Lane Kiffin coaching timeline: Tracking career path from USC through Alabama to Ole Miss

As far as coaching careers go, few can mark the highest highs and lowest lows experienced by Lane Kiffin.

The current head man at Ole Miss, Kiffin boasts a resume that includes stops at some of football’s premier programs in both college football and the NFL. But, while he earned those coaching opportunities, there is a reason he has so many to his name: Nearly everyone of his stints has concluded in controversy, from his first head coaching job with the Raiders to his time as offensive coordinator at Alabama.

But to suggest Kiffin is anything less than a gifted recruiter and brilliant offensive mind would be a falsehood. And despite his struggles as a head coach across several jobs, he does have winning records at Tennessee, USC and Florida Atlantic — not including his current stint with the Rebels.

Kiffin, 46, has a ways yet to go in his coaching career. He has seemingly matured more over the years, particularly during and after his three-year stop at Alabama. Yet he has never lost the personality — off the field, anyway — that makes him an attractive coach for players and potential recruits. He’s just as quick to drop an emoji or “rat poison” quip on social media as he is to dial up an audible that results in a touchdown.

With that, Sporting News takes a look at Kiffin’s winding coaching career, which started on the West Coast in the NFL and has ended up, for now, in Oxford, Miss.:

Raiders and the NFL

Seasons coached: 2007-08
Final record: 5-15

The late Al Davis hired Kiffin, then 31, to be the head coach of the Raiders on Jan. 23, 2007. The move made Kiffin, most recently USC’s passing game coordinator and offensive coordinator, the youngest head coach in NFL history since the start of its modern era in 1946. It also made him the youngest coach in Raiders history, as he was a year younger than John Madden (32) was when he was promoted to the position in 1969. Kiffin signed a two-year contract worth $4 million, with a team option in 2009.

Kiffin’s stint in Oakland was marred from the beginning: According to multiple reports, he opposed the Raiders selecting LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell No. 1 overall, which Davis ignored. After starting the season 0-2, Kiffin won his first game as a head coach on Sept. 23, 2007, beating the Browns 26-24 after a late blocked field goal. He followed up with a 35-17 win over Miami the following week before losing his next six straight. He won two more games in Weeks 12 and 13 against the Broncos and Chiefs, respectively, but finished his season with four straight losses to go 4-12 in Year 1.

ESPN reported in January 2008 that Davis tried to force Kiffin to resign after the 2007 season, which would have voided his $2 million salary for the ensuing season. The Raiders denied the story, and Kiffin refused to comment on it. On Sept. 30, 2008, Davis fired Kiffin following a 1-3 start to the season. He called the coach “a flat-out liar” and said he was guilty of “bringing disgrace to the organization”. The Raiders also stated his firing was made for cause, meaning they were off the hook for paying the remainder of his salary. Among the evidence the Raiders presented against Kiffin was a letter claiming he was on the verge of being fired for conduct detrimental to the team.

Kiffin filed a grievance against Oakland, saying he was fired without cause; a third-party arbitrator, however, ruled in the Raiders’ favor. With that, Kiffin finished his first coaching job with a 5-15 record and over a season and change.

Tennessee

Seasons coached: 2009
Final record: 7-6

Kiffin was introduced as Tennessee’s head coach on Dec. 1, 2008, making him the youngest coach in the FBS at 33 years old. He coached the team to a 7-6 record — an improvement from the previous year’s mark of 5-7 — and increased the team’s offensive output from 372.5 yards and 27.8 per game in 2008 to 401.5 yards and 32.5 points per game in 2009. He earned one ranked victory over No. 21 South Carolina, winning 31-13, and coached the Volunteers to a narrow 12-10 defeat against top-ranked Alabama, which needed two blocked field goals to win the game.

That said, Kiffin’s tenure was still marked by controversy, including a mistaken accusation against then-Florida coach Urban Meyer that he called a recruit while on Tennessee’s campus. Kiffin made the accusation in front of a crowd, inadvertently breaking an NCAA rule that prohibited him from speaking publicly about recruits. He was reprimanded by the SEC and forced to release a statement of apology.

Following a 37-14 loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Kiffin left his team in the middle of the 2010 recruiting season to take over his dream job at USC following Pete Carroll’s departure to the Seattle Seahawks. Adding to the bad blood between Kiffin and Tennessee was the fact he tried to take midterm enrollees with him to USC.

On the night he read a statement announcing he would leave Knoxville for Los Angeles, Kiffin was forced to barricade himself in his office until police escorted him home at 4 a.m. Fans and students started several small fires over Kiffin’s decision, even blocking exits from the Neyland Thompson Sports Center.

USC

Seasons coached: 2010-13
Final record: 28-15

Kiffin took over the Trojans program — whom he had coached under Carroll from 2001 through 2006, including national championship seasons in 2003 and ’04 — on Jan. 12, 2010. Six months later, the NCAA cited USC for a lack of institutional control under Carroll, levying a two-year postseason ban and loss of 30 scholarships over three seasons.

Kiffin led the Trojans to an 8-5 record in 2010 with only 71 scholarship players. The following season, he coached them to a 10-2 record. Due to their postseason ban, however, they were still ineligible to play in the Pac-10 championship game despite having the South Division’s best record by far. The 2012 season was considerably less successful for Kiffin, who led the Trojans to a 7-6 record despite being ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 and Coaches Poll to start the season.

Regarding the Coaches Poll that year: The 2012 season was the first year in which Kiffin was eligible to vote, though he quickly resigned that right after selecting his team as the nation’s preseason No. 1 team. The issue was not how he had voted, but that he claimed “I would not vote USC No. 1, I can tell you that much” when informed Rich Rodriguez of Arizona had voted them atop his poll.USA Today revealed that Kiffin had, in fact, done just that.

Regardless, his team finished unranked at the end of the year, marking the first time since USC in 1963 that a team started the season ranked No. 1 but finished outside the top 25.

Kiffin only lasted five games into the 2013 season, coaching his team — which ultimately finished 10-4 — to a 3-2 start to the season. That included an 0-2 start in Pac-12 play. The final straw was a 61-42 loss to Arizona State that gave Kiffin a 4-7 record in his last 11 games. Once his team returned home from Tempe, Ariz., Kiffin was pulled off the team bus at Los Angeles International Airport at 3 a.m. on Sept. 28. He was taken to a small room in the terminal and informed by athletic director Pat Haden that he had been fired.

Alabama

Seasons coached: 2014-16
Final record: N/A

Following his exit from USC, Kiffin spent a week in Tuscaloosa in December reviewing Nick Saban’s offense. He ultimately replaced Doug Nussmeier as the team’s offensive coordinator in January 2014, creating an offensive renaissance in Tuscaloosa.

Though Kiffin’s arrival did not mark a significant increase in scoring or offensive output from 2013 to 2014, he did help implement a more open, faster-paced offense that the Crimson Tide continue to use. Under Kiffin’s tutelage, Alabama produced a Biletnikoff Award in Amari Cooper (2014), Heisman Trophy and Doak Walker Award winner (Derrick Henry) and the SEC Offensive Player of the Year (2016). He also helped coach the Crimson Tide to a national championship in 2015, his first since USC’s second of two titles in 2004.

Kiffin’s stint at Alabama wasn’t free of controversy, either. In a Week 2 win over Western Kentucky, Kiffin was the object of Saban’s disapproval after the offense fumbled the ball, leading to a late Hilltoppers score. Saban — who called it an “ass-chewing” after the game — reportedly reacted to Kiffiin saying, “dumb players make dumb plays.”

Later in the season, Kiffin agreed to become the next head coach at Florida Atlantic, pledging to remain with Alabama through the College Football Playoff. Following a 24-7 victory over Washington in the semifinal, however, Saban relieved Kiffin of his duties, though he said the decision was mutual. The Crimson Tide would use Kiffin’s former co-offensive coordinator at USC, Steve Sarkisian, to call plays against Clemson in the national championship game.

Alabama lost its first game of the season, 35-31.

FAU

Seasons coached: 2017-19
Final record: 26-13

Florida Atlantic was the first coaching stop of Kiffin’s that did not end in significant controversy. After starting his first season in 2017 with a 1-3 record, Kiffin’s Owls reeled off 10 straight wins to go 11-3, winning the Conference USA title. Kiffin led the program not only to its second-ever conference championship (the first was in 2007), but also a school-record 11 wins. It was the first season of 10 wins or more in the school’s history.

The team took a significant dip in 2018, going 5-7, before Kiffin led the team to a 10-3 record and conference championship again in 2019. Following his team’s victory over UAB in the conference championship game, however, Ole Miss announced Kiffin would take over the Rebels program. Kiffin did not coach the team in its Boca Raton Bowl victory over SMU.

Ole Miss

Seasons coached: 2020-present

Following the Owls’ win over UAB in the 2019 Conference USA championship game, Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter confirmed Kiffin would be the team’s next head coach. His team went 5-5 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, but featured close losses to No. 5 Florida (35-31) and No. 1 Alabama (63-38) and a 26-20 win over No. 11 Indiana in the Outback Bowl.

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