GLENDALE, Ariz. — At 12:15 a.m., about two hours after Alabama had defeated No. 1 Clemson 45-40 to win another national title, Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin made what might’ve been his toughest play call of the night.
In what surely will sound like The Most Lane Kiffin Thing Ever, Kiffin walked out of the University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday night only to see the team’s four buses pulling away. Kiffin was in mid-sentence, talking about his relationship with Alabama QB Jake Coker — "My bus is leaving," Kiffin said. "That’s not good."
They couldn’t leave without Kiffin, could they?
"They’re leaving right now."
Kiffin whistled to a security guard about 50 yards away to stop that last bus. He hustled after it, but it was to no avail. Kiffin and his younger brother, Chris — Ole Miss’ defensive line coach — were now stranded at the stadium.
"First, I get fired on the tarmac, and now I get left behind at the national championship," Kiffin said, half-jokingly.
The tarmac firing is a reference to Kiffin’s notorious termination from his time as USC’s head coach. He has since bounced back exceedingly well. His name may have been a punch line for many, but Kiffin is getting the last laugh.
"He’s just so calm out there," Tide senior WR Richard Mullaney said of Kiffin. "Everything is so positive. He’s a funny dude. He’s never down. He’s always encouraging. If something goes wrong, he’ll take the blame. It’s been great."
No doubt, Nick Saban has helped focus the mercurial Kiffin, but the 40-year-old OC also has been a huge asset to the Tide. Monday night’s game was another reminder of just how good Kiffin is at developing quarterbacks. Yeah, he had big success with the Trojans’ QBs, but it’s often overlooked what he did at Tennessee with Jon Crompton and then last year with Blake Sims.
Coker’s transformation this season has been one of the best stories in college football. The QB was sharp against a fierce Clemson defense and finished the season with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions over the final five games — contests in which he often burned teams with deep passes and big plays, much as he did against the Tigers.
Coker praised Kiffin for honing the way he thinks on the field, the way he sees things and how they open up. "The things he’s coached me (through) are really my fault, like when I get sacked," Coker said. "He’s coached me up. He’s got guys open for me, and I screw up sometimes, and that’s on me."
The turning point for Coker was in late September against Louisiana Monroe, he said, the week after the Tide lost to Ole Miss. Against the Rebels, Coker threw two picks.
"I’ll be honest," Coker told FOX Sports of his relationship with Kiffin. "We didn’t always get along. After that Ole Miss game, (Kiffin said) we’ve got to forget about everything and just work. He’s a West Coast guy. I’m from South Alabama. We’re a little bit different in the ways we think, but eventually we put it together, but I love the guy. He has done so much for me. We came to an understanding. It’s become a real special thing as this season’s gone on."
On Monday night, Kiffin masterfully orchestrated the Alabama offense for 473 yards against the nation’s No. 10 defense while unleashing O.J. Howard for a five-catch, 208-yard performance and two TDs — two more than the speedy tight end had produced in the previous two seasons.
After the game, as all of the Alabama players celebrated, Kiffin fielded questions from packs of reporters while his three young kids draped themselves in glittery streamers and confetti. It was a sweet moment. Kiffin had won two national titles at USC, but that was more than a decade ago. His kids couldn’t share that with him and his family.
"[Howard] was well-rested; for 14 games, we didn’t really use him," Kiffin deadpanned. "He didn’t complain one time about the amount of touches he got, and then he made some big-time plays today.
"It’s a great day for everybody involved in Alabama. I’m just really happy for these great stories of some great kids. For Jake Coker to be down and out last year and then we lose the Ole Miss game, and I don’t think anybody would’ve thought we’d be here. The last five games without an interception — it’s a credit to him. He made a lot of critical plays tonight."
Kiffin’s play-calling and adjustments again came up big for the Tide. Monday night was the third game in the postseason in which the staff had drawn up a new play at halftime, taught the team some adjustment and scored touchdowns in the second half.
Kiffin isn’t one to get nostalgic, but as he stood on the field a few minutes after the game, he appreciated the crazy path he has been on.
"I can’t imagine writing a better story over the last two years unless we would’ve won it last year, too," he said. "Two quarterbacks having really just one year to play. Seeing them grow and doing so well, and we had a Biletnikoff and a Heisman. It’s really been exciting.
"It hit me earlier today, how long it’d been (since winning a national title). I was telling our players, ‘You don’t know if you’ll ever get another one.’ It’s been 10 years since the last one, and I felt like I screwed the last one up in that game so much, I’m just happy to finally get back here and close it out."
The last challenge of the night was getting home. Pacing around in the bowels of the stadium, Kiffin tried to figure out what he and his brother were going to do for a ride. A TV camera followed him.
Maybe he could call for an Uber? Nah, that’d probably take too long.
"Who is that guy?" a motorcycle cop just outside the stadium asked, observing the curious scene.
The cop, a local police officer standing by his bike in front of a black Yukon, was unaware that Kiffin was the Tide’s play caller. As Kiffin returned from the inside of the stadium, he headed for the backseat of the Yukon. It was waiting for his boss, Nick Saban.
The younger Kiffin brother joined his brother, and conceded he’d never met Saban before (even though he’s coached against him and his team has beaten Saban each of the past two years).
Asked whether he saw any irony in the moment — being left behind — Lane Kiffin just shrugged. "Hey, it is what it is."
It is a memorable exit for one of the most unique characters in football, who also happens to be one of the best offensive coaches in the college game.