HOOVER, Ala. — Had it been a press conference in a movie, the question would have been followed by a record scratch and dead silence. A reporter grabbed the mic and asked Alabama coach Nick Saban this:
How has Lane Kiffin improved you as a coach?
Lane Kiffin? Improve Nick Saban? As a coach?
The jokes flew around the room and the Twitterverse. Even Saban seemed shocked. “I’m sorry?” he said before beginning his answer. But as the question sunk in, it didn’t seem as far-fetched as it did on the first listen.
Saban’s answer focused on the staff as a whole. “Every coach that we brought in has made an improvement in terms of helping me develop new ideas, new experiences,” Saban said. “Because we’re always all looking for a better way.” Saban always is looking for the next schematic advantage, but that didn’t address Kiffin directly. Perhaps the original question is better answered by two more questions.
1. Would Alabama have won the SEC title and made the playoff in 2014 had Kiffin not been there to mold an offense around quarterback-turned-tailback-turned-quarterback Blake Sims?
2. Would Alabama have won the national title last season had Kiffin not been there to mold the offense around Jake Coker, the senior who had been beaten out the year before by quarterback-turned-tailback-turned-quarterback Sims?
Kiffin’s creation of two effective offenses with two different senior quarterbacks—who had never been able to win a starting job prior—is one of the more impressive feats in recent college football history. Kiffin, who had run a pro-style offense his entire career, had followed Saban’s orders to juice Alabama’s tempo in 2014 and taught himself how to call plays that way.
After studying with the coaches at TCU and Houston that off-season, he had planned to go fast in 2015. But Coker’s skill set and Kenyan Drake’s injuries, which forced Derrick Henry to shoulder most of the rushing load, made Kiffin slow down to a more familiar tempo. This resulted in two more wins and a national title ring. Had those feats been accomplished by nearly anyone except Lane Kiffin, that coordinator would have been on the short list of every school with an open head-coaching job. But Kiffin remains at Alabama, coaching out year three of a three-year contract. His failures as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders and at USC, combined with the drama he brought to Tennessee practically every minute of his one-year tenure there, complicate what would otherwise be a hot-coordinator résumé. Consider these potential job candidates:
Candidate No. 1: This 39-year-old coordinator for an all-time great head coach put the offense on the shoulders of a great quarterback two seasons ago. Last season, he lost that quarterback to injury and then had to use two different quarterbacks to help his team win a national title.
Candidate No. 2: This 40-year-old coordinator essentially ran the up-tempo offense of a 12-win team through a receiver two seasons ago. After losing that receiver, the coordinator slowed down the offense and built around a 245-pound tailback to help his team win a national title.
Both candidates sound great, but one was a much hotter commodity. Candidate No. 1 was Tom Herman after the 2014 season, when he helped Ohio State win a title before taking the Houston job. Candidate No. 2 was Kiffin last year. The difference? Herman had never been a head coach before. Everyone had seen Kiffin as a head coach, and his flaws were apparent. We tend to believe in the Peter Principle, which states that people inevitably will rise to the level of their incompetence. Kiffin, a clearly competent offensive coordinator, had been deemed an incompetent head coach at the pro and college levels.
Kiffin has helped Saban stay atop the SEC and secure a fifth career national title. What Saban has learned from all this is debatable, but Kiffin’s contribution has been significant. The better question is, what has Kiffin learned from Saban?
Before Alabama faced Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, Kiffin explained that working for Saban had taught him about program organization and attention to the correct details. USC players who saw their cookies taken off the training table by Kiffin will attest that the coach was detail-oriented before, but perhaps he focused on the wrong ones. After three years in Saban’s organization, can Kiffin correct the issues that cost him some very good jobs? More importantly, can he convince a potential employer that he has changed since he put together that dismal body of work as a head coach?
This isn’t limited to wins and losses, by the way. Kiffin clashed with owner Al Davis in Oakland. He generated unnecessary headlines in the name of publicity in Knoxville and signed players who quickly washed out of the program. He had one excellent season at USC and—by his own admission—refused to grow. Meanwhile, a building full of people celebrated the fact that he didn’t come back from the airport after losing to Arizona State in 2013.
Compare this with the case of Will Muschamp. Like Kiffin, Muschamp underachieved at a program that had recently been competing for national titles. Unlike Kiffin, Muschamp got rehired to another Power 5 head-coaching job relatively quickly. Why? It certainly wasn’t because of the coordinator stint in between. Muschamp’s year running Auburn’s defense after getting fired at Florida wasn’t nearly as successful as either of Kiffin’s seasons running Alabama’s offense. But people in Florida’s football complex had cried when Muschamp left. Those who had worked with him at Texas had loved him. The reference check was a breeze when South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner called before deciding to hire Muschamp.
Unfortunately for Kiffin, he can’t prove whether he’s fixed that facet of himself unless he gets another head-coaching job. For him to do that, some athletic director is going to have to be willing to giving him another chance. If Kiffin can build an offense around a third quarterback in three years and help the Tide win another SEC title, it would seem only logical that some AD would take that chance. “He has a résumé that says he can be a head coach [in college],” Alabama tight end O.J. Howard said. “He definitely could be an offensive coordinator anywhere in the NFL.”
In that December interview, Kiffin explained how he keeps himself from getting too down about the lack of opportunities for a fourth head-coaching job. “I have a great job, and any time that there’s any thinking any different, I just remind myself of how many people would want to be the offensive coordinator for Nick Saban,” Kiffin said. “Take out the head-coaching experience at the three different places I was at. If you were going to say that you’re going to work for Pete Carroll and Nick Saban before you’re ever 40 years old as their coordinator on some very successful teams, when you’re 25 years old, you’d take that in a second.”
But of course Kiffin wants more than that. He still wants to prove he can succeed as a head coach. As he coaches in the final year of his contract, he’ll try to show what he has learned from Saban—and maybe what Saban has learned from him—as he tries to make prospective employers focus on the more recent lines on his résumé.