In need of a Canadian Football League fix and a look at former FAU Owl Martese Jackson

At times like these a little bit of Canadian Football League action would go a long way.

Flicking through the various ESPN channels available on the basic package at our house, I found drone racing and beach volleyball and World Team Tennis the last several nights but no pro football.

Former Owl Martese Jackson breaks a tackle in FAU’s Red vs. Blue game at the school’s Boca Raton campus stadium on Saturday, April 5, 2014. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

Sure, NFL training camps are about to open and there are exhibition games in August but really, what would be the harm in ESPN or FS1 picking up a little CFL just to fill in the gaps? By the time the Grey Cup championship game rolls around in late November, nobody down here will be that interested but what about now, right here, in a dead zone of sports broadcasting that features lots of MLB and the accompanying ZZZZZ’s?

Look what we’ve been missing.

Just last week a 5-foot-6 kid who played just a little at Florida Atlantic went crazy returning kicks for the Toronto Argonauts.

Martese Jackson, 25, returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown against Winnipeg. Not bad for a guy playing in his second CFL game.

Then came an 84-yard kickoff return on which Jackson was stopped short of scoring but set up a Toronto field goal all the same.

Oh, and how about the 109-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that was negated by an illegal blocking penalty? If that one had counted, Jackson would have totaled a lot more than the 339 total return yards for which he was credited in the game, a number that ranks fourth-highest in CFL history.

What’s more, Jackson could have won a Winnipeg woman $1 million in a grocery-chain promotion offering the big payoff for a lucky contestant when two kickoffs are returned for touchdowns in the same game. Earlier that day, a Winnipeg return man had gone the distance.

See what I mean? Crazy CFL. Crazy fun.

Is there no chance that Tim Tebow won’t give this league one final try once his baseball dream dries up?

After all, the league’s leading passer is 37-year-old Ricky Ray from Sacramento State, and he’s playing in his 15th CFL season.

Get Tebow in the CFL and ESPN will be there all summer long. Or, failing that, Johnny Manziel.

[Beware these trap games for the Seminoles, Hurricanes and Gators]

[Jeffrey Loria says there is no Marlins deal so stop talking about it]

[Astros and Nats might bring World Series buzz back to WPB next spring]

In a week or two, of course, these delusions and cravings will pass. The NFL will be back, followed by college football.

In the meantime, does anybody out there get ESPN3? If I’m reading their schedule right, there’s a snippet of the Toronto-Saskatchewan game coming up there late Monday night and it sure would be cool to catch a glimpse of Jackson.

At FAU the Asheville, N.C., native never really rang the bell for former coaches Carl Pelini and Charlie Partridge, scoring one career touchdown on a total of 70 rush attempts, five receptions and 22 kick returns.

In Canada, though, they’re not selling him as an Owl, but as an exciting new star with the nickname of the Martese Falcon.

 

 

 

Let Lane Kiffin be your guide to healthier, happier living

I finally found something Lane Kiffin is doing at Florida Atlantic in the same way that former Owls coach Charlie Partridge did it.

On Saturday, March 18, Kiffin is scheduled to appear at Mizner Park Amphitheater in downtown Boca Raton as part of WPEC’s annual Health and Wellness Experience.

BOCA RATON – Lane Kiffin, head coach of Florida Atlantic University football, shakes hands with Spanish River football coach Bill Ceasar at FAU Stadium on December 13, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

This is purely community relations stuff. It’s an event free to the public featuring cooking demonstrations and glucose screenings and vendor exhibits, with everything geared toward educating families on the healthiest options available to them.

No recruiting advantage to a head coach showing up there, in other words, just a chance to meet and greet some of the locals and maybe encourage them to come out and watch a football game or two at FAU’s beautiful new stadium.

Partridge was good at this, working the FAU Coach’s Corner at the wellness festival while kids ran cone drills and tackled dummies and threw footballs at targets. If Kiffin is up for a little bit of that duty, and he’s scheduled to be there from 1 to 1:30 p.m., that’s a good thing.

It will highlight the FAU program for potential ticket-buyers with the beginning of spring practice just around the corner on March 21. There’s the FAU spring game to promote, too. That’s scheduled for April 22.

[No reason Heat should be doing what they’re doing, and the ride’s not over]

[NCAA berths weren’t automatic for UM during Rick Barry’s golden era]

[Reliving Wilt’s 100-point night, with two PB County eyewitnesses]

Too many people in South Florida are unaware that Div. I college football is even happening in Boca Raton. If Kiffin, the former head coach of USC and Tennessee and the Oakland Raiders, doesn’t already know that, he needs to know. Interactions with the general public, not just FAU boosters, can only help in that regard.

The question now is who will be the biggest celebrity at Mizner Park that day as measured by the size of the crowds around them. Could be Kiffin. Could be Kevin Frazier, the co-host of Entertainment Tonight, who also is scheduled to appear.

Remember, this is Boca Raton, not Tuscaloosa, where working as offensive coordinator was more than enough to make Kiffin a major star with Alabama fans. The answer is not immediately obvious.

 

 

 

Lane Kiffin says that FAU’s new QB is moving past old troubles

We don’t get to hear from Lane Kiffin that often, at least outside of tweets and videos and such. So far he has addressed the South Florida media twice, on the December day he was introduced as Florida Atlantic football coach and again for Wednesday’s announcement of the Owls’ 2017 signing class.

Lane Kiffin is introduced as the new Florida Atlantic football coach on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)
Lane Kiffin is introduced as the new Florida Atlantic football coach on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)

It’s important, then, to get the best questions in first, such as what does he think about De’Andre Johnson, the quarterback who was dismissed by Florida State in 2015 after being caught on security video punching a woman at a Tallahassee bar.

A plea deal followed, with probation plus a fine and 10 days in a sheriff’s work program to put those legal issues behind him. Johnson, a former four-star recruit, played last year at East Mississippi Junior College, a program featured as “Last Chance U” in a Netflix documentary, and signed with FAU a few days before Kiffin was hired there.

“I’ve had a chance to be around him a little bit,” Kiffin said Wednesday, “and also to see him around our recruits. Every weekend that we’ve been here, he’s opened his door and showed our recruits where he stays. He’s hosted guys every weekend.

“He’s a very humble kid, and I also got to go to his junior college because we ended up signing a player from there (defensive end Tim Bonner) and go to meet with the people there. Not just the head coach but the president of the university. The way they talked about him, he’s a really special kid that had a really bad decision that he made and has really learned from it and he’s moving forward, so I’m excited that he’s being given this opportunity.”

Kiffin went heavy on the signing of junior-college transfers, including wide receiver/tight end DeAndre McNeal. He played for Texas as a true freshman but was dismissed for an unspecified violation of team rules. UCLA and Missouri were among the teams offering 2017 scholarships to McNeal  but Kiffin won out.

“DeAndre was a tough get,” Kiffin said. “He did some major offers. Kind of at the last minute it came down to us and UCLA. That was kind of tough for him because he had west-coast ties from playing junior college out there (at Fullerton College).

“We had some background with him, which is why I hire coaches, because they have backgrounds. So he had been in our camp at Alabama and I had worked with him there and had a plan for him there and we ended up signing him for that reason. He’d always been a guy that I had a plan for, how we’d play him. We always wanted him every time I saw him. Now he can come play in the offense here and work with (offensive coordinator) Kendal Briles, who has been successful with receivers.

“It makes it pretty easy to recruit receivers if you’ve been fortunate to have a lot of really good receivers. Myself and Kendal have coached a lot of good receivers.”

Briles, who will handle FAU’s playcalling, is another scrutinized addition because he last worked at Baylor. Kiffin declined comment when asked about an ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual assault by Baylor football players against women between 2011 and 2014.

“We obviously have a policy of not discussing any allegations at any other university,” Kiffin said. “Today’s focus is on our signing class, and we’re excited about that class and we’re excited about our coaching staff. I thought we brought a very dynamic coaching staff here and, as you can see, guys are excited about playing for them.”

[Super Bowl LI starters who got stiffed on National Signing Day]

[Some candy to treat Dolphin fans sick of Pats in Super Bowl]

[Wondering if Dolphins’ No. 22 draft slot is haunted]

It won’t every be boring with Kiffin in Boca Raton. Most major recruiting sites ranked his first FAU signing class as the best in Conference USA. Some of these junior-college transfers will surpass the talent level commonly found in the league. Now it’s a matter of getting everybody on target with everything from grades to discipline to motivation.

If Kiffin wishes, he can relate to things he learned about tightening down on those goals while working for Nick Saban at Alabama. Or he can forge his own path. Again.

 

Lane Kiffin’s breakup with Alabama before national title game does FAU no favors

 

Lane Kiffin always was an odd fit at Alabama.

You can’t say it was a bad fit. Not even close. Not with College Football Playoff appearances all three years he was the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator and a shot a second straight national title for Alabama next week. If Kiffin was doing a lousy job, Nick Saban would have kicked him to the curb right away.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 31: Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Head Coach Nick Saben of the Alabama Crimson Tide walk during pre game of the 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome on December 31, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA – DECEMBER 31: Former offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Head Coach Nick Saban talk during pre game of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome on December 31, 2016. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

When the announcement came Monday, however, that Kiffin won’t be calling plays for the championship game against Clemson, the personality gap between this flashy, me-first coach and every other Saban assistant was made evident one last time.

“We made the decision because it was in the best interest of our players, our program and for Lane for him to assume his duties at Florida Atlantic,” Saban said. “We mutually agreed that this was best for both programs.”

Compare that to what Saban was saying about Kirby Smart last January, back when Georgia had already hired Alabama’s former defensive coordinator as head coach but Smart was permitted to stay with the Tide through the College Football Playoff title game against Clemson.

“You know, it’s sort of like you have a son and he’s moving away, and you want to see him do really, really well,” Saban said of Smart at the time.

“I certainly appreciate the fact that he’s stuck here with us and done a really good job as far as trying to finish this year for our players. I think that’s the number one reason that he’s here.”

The Georgia job is a whole lot bigger than FAU, with more impactful recruiting energy to be spent in keeping up with the SEC neighbors. Yet Smart saw the value of standing in the confetti shower of a national championship celebration and decided to do it the hard way, postponing many of his new duties at Georgia to get his hands on another trophy at Alabama.

“Kids see it,” Smart said after Alabama beat Clemson 45-40, not exactly his greatest night as a coordinator but a trophy moment all the same. “They identify with it. Me being on TV and being in the national championship did way more for me tonight than say somebody who wasn’t.”

Now Kiffin joins the vast majority coaches who won’t be on the field at Tampa next Monday when Alabama and Clemson do it again.

That’s too bad for him and too bad for FAU, which can use every precious syllable of network TV conversation in the raising of its Div. I football profile. That’s why the Owls hired Kiffin in the first place. Win games in the fall, sure, but get people talking all year round.

[Some leftover nuggets from Lane Kiffin’s introduction at FAU]

[The Lane Kiffin revival tent puts down stakes in Boca Raton]

[Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign drew comparisons to Tim Tebow’s]

What caused the breakup at this critical moment for Alabama football? Probably nothing major, but when you lose focus on Saban’s objectives for even an instant, that’s a tidal wave of trouble in Tuscaloosa.

A couple of times Kiffin was late to meetings prior to the Peach Bowl national semifinal, including Media Day, when he missed the bus back to the team hotel. Then, in an easy win over Washington, the Alabama offense was good but not great.

Couldn’t have helped, either, when Sports Illustrated came out with a long article about Kiffin house-hunting in Boca Raton during Christmas week, with $4 million waterfront homes on his target list so that boats and jet-skis will always be at the ready.

Made me think of the more common SEC coaching profile, Will Muschamp. When he was plucked off Texas’ staff to be head coach of the Florida Gators, Muschamp lived in a Gainesville hotel for several months while waiting on his family to finish school and join him. All work, no play, the Saban way.

That takes us back to that recent SI story. While referencing the relative social isolation of life in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin told the writer who tagged along on his house search, “This will come across wrong, but it’s like dog years. Three years is like 21.”

He knew it would come out wrong but he said it anyway. That’s Kiffin, who always goes back to smooth things over, but the joke too frequently is on him.

Why would a guy who desperately needed the structure of Saban’s system to restore credibility to his own career get sloppy the moment that the payoff of a new job is secured? It doesn’t say much about the maturity that Kiffin supposedly has gained since his days at Tennessee and USC, or about his stated desire at the FAU introductory press conference to keep it boring for a while.

None of this means, of course, that Kiffin can’t be successful at FAU, or that the Owls won’t benefit from his magnetism and his coaching, or that Nick Saban regrets the modernization that Kiffin brought to the Alabama offense.

The bottom line is that Kiffin has been quiet for a long time. It’s bound to get noisy at FAU, and fast, because the goal is to keep him around for more than a few crazy headlines, and it’s unlikely that anyone over there is going to have the nerve to tell him to tone it down or else.

 

 

 

 

If you’re looking for more on Lane Kiffin coming to FAU, there’s always more

 

There was a lot left over from my print column on Lane Kiffin’s introductory press conference at Florida Atlantic on Tuesday. Here are a few highlights.

  • Howard Schnellenberger, the program’s founder, was briefly acknowledged with a round of applause at the press conference on the third floor suite level of FAU Stadium but he did not address the crowd. As anyone who ever has stepped onto that campus knows, Howard never passes on an opportunity to address a crowd.

Howard told me “I have now almost officially stepped down from my job as ambassador-at-large at FAU. I’m just about retired. Most everybody knows it now. I haven’t been to the office for about a month.”

Lane Kiffin is introduced as the new Florida Atlantic football coach on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)
Lane Kiffin is introduced as the new Florida Atlantic football coach on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)

There is no FAU football without Schnellenberger, who coached the team for its first 11 seasons (2001-11) and was the prime force behind drawing the plans and raising the funds for the on-campus stadium that helps to make the program so attractive to a guy like Kiffin.

At this moment his vision for the Owls is transitioning into someone else’s, providing Kiffin is up to staying around a while and seeing it through.

“I did a Google on him (Kiffin) and he’s sure got a great resume,” Howard said. “He looks to be a decent young man. He’s got a bunch of big gamily. He’s doing all the right things that the best of coaches have done, being a good father, a good teacher, and more importantly being a good provider and leader of his own family.”

Asked if he thought this would work between Kiffin and FAU, Howard said “It worked for me. It looked like it had to be done. This was the heart of paradise.”

[The Lane Kiffin revival tent is coming to FAU]

[Might as well let ESPN directly manage the College Football Playoff process]

[Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign draws comparisons to Tebow’s]

  • I asked Kiffin what his image of the FAU football program was four or five years ago and he said, “I didn’t have an image, really, because there was no recruiting against it. I was at USC or Tennessee and a little bit Alabama. I didn’t do a ton of South Florida recruiting. Did more Central and North Florida.”

Kiffin also said he wasn’t aware of FAU opening a new on-campus stadium when it happened in 2011.

“Coaches talk about facilities all the time,” he said. “Are they important? Yes, but I don’t buy into that as much as some coaches do. I’d rather have a president who wants the football program to win and understands that when the football program wins, it impacts the whole university. I’d rather have that than a bigger weight room.”

  • Along those lines, listen to this from FAU President John Kelly, who sounds like a guy who will approve of Kiffin’s crazy pace.

“Every day we wake up with what we call ‘Unbridled Ambition,’ “ Kelly said. “You see it on the sign behind me. ‘Unbridled Ambition’ means that you have a fire in your belly. You have an intensity. You refuse to lose.

“It means that when you go to work you wish you were there all the time and when you got to sleep, you will wish you were working.”

Before he was finished rolling, Kelly introduced Kiffin as “the top person in the country, the genius in coaching.” No pressure, Lane.

  • Kiffin calls the plays for Nick Saban’s offense at Alabama but he did not say if he would do the same at FAU. He talked instead of learning how to be a CEO by watching Saban. We’ll have to see if he can trust his offense to anyone else, but Kiffin inferred he may institute at least one of Saban’s fastest rules – no media contact with assistant coaches to insure that there is one message and that it comes from him.
  • Kiffin said he would work for Alabama during the day while preparations for the College Football Playoff semifinals are ongoing but will make phone calls and study film on behalf of FAU at night, when the Crimson Tide coaches go home.

He said he might interview candidates for the FAU staff while still in Tuscaloosa, including some of Alabama’s current assistants.

  • Kiffin apologized a bit for putting on a “boring press conference,” short on big promises and his famous tweaking of rival schools. He said “There will be no talk. It will be about work.”

He clearly feels good, though, about the magnetism that goes with his reputation as a coach and a bit of a rebel. What else would you expect from a man with 231,000 followers on Twitter?

“Bringing name recognition is one of the things we want to do,” Kiffin said, “and it’s already happening.

“Recruits that probably would not have looked here are already texting or calling to say, ‘Hey, can I get down there to see you?’ Coaches are already saying, ‘Hey, I’m willing to come there even though it’s maybe a paycut or a smaller program than I’m already at because of the excitement we already know is coming there and what you’re going to be able to do there.”

 

The FAU job was tough enough without Butch Davis moving in next door

(UPDATE – FAU fired Charlie Partridge on Nov. 27. Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is being mentioned in media reports as a possible replacement based on the fact that he interviewed for the FAU job in 2013. Also, Pat Chun spent 15 years in the Ohio State athletic department before becoming FAU’s athletic director in 2012.)

 

An important window of opportunity may just have closed for Florida Atlantic coach Charlie Partridge.

Already behind schedule with a 9-25 record in three seasons as the Owls football coach, Partridge has picked up a formidable rival right here in the same Conference USA neighborhood.

butchieButch Davis, a terrific recruiter and a known commodity among South Florida high school coaches, will coach Florida International starting in 2017. He will be introduced at the school Tuesday afternoon with a contract expected to stretch five years into an uncertain future.

Uncertain because Butch is a big name with a winning reputation from previous turns as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Miami Hurricanes and North Carolina Tar Heels. The natural question is how long would a guy like this be satisfied to operate outside the national spotlight in a league where a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl or the Independence Bowl is pretty much topping out?

If it’s any time at all, the competition will be hard on FAU and a head coach who believes he is just beginning to turn an important corner.

The Owls are on a rare win streak, with back-to-back wins over Rice and UTEP.

What Partridge also has, unfortunately, is a 3-7 record that includes a 33-31 loss to FIU. To change all of that he needs more kids from Broward and Miami-Dade counties, not less, and he’s got more than 30 from down there as it is.

Butch can flash his championship rings from his days as Jimmy Johnson’s assistant and wow the few South Florida high school coaches he hasn’t already met. For those too young to remember all of that, he can count on being recognized from his analyst job on ESPN2. Finally, he can look into the eyes of potential recruits and their family members and say that he wasn’t charged in the NCAA violations that caused North Carolina to vacate a bunch of wins, because he wasn’t.

Is there a glass-half-full view on this thing for Partridge? Sure.

Because nobody else is going to want to mess with Butch, there will be fewer mid-level assistants eager to replace Partridge at FAU and less reason for the Owls athletic department to go fishing around for anyone who might.

[Rams holding Jared Goff on bench is the mistake that Miami thankfully didn’t make with Tannehill]

[Speaking of Dolphins return touchdowns, remember what Ted Ginn did to Jets?]

[Tough to recognize America when Cubs won World Series in 1908]

Any way you slice it, the FAU job, with the new stadium and the huge enrollment and the fertile South Florida recruiting fields, just got tougher than Partridge or anybody else saw coming.

If Butch is serious about making a run at Conference USA supremacy, all the other coaches in the league are in for a fight. And if he’s not, all the other coaches in the league have just been put on notice anyway.

Whatever FIU makes look easy over the next few years will be interpreted as something those other guys should already have been doing.

If that doesn’t close some windows of opportunity, it surely smudges them up.