Kiffin's Coaching Desire Runs Deep

Minnesota native Lane Kiffin was a candidate for the University of Minnesota's head coaching job, but, while he didn't get that job, he leapfrogged to become the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Kiffin talked about his thirst for coaching knowledge growing up and interviewing with Al Davis.

As the Oakland Raiders invade the Metrodome Sunday, they bring with them many similarities that the Vikings have. Both teams appear to be on the outside looking in at the playoffs barring a miraculous second-half turnaround and both are under a new coaching regime that is trying to make its stamp on the future of their respective franchises.

But as Raiders coach Lane Kiffin makes his first trip to the Metrodome as a head coach, it isn't the first time he's been on the sidelines at the Metrodome. As the son of former Vikings defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Lane was a Vikings ball boy who spent his teenage years as a fixture at Winter Park and at Vikings games.

While most kids with football aspirations dream of being the star quarterback or top-notch defender, Kiffin wanted to following in his dad's footsteps and knew early on the coaching was in his blood.

"(I was) probably 9 or 10 years old and I just remember watching Monday Night Football with my dad and there would be Tom Landry and you're just watching the sidelines," Kiffin said. "It was intriguing to me. I knew it was something I wanted to do. I was always, when I was at the offices, I was always just trying to get into meetings as I was growing up. A lot of them were at the Vikings there, all the way back to Bob Schnelker or Jack Burns, guys that were there, that you just try to sneak into meetings and see what you can learn and just hang around as much as you can. Then all of the training camps that I was at were extremely valuable. I know today that still helps me because you have such a feel for that locker room, being around it where maybe other ballboys were just getting autographs or something. You listen to the players and you listen to how they respond to certain styles of coaching and what motivated them. All of that stuff I think together just really, really helped me a lot in managing players."

Kiffin's return to Minnesota may well have come earlier this year. A candidate for the University of Minnesota head coaching job after a successful stint as an assistant at Southern California, Kiffin was hoping to springboard his coaching career as a head coach back in an area he was very familiar with and felt comfortable being a part of. The University of Minnesota would go with a different coach, hiring Tim Brewster. At the time, Kiffin was disappointed, but considering what has happened to his career since, he has no regrets.

"Actually I am glad (I didn't get the U of M job)," Kiffin said. "I was very interested and had spent a day in the interview process there with three guys, the athletic director and two of the assistants and felt it was a good interview, and obviously they decided to go a different direction. I think the university is a great place and I think it's a great job and I'm sure they'll turn it around and get back to winning. My thought on the whole thing was, you know stories all of the time, Wisconsin was down for a while and look what happened with Wisconsin, and Iowa. I don't think that Wisconsin and Iowa have anything on the University of Minnesota. I'm sure they'll get it back rolling, and (athletic director) Joel (Maturi) is first class and it was a good opportunity to spend time with him."

Kiffin didn't take his not being selected personally. He already had himself a good job at USC and that's not a bad fall-back plan by any stretch of the imagination. While a bit disappointed, he viewed the process as a learning experience and prepared to go back to work with the Trojans – although he was wondering what, if anything, he had done wrong that didn't make the right impression on Maturi.

"I take it as it wasn't meant to be," Kiffin said of the Minnesota job. "For whatever reason, Joel (decided) to go in a different direction. From my (perspective), I thought it was a good fit and really had a strong belief in things that could get done there and the direction that Joel was going. But it is what it is, and actually that's why I didn't get upset because I think things are meant to be and fortunately it worked out extremely well for me."

Just as Kiffin had acclimated himself to continuing his career at USC, another job opened up. This time it was the head coaching position for the Raiders. Art Shell had been brought back from the coaching retirement home – complete with an assistant pulled out of a West Coast bed and breakfast. It was clear that he wasn't the answer and owner Al Davis was searching for a replacement. Initially, the candidate under scrutiny was USC assistant coach Steve Sarkisian. Kiffin came along to meet with Raiders officials in hopes of being asked to serve as an assistant under Sarkisian if he was hired. That would quickly change.

"I came up with Steve," Kiffin said. "I don't think I would have come with Steve, but I came up with him in the interview process and met with Al (Davis) as potentially his offensive coordinator. I don't think I would have come, but in that time and meeting with Al, I guess we kind of hit it off and he called back a day later and asked me to come back up and interview as the head coach. I spent a full night in here with him and then the whole next day with him, and by the end of the next day they had come to a decision."

Davis, long regarded as a league maverick who has had a penchant for hiring first-time head coaches, found he was much more interested in Kiffin and, when the two of them met to discuss the job, it was done the way Davis usually conducts his business – one on one and face to face.

"We were the only two people (in the room)," Kiffin said. "There was nobody else there. I came up from L.A. and (the interview) started about 9 at night and we went to probably 1 in the morning. Then I went back to the hotel. I came back and he wanted me to study some AFC West teams and our own roster so I spent the whole morning doing that. He came back in at noon or so and we sat down and discussed the division and my thoughts on our current roster, his current roster at the time, and then went over a bunch of different things, a bunch of hours of the interview process of handling the team and what you would do in different areas and things to get better and all of that stuff. Later that day he came to the decision."

That decision was to make the 32-year-old Kiffin, a relative unknown to the NFL family, his new head coach. While other established coaches had balked at even interviewing for the Raiders opening, Kiffin said there was no hesitation at all for him to make the decision. Davis was offering him a golden ticket to the NFL brotherhood of coaching and he wasn't about to say "no" to the offer.

"I didn't have to think about it because I had done all of that thinking before I had got here," Kiffin said. "I wasn't going to just take a job to take a job. I had to make sure that there were certain things in place, that certain things were going to be the way that I felt they needed to be, and so in that interview process we were both interviewing each other. He was interviewing me and I was interviewing him to make sure that there were certain things that I felt needed to be in place for us to be able to win in the future here once we get this thing turned around. So I think both sides agreed on what each side wanted, and that's when we came to the decision."

The chance to achieve his boyhood dream was realized and Kiffin jumped at the opportunity to accept Davis' offer. As a man who spent much of his adolescence and all of his adult life preparing for this day, he knew it would only be a matter of time before that door would open and he would be allowed in. Minnesota's loss was going to be Oakland's gain and, despite a setback at a job he had confidence he could get at the U of M, he checker-jumped to the professional ranks and had a job he had always dreamed of getting.

"I always knew it," Kiffin said of becoming a head coach. "It was really something that all the way back to being young and just being around it, I was really intrigued by how coaches who weren't on the field playing could really decide outcomes of games by decisions that they made and I was always intrigued by the clock management and game management that coaches do and the motivation of players. Probably in a sense almost hurt me in a playing career is that when I was growing up and there were other people that wanted to play in the NFL and be the star player in the NFL, I was already in a mindset of coaching. During while I was playing in high school and in college, I was always trying to learn from a coach's standpoint even more than a player's standpoint. I was very fortunate that the coordinator I had in college was Jeff Tedford, so I kind of got lucky that way."

While some have balked at his age – he's younger than some of his own players – Kiffin doesn't believe age has any bearing on whether a head coach can be successful. Some coaches like Chuck Noll, Mike Tomlin and John Madden have succeeded at a young age and Kiffin doesn't think his age should be a problem with the Raiders players and he never made a point to discuss it.

"I didn't address it," Kiffin said. "I didn't do anything different. I did what I have a belief system in and the way that you practice, the way that you meet, the way that you prepare, and I didn't even address age because I don't think it matters. People can talk about your energy level and then guys are too old, but I've seen guys that are 70 coach better than guys that are 30 and have more energy. I just approach it every day with how can we get these players individually and collectively as a team and go about it that way. I don't ever treat any players different whether how long they have been in the league or how old they are. I treat them the same and have extremely high demands on what we need from them and be very open with them and tell them exactly how things are."

As the Raiders take the field Sunday, Kiffin will lead them out of the tunnel and on to the field. It will be the full circle of a life that began as a Vikings ball boy and, while University of Minnesota fans may have wished to see him on the Metrodome turf earlier this season leading the maroon and gold on the Metrodome turf, he has had the last laugh. He made it, but not in the way he or many others could have envisioned.


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