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For three years, Lane Kiffin accepted the sideline humiliations and the long hours demanded by Alabama coach Nick Saban because he believed it would be his ticket back to the big time.

It was supposed to be a well-paid rehabilitation stint for the former Southern California coach, whose boy-wonder reputation was left in tatters midway through the 2013 season when Pat Haden fired him on the tarmac after the Trojans returned from a 62-41 loss at Arizona State. Kiffin, with a national title under his belt and his offensive acumen celebrated again, would ride the Alabama wave right into another top-level head coaching job and reclaim a career that once seemed headed toward superstardom.

Instead, Kiffin on Monday agreed to become the head coach at Florida Atlantic, a fledgling football program that plays in the Conference USA, won 19 games over the last six seasons and whose entire athletics department budget for this year was projected to be $27.1 million.

For someone who has been a head coach in the NFL and at two elite college programs before 40, taking the FAU job is tantamount to starting over.

But it's also representative of how skeptically Kiffin was viewed by college administrators and search firms, as dozens of jobs came open and were filled without seriously considering him.

Kiffin did remarkable things in three years at Alabama, turning Blake Sims into a top-level quarterback, designing an offense that helped Derrick Henry win the Heisman Trophy last season and tweaking it again this season to fit the skill set of true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts.

All the while, he has helped modernize Saban's offensive approach and put up big numbers, transforming Alabama into the kind of team that could win a 45-40 shootout against Clemson in last season's national title game.

Still, as Kiffin's three-year contract with Alabama was on the verge of running out, it was clear he wouldn't be back in Tuscaloosa. The relationship with Saban had run its course, and the only question was whether he would end up joining Ed Orgeron's new staff at LSU or find a head coaching job.

But the offers never came, and Kiffin grew more desperate to get another chance, according to multiple people within the coaching search industry who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity so they could be candid about their opinions of him.

Though Kiffin frequently exaggerated other programs' interest in him to those inside the football facility at Alabama, he only came close to getting one job -- Houston, which had him as a finalist but chose Major Applewhite instead -- before landing at Florida Atlantic.

As it turned out, Kiffin's cavalier attitude toward pushing boundaries in his one year at Tennessee, the train wreck ending at Southern Cal and questions about his personal maturity (his divorce this year didn't help matters) had all conspired to leave such a negative impression on the industry that administrators largely shied away.

Though Kiffin's name was brought up for multiple jobs across the last three years, nearly all of it was speculation and smoke rather than genuine interest in him.

One person with knowledge of the matter, who had investigated Kiffin for a job, said reference calls to people who worked at USC and Tennessee basically rendered him unhirable.

Kiffin needed someone to take a chance on him, and for a program such as Florida Atlantic that has struggled to get going, it might be a good bet. Kiffin will recruit well in South Florida, bring national attention to the school and draw eyeballs to the Conference USA.

If he wins and maintains a low level of drama, Kiffin is young enough at 41 that he might be back at a Power Five program in a few years.

While FAU is betting on him, Kiffin is wagering on himself. He could have made well over $1 million at LSU and further enhanced his coordinator bona fides, particularly if he could knock off Alabama.

But he wanted to be a head coach, and as the coaching carousel for this year comes to a close, taking a pay cut to go to Florida Atlantic was the best he could do.

We'll see in a few years if bigger programs that could have bought low on Kiffin missed the boat or whether their skepticism was well-deserved.

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December 13, 2016


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