Navy’s 2017 season opener looked like a mismatch just nine months ago.
One day later, athletic director Pat Chun fired head coach Charlie Partridge, who compiled a 9-27 record in three seasons at the helm.
About two weeks thereafter, Chun made a bold move by hiring Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin as the fifth football coach in school history. Kiffin, who became an NFL head coach at the precocious age of 31 with the Los Angeles Raiders, immediately raised the profile of the struggling Conference USA program.
Florida Atlantic upped the ante on its football future by inking Kiffin to a five-year deal reportedly worth $4.75 million per year. It was an unlikely landing spot for the 41-year-old, who previously served as head coach of college football blue bloods Tennessee and USC.
Kiffin is no doubt hoping success at Florida Atlantic will lead him back to a Power Five Conference school. He has wasted no time in launching a complete overhaul of the Owls, who have not been to a bowl game since 2008.
Along the way, Kiffin has earned the Boca Raton school a reputation as the Football Bowl Subdivision version Last Chance University. It began with the hiring of two coordinators with tainted pasts – Kendal Briles and Chris Kiffin.
Briles had been offensive coordinator at Baylor, which was forced to fire his father amid widespread scandal involving the behavior of football players. Art Briles and his assistants were accused, among other things, of failing to report complaints of misconduct against members of the team.
Meanwhile, Chris Kiffin, Lane’s younger brother, was the target of NCAA allegations while at Mississippi. Chris Kiffin admitted to three of the violations, including impermissable contact with recruits and providing free hotel lodging and food for family members of a recruit.
Lane Kiffin wants to win immediately at Florida Atlantic and his strategy for doing so centers on accepting big-time transfers. Since taking over the Owls, Kiffin has brought in nine players who began their careers at Power Five schools and many of them came with some baggage.
Four of the transfers are from East Mississippi Community College, the program featured on the Netflix series Last Chance U. Topping the list is quarterback De’Andre Johnson, who was kicked off the Florida State football team after video surfaced of him punching a woman.
Wide receiver John Franklin III, who played briefly at Florida State and Auburn, is now on his fourth college. Defensive end Tim Bonner left Louisville after being accused (falsely he claims) of having a gun on campus.
Defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni joined Florida Atlantic as a graduate transfer after being dismissed from Pittsburgh due to a violation of team rules. The 6-foot-2, 285-pounder showed up a few days after former Florida State linebacker Kain Daub, who spent last year at a junior college in New York. Taleni and Daub became immediate starters and are expected to spearhead the Owls’ defense.
“Well, who’s done really well over time in the conference? What’s really been their plan?” Kiffin asked rhetorically in reference to the Hilltoppers, who have not endured a losing season since 2010. “I think you have to go there if you want to be a championship program.”
Partridge sought to rebuild Florida Atlantic by almost exclusively recruiting Florida high schools, which is a tough task in a state dominated by Florida, Miami and Florida State.
“The high school model, as you guys have followed for the last three years, obviously doesn’t work,” Kiffin told local reporters during Florida Atlantic’s Media Day.
With new players arriving at Florida Atlantic almost daily, it’s been difficult for Navy to scout its season opening opponent. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo admitted he’s not sure which personnel will take the field on Friday night in Boca Raton.
“You have to figure out who is eligible and who is not, who can play immediately and who can’t,” Niumatalolo said. “You’re not exactly sure who will be in what spots, but you know they will have talented players.”
Niumatalolo has taken note of the fact Kiffin has his father on staff as a defensive consultant while Kendal Briles has used his father as an unofficial consultant. Monte Kiffin is considered one of the greatest defensive coordinators in NFL history and creator of the Tampa Two scheme. Art Briles has fielded prolific passing attacks wherever he’s been, including Baylor and Houston.
“We’ve got great respect for Coach Kiffin. He has a couple national championships on his resume,” Niumatalolo said. “Kendal Briles comes from Baylor, which always had some of the best offenses in the country. They have a lot of good coaches on the staff and they’re getting a ton of good players. It’s going to be a tough combination to beat.”
FAU AT A GLANCE
Location: Boca Raton, Florida
Colors: Red, Blue and Silver
Affiliation: Conference USA
Home Field: FAU Stadium (29,419; natural grass)
2016 Record: 3-9 overall; 2-6 league