Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Other Kiffin

(Published July 2009)

The garage door opens at 5:15 a.m., and Chris Kiffin steers his Lincoln Aviator north toward Highway 2 and Memorial Stadium.

At this time of day, the summer sun is still sleeping, the air is still cool. At this time of day, there isn't much competition for the road. He can cover the nine miles in 13 minutes — “I've got all the lights figured out.”

Over the railroad tracks and left on green.

He's 27. He's a paid coaching intern for Bo Pelini's football program. He's brother to Lane Kiffin, the publicity magnet at Tennessee, and youngest son of Monte Kiffin, one of the finest defensive minds the NFL has ever produced.

Chris is just a wee bit less famous. But he has spent most of his life on the football fast track. He's got a story for every stop.

At 7, his dad came home with a surprise. C'mon. Lane and Chris jumped in the car, and Monte drove them to a hotel. They sneaked in a back door as Herschel Walker — Herschel Walker! — was breezing through his first press conference with the Minnesota media. The Cowboys fleeced the Vikings on the trade, but Chris got a new favorite player.

By the old apartment complex on his left.

In high school, one of his unofficial duties as a ball boy in Tampa was signing some of Warren Sapp's fan mail. Big W, big S, big 99. “I had it down pat,” Chris said. In exchange, Sapp ordered Nike warmup outfits for him.

Past the spot where the old diner used to be.

In college, he spent summers at USC during the Trojans' span of 45 wins in 46 games. He was living with Lane, working out with Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, observing staff meetings and film sessions. He played pick-up basketball with Pete Carroll and his assistants.

“He gets those head coach's calls, just like Bo does here,” Chris said.

Fast track? Shoot, the youngest Kiffin had seen more football before his 24th birthday than most coaches see before their retirement parties.

Then, just as he was getting a chance to show it, he slipped. One night of partying in Tampa three years ago altered his course.

As 31-year-old Lane was riding the Trojan horse to an NFL head coaching job, Chris was trying to figure out how to defeat a foe that had nothing to do with football.

In the end, an underdog team of 10-year-olds gave him a lift.

Now he's here, pulling into the parking lot at Memorial Stadium for players' 6 a.m. workouts, which he helps oversee. That's part of a job devoid of glamour.

Summer camps for high school kids. Conditioning runs. Position drills. Transferring game plans to the playbook.

Defense has always been his thing, but at Nebraska he works with the running backs. NU has four interns, in addition to two graduate assistants. They don't say much, but they're always around.

Chris knows the scene. He was born in Raleigh, N.C., during the only head coaching stint of his dad's career. Monte got fired before Chris' first birthday, and the first moving truck arrived.

On to Buffalo, then Green Bay — “I don't know if that's the right order,” Chris said.

Then Minnesota, where Chris cheered from the seats as the Twins won the World Series in 1987. He had birthday parties on the Metrodome turf.

To New York, where he remembers rats in the house.

Back to Minnesota and another World Series. The Twin Cities felt like home, so the next move, in 1996, was hardest.


Chris showed up before his freshman year of high school. Monte interviewed prospective high school coaches.

“I didn't really have a choice where I was going,” Chris said.

Dad settled on an all-boys Catholic school. It wasn't easy making friends. The Kiffin name didn't buy him a seat at the lunch table, nor did the Bucs tickets he'd try to give away to peers. Nobody wanted to see the dreadful franchise.

But there was a ton of coaching talent on Tony Dungy's staff: Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli. Along with Monte, they laid the groundwork for a team that eventually won a Super Bowl.

Chris could explain Monte's famous Cover 2 in his sleep. And he studied the pieces: Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Warren Sapp. Those guys practiced 'til it hurt.

Seeing it up close was Coaching 101, and Chris didn't even have a diploma yet.

On to Colorado State, where a scholarship from Sonny Lubick awaited. He played four years at defensive tackle between those summer trips to USC.

In Los Angeles, he watched Carroll, whose style contrasted Dungy's, build extraordinary bonds with players. He resurrected the downtrodden Trojans in just two years.

That was Coaching 202, and Chris didn't even have a degree yet.

On to Moscow, Idaho — home of the Vandals — and a student assistant position. “Smallest town I've ever been in,” Chris said.

Then back to Tampa.

Finally, after six years away from home, Chris was going to spend fall weekends with his dad.

Destination: Lexington

The job title was assistant to the director of quality control. Didn't fit on a business card, but it was a big gig for a 24-year-old. Chris was still a few days from signing his contract.

On July 22, 2006, he and Monte went to a Devil Rays' game. They came home, and Chris walked to a bar to have a few drinks. He ran into some old friends from high school. Saturday night turned to Sunday morning.

They sang karaoke. They emptied shot glasses. They left for a buddy's condo and drank some more. A few hours later, Chris was walking home in the rain. Drunk. He opened an unlocked minivan door, sat in the passenger's side for a few moments.

A cop caught him walking away from the van.

Chris was in trouble.

He eventually pleaded no contest to misdemeanor trespassing and paid a $340 fine. Not before the damage was done.

Not before the state charged him with burglary, alleging he entered the vehicle with the intent to steal — nothing was missing from the van.

Not before the whole thing hit the media — he lost his chance with the Bucs.

Not before strangers on message boards blamed Monte.

“They made comments like, it makes sense when you have a workaholic father that works 24 hours a day and doesn't give you a father figure,” Chris said. “Stuff of that nature was just totally untrue.”

Ed Orgeron, the Mississippi head coach and Lane's former colleague at USC, flew to Tampa to meet with Chris. He started reading the Alcoholics Anonymous book and suggested Chris go to rehab. Chris didn't want to tell Coach O no.

He spent 28 days in California. He bought in to the idea of sobriety, but couldn't shake the question: Is this for me?

Where could he go to figure it out? How 'bout Denver?

His cousin's wife had died while Chris was at Colorado State, so it was just Danny Murphy and his three kids. Chris could help. He watched the kids after school. Took care of the house.

“He's got maybe the biggest heart of all the Kiffins,” Danny said. “And I know them all pretty well.”

Every night they played a different game: basketball, Wiffle Ball, cribbage. Chris loved Stratego, the capture-the-flag board game in which he could assess personnel and call the plays.

When he wasn't at home, or working golf course maintenance, Chris devoted himself to staying dry.
He attended AA meetings almost every night.

But there was time to think, too. And Chris wondered sometimes why Lane, almost seven years older than him, was on the fast track to stardom and he wasn't. It wasn't envy or jealousy, Chris said — “I'm his No. 1 fan.”

But did Lane have something he didn't?

Orgeron called in 2007, asking Chris to come to Mississippi as a graduate assistant.

On to Oxford, where men at the spring game dressed in blue blazers and women wore long, white dresses and big hats.

The Ole Miss coaches' offices bustled and Chris thrived. Players gravitated to him, seeking his technique tips. Assistants laughed at his wit.

Then came July and a short coaching vacation. Suddenly there was no task. Chris felt bored. Worse, he felt alone.

“A lot of pressure builds up when you don't know if you're an alcoholic or not, and you're trying to stay sober, and you don't know if you're doing it for other people or not,” Chris said.

Driving home from a workout one afternoon, he stopped at a gas station and picked up a 12-pack of beer. He took his first sip in almost a year, then finished six or eight beers.

The next day, he stopped at Applebee's and drank again.

He was never a “drink-from-the-bottle guy like you see on TV.” He didn't wake up with the shakes and ease it with a shot of vodka. But once he started drinking beer, he kept drinking.

Those few days scared him. He hadn't done anything illegal, he said. Hadn't gotten into trouble.

“I thought that it could get out of control.”

So he went to see Orgeron, who looked at Lane's little brother like a son. Chris didn't want to tell Coach O no. He didn't want to waste another chance. But he didn't trust himself.

He quit. Packed his bags and headed north.

“A lot of thinking goes on when you're driving across the country,” Chris said. “Am I making the wrong decision? What's the future hold? Where am I going?”

After 900 miles, he stopped at Johnson Lake outside Lexington, where Danny and the kids were staying at the family cabin.

He pulled up and received a consolation prize:


172-pound tank

He went back to Denver with the Murphys, back to playing games. He got a job at an elementary school tutoring homeless kids. He stuck to the routine.

But the questions still ate at him. Am I an alcoholic or not? Am I any different than a 25-year-old in Denver or Boulder or Tampa who likes to go to bars? If so, how? Why?

There were alcohol problems in his family tree. He had started drinking in high school, like a lot of kids in Tampa. But it never interfered with where he wanted to go. Now it was like meeting a linebacker in the hole.

The guilt of drinking — and wanting to drink — was crushing his spirit.

He decided to change strategy.

“I wanted to see if I could do it like the average person, and still live my life in other areas the way I wanted to.”

Instead of abstaining from alcohol, Chris felt he was better off to focus on drinking responsibly.
Instill self-discipline. Identify potential problem situations. Surround himself with positive influences.
Fill his time with activities.

Like football.

Days after he showed up at Johnson Lake, Danny recruited him. His 10-year-old son had a youth football team and Danny was head coach. But the Warriors needed an offensive coordinator.

It was a good team and the kids thought it was cool to have a 25-year-old coach. The Warriors made a run all the way to the Super Bowl, and that's about as far as anybody figured they'd go. Their next opponent, the Spartans, had beaten them 35-7 in the regular season.

The key was the Spartans' defensive tackle, a peewee version of Warren Sapp, a kid named Hayes. He wore No. 72, Danny said — “and he weighed 172 pounds.”

A few nights before the game, Chris and Danny skipped a Stratego match, sat down at the table and formulated a battle plan.

Chris would call the play, wait to see where Hayes lined up, then signal to his troops at the line of scrimmage. If the tank lined up right, the Warriors went left, and vice versa.

First play, it worked for a touchdown. Second play, it worked for another touchdown.

Hayes eventually got his revenge. He injured Chris' quarterback. He took down the running back, too. Danny keeps a photo of the play on his living room wall.

“Hayes just engulfed him. The only part of our guy you see in the picture is his little foot.”

In the fourth quarter, the Warriors trailed, but still had a shot. Three failed running plays into the line brought up fourth down, 20 yards from paydirt.

Chris called time out. His quarterback couldn't throw. His running back couldn't run.

He called a trick play, a distant cousin to Eric Crouch's touchdown catch against Oklahoma:
 “I left, 27 power, Z reverse, Y throwback.”

The 10-year-olds didn't really understand the lingo, so Chris dumbed it down: Sweep to the halfback, who reverses the ball to the wide receiver. The tight end on the back side is going to slip behind the defense. And the wide receiver is going to throw deep.

He rehearsed it in the huddle with each kid.

“You couldn't put the whole thing together in a movie,” Danny said.

As soon as the quarterback handed off, Hayes crushed him. As soon as the running back handed to the wideout, he got smushed, too. But the wideout had just enough time to let it fly.

“Not one person,” Danny said, “was covering the tight end.”

Final score: 22-20. Super Bowl champs.

Chris had never called plays for any team before that season. He hasn't since.

Later, there was a team banquet. Each kid received a big trophy. Danny wanted Chris to stand up in front of parents and speak about each player. No way, Chris said.

Danny forced him. You want to be a big-time head coach someday, this is the kind of thing you've got to do.

Lane's a former quarterback. He could do 1,000 press conferences, Danny said. Chris is more like a lineman, quicker to deflect attention. Like Monte.

OK, Chris said. So he brought a chalkboard. Before a crowd of 75 or 100, he drew up Xs and Os and mapped out the final touchdown, then he explained each kid's responsibility.

His first press conference. It took about 15 minutes.

“Talking football's a lot easier for me than talking about other stuff.”

Film session

His cousin was begging him: Chris, send your résumé to Lincoln. Get back in the game.

By December 2007, Bo Pelini was starting the Nebraska football reclamation, and Chris had “a little more spring in his step,” Danny said.

He was harnessing his drinking problem. He was filling his time. This was a smart move, especially with a network of relatives in Lincoln. And it was a full-time coaching job.

“I just have a hard time seeing Chris putting on a suit and tie and going to sell copiers or something,” Danny said.

Chris' only memories of Lincoln were attending football camp in high school. The trains outside Harper Hall kept him awake.

“I was like, there's no way I'm going there,” Chris said.

He finally applied. Then he asked his dad to make a recommendation. To call Pelini, whom Monte had recommended to Frank Solich in 2002.

“I know my dad knows deep down my qualities as a coach. He's seen me work.”

Bo did his homework and liked what he heard. Chris got the job. He's had it for 16 months.

“Chris is a natural-born coach,” said Husker offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. “You can tell it's in his bloodstream. It comes really easy for him. It's been a real blessing for us.”

At Nebraska, Chris found a boss whose leadership ability reminds him of his dad. Pelini tells players about his days as an assistant with the 49ers in the 1990s, when nobody knew who he was. He tells stories about Jerry Rice, just as Chris remembers Warren Sapp.

“It just reassures me,” Chris said. “I'm on the right track. I can do this.”

He still treats alcohol with caution, but he doesn't attend AA meetings. Occasionally, he has a few beers. He has proven to himself he can impose limits.

It comes down to this, he said: When he climbs into his Lincoln Aviator after work, where is he going? To a bar, or to the tennis court?

“Today, sitting here right now, I don't think I am an alcoholic. I think I need to manage my life in a way where I don't put myself in situations to get in trouble or harm anybody or harm myself.”

After this season, Chris intends to send out his résumé again. He wants to be a Division I position coach. He wants to recruit kids. To advance, he'll have to move again, which won't be easy: “I'm the happiest I've ever been.”

He won't leave Lincoln alone.

Angela Timmons is a former Creighton basketball player and an NU assistant coach under Connie Yori. On her first date with Chris Kiffin, she listened to him detail the places he'd been. And why.

Next weekend in Lincoln, they're getting married.

It's going to be a small party — Chris didn't want anything big — but Lane will be there. Monte, too. Their visits to Nebraska are rare.

In fact, Monte hadn't been to Memorial Stadium on game day since 1976, his last year coaching the Huskers. But last fall, the Buccaneers had a bye week, and Nebraska had a date with Kansas. Monte climbed aboard a plane.

He grew up in Lexington. Listened to the Huskers on the radio, then went out to the backyard and pretended to run like Bobby Reynolds.

Kids didn't go far from home in those days, so when the Kiffins approached Lincoln from the west, Monte anxiously awaited the moment when he could spot the state capitol on the horizon.

“I thought it was the Empire State Building,” Monte said.

When he got to Lincoln, he waited some more, two hours in line for a spot in the south end zone, the knothole section. Entry fee: 25 cents.

Last fall, 60 years later, Monte didn't pay a dime.

Chris showed him the Osborne complex. He introduced him to the Tunnel Walk.

Before the game, Chris took him to the field, where the howling wind tousled Monte's thinning hair and made him growl that he'd forgotten his hat, where a sea of red can still tweak the nerves of a 68-year-old man, even one with a Super Bowl ring.

“It made me so proud of my son,” Monte said.

A few months earlier, Monte had passed through town en route to a class reunion. Chris drove him southeast on Highway 2 toward his new house.

They were coming up on 27th Street when Monte pointed to an old apartment building, a post pattern from the highway.

“Oh my gosh, that place is still here.”

You know, Monte told him, when I was exactly your age, I was a graduate assistant helping coach Bob Devaney's defense.

After games, I drove out to Johnson's Cafe on 14th and Highway 2 and had dinner with your aunt and uncle. Then I'd go back to the office, pick up the can of film and drive home.

To that apartment building.

I'd shut off the lights, point the projector at the living room wall and study every play deep into the night.

This was the road I traveled.

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