The Lane Kiffin era has begun at Florida Atlantic, as the former Tennessee, USC and Oakland Raiders head man was officially sworn in last week as the Owls’ new head coach.
The move to hire Kiffin — most recently the offensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama — is one that the university hopes will bring revenue and a winning tradition to a program aiming for relevancy as it tries to continue building itself from scratch. It is anticipated that the high-profile coach will bring high-profile talent, as evidenced by last week’s signing of dismissed Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson, but college football experts warn that there is a ceiling to just how competitive and nationally relevant the Owls can be in the near future.
“It depends on your definition of ‘nationally relevant,'” Rece Davis, the host of ESPN’s College GameDay, told the Post. “If you mean the occasional cycle up and maybe sneak into a major bowl as UCF has done and USF has threatened to do, then there’s no reason FAU under Kiffin can’t do that.”
But what about aiming higher?
“If [nationally relevant] means becoming the equal of the big three in the state,” Davis continued, referring to Florida, Florida State and Miami, “I don’t think that is a realistic goal or even one worth worrying about.”
ESPN national college football reporter Adam Rittenberg provided a similar comparison for FAU’s potential growth.
“When you look at what a school like Western Michigan has done, which was in far worse shape than FAU, now playing in the Cotton Bowl, and you look at periods of success schools like UCF and USF have had, it provides hope,” said Rittenberg.
Both Central Florida and South Florida have developed track records of relative success over the past decade-plus, but despite their growth on the field, the two American Athletic Conference programs are still considered a tier below Florida, Florida State and Miami in Florida’s college football hierarchy. While a leap into that UCF/USF tier seems feasible for FAU under Kiffin, striving to quickly surpass those schools and taking up residence among the state’s elite could actually prove costly for the Owls.
Though an extreme example, the struggles and ultimate shutdown of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s football program serves as a cautionary tale for the Owls’ young football program. UAB, which began playing FBS football in 1996, 10 years before FAU, was forced to close its program due to a financial gap created by the school’s hasty efforts to make it a big-time program. According to FiveThirtyEight, UAB found little in the way of fan support or funding in its attempt to compete with the University of Alabama, relying mostly on subsidies to cover their athletic expenses.
In 2013, FAU’s attendance, win percentage and athletic revenue, expenses and subsides were all comparable to UAB. With Kiffin and his nearly $1 million-a-year contract in the fold, FAU will rely heavily on a winning product and fan support to get a return on its investment.
The foundation for that winning product can be built through recruiting, but big-time recruits in South Florida don’t necessarily need to be swayed from the state’s top-tier universities for Kiffin’s tenure to be successful.
“They don’t have to go far in recruiting to field a highly competitive team,” Rittenberg said. “There is no reason to believe FAU cannot be highly relevant in Conference USA.”
With the competition level in CUSA, Kiffin’s ability to find overlooked local prospects may contribute to a quick turnaround, and if even a semblance of a winning tradition is formed, higher-caliber recruits may begin to consider coming to Boca Raton for their college careers.
“Recruiting will rely on finding the slightly overlooked player. … They need to be very strong in the bounce-back market,” Davis suggested, “meaning kids who started elsewhere and are looking for a fresh start or second chance.”
Johnson, the FSU castoff, is a perfect example. “That carries its own risks,” Davis pointed out.
That risk, much like the risk of paying a high-profile coach in an attempt to jump-start the program, is one that FAU appears willing to take.
— Post reporter Joe Schad contributed to this story