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Kiffin & Day: two very similar career paths, with two very different outcomes

Lane Kiffin says he went through his coaching career “backwards”

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Florida Atlantic Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Only a few more sleeps until Ryan Day, Justin Fields, and the rest of the Buckeye gang face Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic Owls in Ohio Stadium.

While Ohio State and FAU have no precedent, Kiffin is certainly no stranger to the Buckeyes— he was Alabama’s offensive coordinator when Ohio State beat the Crimson Tide in 2015, remember that?

Kiffin, who is coming off of a 5-7 season with the Owls — his worst season as a head coach— likely won’t beat the Buckeyes on Saturday — and he knows it. During an interview on the Andy Slater show, when asked what the benefit is to playing Ohio State, Kiffin answered “Uhhh, money”.

The 44-year-old Owl’s head coach is known to be outspoken, so his blunt answer comes as no surprise. However, despite his pessimism toward Saturday’s season opener, he’s also on record saying that he wants to gain credibility in Conference USA and to put FAU on the map for southern recruits. In other words, don’t expect Kiffin to back down just because the odds are against him. He still has something to prove.

Speaking of having something to prove, Ryan Day isn’t exactly out of the woods in the credibility department, himself. The Buckeye head coach actually happens to have quite a bit in common with Kiffin.

Both coaches played quarterback in college. Both coaches are on their 11th coaching job. Both have coached in the NFL — Kiffin was head coach for the Oakland Raiders and Day ran the offense for the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. The most recent similarity— and arguably the most significant — is that, prior to being named head coach of their respective programs, both guys were offensive coordinators/quarterback coaches for Power 5 schools. Kiffin ran the offense for Alabama from 2014-2016 and Day has been with the offense at Ohio State since 2017.

Not only that, but both men are truly great at what they do. Kiffin was a finalist for the 2014 Broyles Award — given annually to the nation’s top college football assistant coach. His first year with the Owls, he went 11-3, brought home a conference championship, and beat Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl.

With Day in charge of the offense in 2018, Ohio State ranked second nationally in total offense and passing yards, and No. 8 in scoring. He also went 3-0 as interim head coach when he was asked to step in during Urban Meyer’s suspension last season.

So, with fairly similar experience and noteworthy accomplishments, how are they each in two very different corners of the college football world? Day has worked his way up the ranks of a Big Ten power house, while Kiffin is in charge of a Conference USA team, readily admitting he’s only benefitting from playing OSU because of the $1.4 million payout.

In fact, Kiffin has more — a lot more — head coaching experience than Day, who has, well, three games-worth. Kiffin has been head coach of the Raiders (2007-2008), Tennessee (2009), and USC (2010-2013) before he was hired by FAU in 2017.

During an interview on ESPN’s “Get UP,” Kiffin said that he’s had to adjust to being out of the spotlight that comes with coaching in the Power 5. He said there was a certain passion and excitement that Alabama and Tennessee fans brought, but in South Florida, no one even knows who he is. Not only that, his head coaching job at FAU is a $445,000 annual pay cut from his assistant coaching salary at Alabama.

All of this to beg the question: how did he end up at FAU?

Kiffin hinted as to why during in an interview with The Ringer, saying that he just did things backwards. Instead of making his mistakes off the radar — like maybe Day did as an assistant coach at Boston College and Temple — he made all of his on the big stage. He was (dramatically) fired from Oakland, left Tennessee after one year — leaving disappointed Vols fans rioting the streets. He was fired from USC, which was his “dream job,” and then was able to land on his feet under Saban at Alabama.

Then, when offered a head coaching job at FAU, he took it.

So, although it was “backwards,” you can’t really blame the guy for finding the lower profile position appealing. Day’s path, however, has been a little more “conventional” compared to Kiffin’s. He got his start at schools like New Hampshire (where he played quarterback), Boston College, and Temple before moving onto the NFL and ultimately to Ohio State. He’s never been fired from a team, he’s not exactly as opinionated as Kiffin, and he’s hardly ever in the media until recently when he was given his first head coaching position.

Granted, Day’s path is also different in that the head coach he was under happened to retire while he was the team’s primary play-caller. But, let’s say Urban Meyer hadn’t retired, and FAU, coming off of three straight 3-9 seasons, called Day with an offer that paid significantly less than his current position. Do you think that he would have taken that? Even if it was a head coaching job?

Kiffin sure did, and be that as it may, he said that the atmosphere and the player’s appreciation at FAU makes — what some might call a downgrade — worth it. He’s even agreed to a deal that keeps him in Boca Raton through the 2027 season.

“When I was caught up in trying to chase bigger and better jobs,” Kiffin told Jordan Ritter Conn of The Ringer, “I never really stopped and enjoyed the moment or the process. I would never savor it.”

So, maybe Kiffin was tired of being in the spotlight that powerhouse teams bring, maybe he needed to reset his career, or maybe he simply just wanted to be a head coach again, wherever that might take him.

Either way, it makes you wonder what’s in store for Ryan Day, who is four years younger than Kiffin, and is just now making his debut on what Kiffin calls “the big stage.” Hopefully, if Kiffin’s theory stands true, all of Day’s coaching mistakes are well behind him.