Kiffin satisfied with revival of career
At one point, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was the hottest football coaching prodigy on the planet.
The son of a revered NFL defensive coordinator (Monte Kiffin) and play-caller for coach Pete Carroll’s offensive juggernauts at Southern California in 2005-06, Kiffin landed his first head coaching job with the Oakland Raiders on Jan. 23, 2007.
At 31, he was the youngest NFL head coach of the modern era (since 1946), a distinction Kiffin still holds despite being fired after posting a 5-15 record in his first 20 games.
None of that mattered when a struggling Kiffin, then the coach at USC, huddled with Alabama coach Nick Saban before the 2013 season and presented him with a list of 32 questions he wanted answered in efforts to turn around the Trojans’ program.
“I wanted to get some thoughts,” Kiffin said, reflecting on the summer session at Saban’s lake house. “We sat there for three or four hours and he answered all the questions. I learned about a lot of things.”
The answers did not trigger a turnaround for the Trojans. Kiffin was fired in October, after a 3-2 start to the season. But the exchange of ideas made Kiffin long to spend more time learning from Saban, an opportunity that surfaced the next season and has morphed into his two-year tenure as the Crimson Tide’s offensive play-caller and quarterbacks coach.
Kiffin will attempt Monday to help No. 2 Alabama (13-1) earn the school’s fourth national championship in the past seven seasons in a showdown with No. 1 Clemson (14-0) in Glendale, Ariz.
Win or lose, Kiffin said he wants to return to Alabama for a third season in 2016 to continue learning from Saban before taking over his next program.
“I’d love to be back. We’ll have a new set of challenges with a third year under a new quarterback,” Kiffin said during a recent interview before Alabama pounded No. 3 Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff championship game “We’ll have a lot of great returning players to work with. I’d be really excited about that.”
Make no mistake: Kiffin, 40, wants to oversee his own program and improve a 35-21 coaching mark in college (Tennessee, USC) that followed his 5-15 stint with the Raiders. But he wants to do it on his own timetable.
“When and if that time comes, I know that I’m much better prepared than I was before because I’ve had the chance to be with coach Saban and learn from him,” said Kiffin, who admitted he tried “too much” to mimic mentor Pete Carroll in previous coaching stops. “You’ve eventually got to figure out yourself and figure out what I take from each of these different guys. In this profession, you always continue to grow.”
That, in a nutshell, is the Kiffin mantra for why a former hip-hop, trash-talking Tennessee coach (2009) has latched on to the coaching coattails of Saban, an old-school, defense-first disciplinarian with a reputation for public scowls and a well-chronicled disdain for spread offenses.
Truth be known, Saban said, the two are more alike than different at their core, which is why Saban has allowed Kiffin to implement more spread-offense elements into a multi-faceted Alabama attack the past two seasons.
Saban even allowed Kiffin to stop him from calling a timeout before one of the Tide’s most pivotal plays this season: a fourth-and-2 call from the Texas A&M 26-yard line with Alabama seeking to extend a 28-20 lead in the third quarter. The next play, a 6-yard run by Derrick Henry, resulted in a first down that led to a field goal and helped Alabama shift the momentum in a 41-23 victory in College Station.
Saban called Kiffin “a great play-caller” who has embraced his role on the staff and helped the offense remain productive without the benefit of an elite quarterback in either of the team’s playoff seasons.
Alabama heads into Monday’s game ranked No. 51 among FBS teams in total offense (423.8 yards per game) but 33rd in scoring (34.4 avg.), which typically is more than enough to support the Tide’s stingy defensive efforts.
Saban cited Kiffin’s ability to create consistent production from a blend of offensive philosophies as a significant factor in the team’s title push.
Example: Henry, the team’s Heisman Trophy winner, carried a combined 90 times during high-profile victories over Auburn and Florida to end the regular season. Yet Kiffin shifted the focus of the Cotton Bowl game plan to quarterback Jake Coker, who completed 25 of 30 passes for a career-best 286 yards against a Michigan State defense stacked to stop the run.
“Lane deserves a lot of credit for that,” Saban said.
Coker, a senior who began his college career at Florida State, also is the son of a football coach. That shared background allows him a deeper insight into Kiffin’s influence on the Alabama offense than most peers.
Coker said Kiffin’s feel for when to operate out of the I-formation, a 1970s playbook staple, as opposed to using spread-offense wrinkles gleaned from offseason discussions with Houston coach Tom Herman, is the key to Kiffin’s success in Tuscaloosa.
“He does a great job of calling plays that really play to the strengths of our offense and the strengths of each guy individually,” Coker said. “And he finds matchups that are favorable. His play-calling has really made things a lot easier on us.”
Because the offense has developed more chemistry in its second season under Kiffin, Coker said the Crimson Tide can win games in a wider variety of ways than it could a year ago.
Part of that, Kiffin said, is attributable to his growing ability to grasp the different roles required of a play-caller as opposed to the CEO who oversees the entire program. During his USC days, he failed to keep them separate after leading the Trojans to a 10-2 record in 2011, his second season at the school.
“After that year, I don’t think we grew enough,” Kiffin said. “What I did was just expect us to go out and do it again. But every other defensive coordinator who wasn’t a head coach, what are they doing? They’re spending their whole off-season studying, ‘How can we beat SC?’ ”
What followed was a 7-6 record that laid the groundwork for Kiffin’s ouster a year later. That led him to Saban, where Kiffin spent the past offseason adding fresh wrinkles to the Alabama attack.
Now, he’s in position to win a national title that would boost his stock in efforts to oversee some other school’s football program … eventually. Just not next season.
Kiffin remains convinced he still has lessons to learn from Saban before moving back into the big office at some FBS football complex.