BOCA RATON — After Florida Atlantic’s hiring of former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin became official, feelings of joy and excitement pulsed through the FAU fan base.
But as the fifth head coach in program history made clear, there’s one type of message that he’s not thinking about sending.
“I’m not concerned about sending a message to the conference,” Kiffin said. “I’ve sent those messages before to coach [Urban] Meyer when I said at Tennessee, and we were in the same conference, that I was going to sing ‘Rocky Top’ all night long in The Swamp.”
Kiffin, who athletic director Pat Chun praised for his humility and maturity since his days with the Oakland Raiders, Volunteers and USC, admitted that some of his previous actions when it came to conference opponents may have been mistakes.
Namely, of course, his comments to Meyer when both were in the SEC during the 2009 season. After promising an upset of the then-defending champion Gators the year prior, Tennessee lost by a 23-13 final score in the lone Kiffin-Meyer head coaching showdown.
“That didn’t go over very well,” Kiffin said. “It’s taken eight to 10 years to get back to buddies with Coach Meyer – we’re a lot better now.”
Simply by hiring Kiffin, however, FAU has sent a message to the rest of Conference USA: don’t expect to come to Howard Schnellenberger Field and roll over the Owls.
Conference play has been a thorn in the Owls’ side since leaving the Sun Belt. Since joining Conference-USA prior to the 2013 season, the Owls are only 11-21 with seven of those wins coming in the Charlie Partridge era.
Under Partridge, FAU never beat a C-USA team more than once. A two game stretch this past season where the Owls beat Rice and UTEP was the lone time Partridge had consecutive wins in conference play.
Three of FAU’s conference losses in 2016 – FIU, Charlotte, and Marshall – were decided by six or fewer points. Partridge was 4-8 in C-USA games decided by one score since taking over for Brian Wright after 2013’s 6-6 campaign.
“I know it’s a very young roster, and there is talent on the team, and there were very close games in the second half last year,” Kiffin said. “We’ll go to work today with our current players and go find immediate impact players that can come in right away and help us win next year.”
Two of the Owls’ worst losses in program history, a 52-3 massacre at the hands of Western Kentucky and the 77-56 season finale against Middle-Tennessee, came during conference play in the 2016 season.
Western Kentucky will be returning to South Florida later this month for the Boca Raton Bowl, held at FAU Stadium.
“We really don’t care about what happened before. I talked to the players last night about that, that doesn’t matter and we’re not going to focus on it,” Kiffin said during Tuesday’s introductory press conference. “We’re going to focus on where we’re going, but that’s going to be one day at a time and it’s going to be about how we work and how we build this.”
FAU’s non-conference games in 2017 include a home opener against the Navy Midshipmen, whose flexbone offense forces teams to prepare defensively for an attack they won’t see the remainder of the season.
“I did ask someone, who did the scheduling,” Kiffin said. “Because that’s not really someone that you would normally schedule.”
The answer to Kiffin’s question is Craig Angelos, FAU’s athletic director before current resident Pat Chun.
The Owls will also welcome FAU Bethune Cookman to Howard Schnellenberger Field, and make non-conference road trips to Wisconsin – Partridge’s former employer – and Buffalo.
Middle Tennessee, Marshall, FIU and North Texas will be FAU’s home C-USA opponents.