First year Florida Atlantic head football coach Lane Kiffin believes winning is the way to change the perception of his team and Conference USA.
Cory Diaz/The News-Star
IRVING, TEXAS — He couldn’t remember the last time he had to, but Lane Kiffin sat in row 32, seat C, the back of a commercial plane flying him into Dallas Wednesday morning for Conference USA Media Days.
Not exclusively for Kiffin, the former Alabama offensive coordinator and first-year Florida Atlantic head coach, but change is here for C-USA.
Although the media sees a rematch for the conference championship, picking Louisiana Tech to win the West division and WKU to take the East, the three new coaching hires in Kiffin, Butch Davis at FIU and Mike Sanford with the Hilltoppers provides the upcoming season a lot of intrigue and all the collective strength for the deepest conference battle royale.
A certain perception follows programs that compete on the Group of Five level in college football. But athletic directors around Conference USA have made it known to the rest of the country that it’s as serious as ever to win.
Davis is now back in the state of Florida, where he guided Miami to an 11-1 record in 2001 but was snubbed of a national championship game appearance. He’s now 45 miles apart from Kiffin, who won a national title two seasons ago orchestrating the Crimson Tide, and FAU’s campus in Boca Raton.
“I’m really impressed with the head coaches in this conference,” said Kiffin during his team’s time at Media Days Thursday. “To change (the perception), we need to win. That’s all great because there’s big-name coaches or we’ve been at bigger places mostly, but it’s our job to win. That’s why we were hired.
“I think it is awesome from a rivalry standpoint to have somebody like coach Davis across the way. It’s amazing how many great coaches are in this conference and in the state of Florida right now.”
He doesn’t quite bring championship pedigree with him just yet, but Sanford steps into WKU, the reigning C-USA title-holding program. Despite it being his first head coaching gig at the prime age of 35, many believe the former Notre Dame offensive coordinator will find success early. The league’s offensive contingency receives an upgrade with the arrival of Sanford, who coached under Brian Kelly, Chris Peterson at Boise State and David Shaw at Stanford since 2011.
Pair the new faces of C-USA with the stalwarts that’s seen the conference through expansion, it’s collective successes and failures, and the road to winning either division is as rugged as ever.
“There’s been some really good hires on the coaching side of things,” Sanford said Thursday. “Guys that have coached in national championships are now on our side of the league and have won national championships as assistants and head coaches. With Butch Davis landing in Conference USA East and obviously Lane Kiffin as well at FAU. The two Florida schools are in great hands from a coaching standpoint.
“There were already good coaches in this division. Bobby Wilder, the job he’s done at Old Dominion is incredibly underrated. Building a program from not much to a 10-3 football team and won a bowl game. We’re adding some really good coaches. David Bailiff is one of the great coaches in college football, and you look at his coaching tree with Kevin Sumlin, Tom Herman and Kliff Kingsbury. Then you look at what Skip Holtz has done. It’s going to be challenging to get back to where we want to get to.”
Louisiana Tech has finished atop the West twice in the past three seasons. Both of those seasons, the Bulldogs had to outlast a different foe en route to the conference championship.
Since Holtz’s hiring in Ruston, he’s tried to build his program to be a model of consistency in winning and recruiting. Three straight nine-win seasons and three straight bowl game victories marks the most consistent stretch for any program in Conference USA.
Where the league sits now with new coaches and player talent pool being the deepest it’s ever been, Holtz knows consistency won’t be easy to hold on to.
“There’s some great coaches in this league. I look at Mike Sanford coming in at Western Kentucky from Notre Dame, (North Texas head football coach) Seth Littrell,” Holtz said Wednesday. “I just look at all the progress that this league has made with players and coaches, the rivalry games. I just think it’s getting better and better, and I think it’s really evident by the three new coaches that came into this conference, with two of them with head coaching experience that I think bring an awful lot to the table.”
First year WKU head football coach Mike Sanford describes how tough it will be for his team to get back to Conference USA championship game.
Cory Diaz/The News-Star
Sitting in the back of the plane was a new experience for Kiffin. Opening up a football season coaching in Boca Raton for a Conference USA school will be a change. He said he’s had to adjust his lenses in recruiting and various operational tasks since taking over FAU. He didn’t know what his effect has been on the conference since coming into it, but there’s one way to embrace the change for Kiffin, and all the other teams in the league.
“We haven’t won any games. We had a really good recruiting class, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Kiffin said. “We’ve got to go get better and win games.”