning and are we slotted to go to the national championship and looking at the outcome rather than enjoying the process.”