Would a Power Five school hire Lane Kiffin? ADs weigh in on 'high-risk, high-reward' coach

Close your eyes and let your mind wander for a second. It’s early November of 2019, and LSU is taking the field to play Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Clad in a purple visor and wearing his perpetual smirk, first-year LSU coach Lane Kiffin runs the Tigers out of the tunnel.

Can you imagine the reaction? Can you fathom the hype?

Yes, that’s the ultimate chaos scenario of the coaching carousel in 2018 – LSU implodes on the field, finally cleans house in administration and pulls the trigger on the most fascinating, maddening and captivating figure in college football. Will it happen? Likely not.

Down below, we rank the top 15 Group of Five coaches who could well be on their way to bigger and better jobs this season. Memphis’ Mike Norvell, Toledo’s Jason Candle and Boise State’s Bryan Harsin are the top three coaches on the list.

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Kiffin is more qualified than all of them, of course. He’s been the head coach at Tennessee, the Oakland Raiders and USC and proved as effective as he was combustible as the offensive coordinator at Alabama. So what is Kiffin’s reality as we enter the 2018 coaching carousel?

Yahoo Sports polled 15 athletic directors to get their anonymous take on whether they’d consider hiring Lane Kiffin. The results were intriguing – two “Yes” votes, two “Maybe” votes and 11 “No” votes. (A few of the “No” votes were accompanied by multiple exclamation points. One AD even added a zebra emoticon to accentuate his point: “Stripes are on the zebra.”)

One source in the college sports industry summed up Kiffin’s reality this way: “Can he get a job? Sure. He’s a world-class play caller, knows the game and can recruit. Do I think we’re at a moment in time with off-field issues and the FBI probe that people are less apt to take that risk? Yes.”

Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin gestures from the sidelines during an game against Wisconsin in 2017. (AP)
Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin gestures from the sidelines during an game against Wisconsin in 2017. (AP)

A few things are abundantly clear about Kiffin’s tenure at FAU so far. The first is that he made the right decision by taking a pay cut, leaving Alabama and doubling down on himself at a tradition-devoid Conference USA school. The second is that he’s a promising on-field coach, as Kiffin, 43, is the same age as many of the coaches below looking to crack into the Power Five. Kiffin went 11-3 in his first year at FAU, flipping a 3-9 program into a conference title winner. FAU broke 45 school records and rides a 10-game win streak into this season. If his name weren’t Lane Kiffin he’d be the hottest young coach in college football.

There’s a but. With Kiffin, there’s always a but. He still remains college football’s most infamous drama major – needling Nick Saban on Twitter, going for a two-point conversion up 31 in a bowl game and saying basically everything that enters his mind. There’s a reason a flurry of major college jobs opened last year – Texas A&M, Oregon, UCLA, Mississippi State, Florida, Nebraska, Arkansas and Tennessee among them – and Kiffin drew little interest.

Kiffin has said he has no plans of changing, and that’s partially understandable because FAU really doesn’t want him to. FAU president John Kelly enjoys the attention Kiffin has brought the school, as ESPN reported a 35 percent increase in out-of-state applications. For FAU, any publicity has been good publicity.

Could this act fly elsewhere? Many athletic directors said that it depended on the situation, and their divisive responses crystalized the fascination and scorn, intrigue and polarization that accompanies Kiffin. The most fitting quote came from an athletic director who said he’d consider Kiffin, but only after considerable research: “High risk, high reward.”

One prominent athletic director said some of Kiffin’s reputational overhaul has worked: “I do think he’s rehabilitated his image, so to speak, and is an attractive candidate should he have a great year this year and keep his nose clean.”

But plenty disagreed with that notion.

Said one AD: “I don’t need to invite drama.”

Said a second: “Not a chance. Too much smoke/drama around him. And he’ll probably think he’s Vince Lombardi if he wins another season.”

Said a third: “Not if it’s the same immature Lane. I have no idea if he’s grown up and is ready to be a leader of all things of a program, not just a coordinator and play caller.”

Kiffin’s latest effort at an image rehab came in an essay he wrote recently, the title of which left the industry snickering: “It’s not about me.”

Ranking Group of Five coaches on the rise

1. Mike Norvell, Memphis – Norvell, 36, is the best candidate to become this year’s version of Tom Herman (circa 2016) or Scott Frost, who used the American Athletic Conference as a trampoline to high-end jobs at Texas and Nebraska. Norvell’s got the dynamic offensive background, quarterback expertise and engaging personality to work anywhere from coast to coast. After going 18-8 in two seasons, he can be picky.

2. Jason Candle, Toledo – By winning Toledo’s first MAC title since the 2004 season, Candle improved to 21-7 and set himself up for the next step. He’s provided a distinct uptick in the program since taking over for Matt Campbell, who went to Iowa State. Campbell’s success there only brightens Candle’s prospects, as they come from the Mount Union tree. A home game at Miami on Sept. 15 is a marquee opportunity for a signature victory.

3. Bryan Harsin, Boise State – Harsin’s ability to be picky keeps him lower on this list than his results would indicate (42-12) would indicate. Not sure there’s anything out West that would intrigue Harsin in this cycle. Think Arizona State won’t regret make a big run at Harsin instead of hiring Herm Edwards? He’s a Boise alum and will remain judicious as he holds the best Mountain West job.

Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin walks on the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin walks on the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

4. Lane Kiffin, FAU – (See above).

5. Neal Brown, Troy – He has separated himself – for now, anyway – from the other cluster of successful Sun Belt coaches with the axis-shifting victory at LSU last season. Texas Tech could take a long look if they part ways with Kliff Kingsbury, as Brown is a former Red Raiders assistant. His offensive acumen, disarming personality and a 21-5 record the past two years combine for an attractive package for athletic directors.

6. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy – One of the most overqualified coaches on this list. Niumatalolo’s unconventional scheme and high salary – nearly $3 million with bonuses – has made him difficult to move. Arizona and Cal had significant interest, as did BYU three seasons ago. He’d be a dynamite fit at Kansas, but would he rather stay?

7. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State – Losses to UMass and Louisiana-Monroe marred last season, but Satterfield finished by blowing out Toledo in a bowl, the second consecutive postseason victory over the Rockets. He’s 30-9 the past three seasons, and there’s a big showcase at Penn State in Week 1. (Appalachian State had close calls against Tennessee and Wake Forest the past two years.)

8. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State – There’s a Sun Belt championship game this season, which should help separate the three coaches – Brown, Satterfield and Anderson – who have been clustered at the top of the league the past few years. Anderson has the best team on paper this season, led by dynamic quarterback Justice Hansen, who is an Oklahoma transfer and returning Sun Belt player of the year. Anderson took over a roster with 54 players and has deftly rebuilt it. Don’t be surprised if the Red Wolves win the first-ever Sun Belt championship.

9. Seth Littrell, North Texas – A pair of blowout losses to FAU and another to Troy in the bowl marred a season of progress for the Mean Green. Littrell went 9-5 and returns 17 starters from his C-USA West Division title-winning team. Fits the mold of an innovative young offensive coach. His issue will be that a majority of his competition comes from a similar paradigm. He came to UNT from North Carolina, which has certainly missed him. Worth noting he worked at Texas Tech from 2005-08.

10. Willie Fritz, Tulane – With both Kansas and Kansas State potentially open, Fritz will be a hot name because of deep ties in that part of the world. Still needs to get Tulane to a bowl game to cap his rebuild there, but his more than 200 career wins shows he can win anywhere, in a multitude of ways. Chance to gain some early buzz with a Thursday opener against Wake Forest. Fritz is 58, but his energy and demeanor suggest he’s got one run left in him.

11. Charlie Strong, USF – His 10-2 debut season was largely credited to former USF coach Willie Taggart, who left behind quarterback Quinton Flowers and a loaded roster. Strong’s flop at Texas has overshadowed his 37-15 tenure at Louisville, which included a Sugar Bowl victory. Does Strong, 58, have one more move in him? Or does he lock in at USF for a long run?

12. Geoff Collins, Temple – Collins has done a masterful job drawing attention to the program. From his team running the Rocky Steps to taking players on a trip to Japan to hiring a SWAG coordinator, Collins has found a knack for innovative ways to promote his program. Temple went 7-6 in his debut season, and if the results begin to rival the creativity he’ll have a chance to move up. Strong pedigree having worked for Nick Saban, Dan Mullen and George O’Leary.

13. Bill Clark, UAB – He rebuilt the UAB football program from scratch and they returned to the field with an 8-5 record in 2017. The best news? Clark and UAB’s feel-good story should continue this season with 17 returning starters and a more manageable schedule. Hard to imagine many coaches thriving in Clark’s situation.

14. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State – He reappeared on a college sideline as a head coach for the first time since 2012 and led Fresno State to a 10-4 record. Fresno had wins over Boise State, BYU and San Diego State to announce their return to relevancy in the Mountain West. Kind of felt like the mid-2000s for Tedford during his glory days at Cal. Does Tedford, 56, have the desire to leave his alma mater for a Power Five gig?

15. Mike Bobo, Colorado State – He’s been a model of consistency at 7-6 in each of his three seasons at Colorado State. There’s an argument CSU should be better, as it’s one of the best jobs in the league. Bobo’s name has resonance in SEC circles. To get there, he’ll need a breakout season and a better performance in the league.

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