Think Nick Saban's crazy to hire Lane Kiffin? Think again
JAN 11, 2014 3:55a ET
The Internet can't contain itself: Lane Kiffin will work for Nick Saban. Oh, the humanity.
Hey -- it's not as bad a partnership as you might think. This move certainly is subject to debate and a degree of criticism, but if you think it's a terrible decision by Saban, you're focusing too much on Kiffin the head coach and too little on Kiffin the coordinator.
The Internet is exploding with glee, jokes and GIFs in response to Kiffin being hired as the new offensive coordinator at Alabama, replacing Doug Nussmeier, who left to help Brady Hoke at Michigan. Yes, the reality of seeing Kiffin back in the SEC, where he caused so much trouble as a head coach, makes for good copy. Yes, the reality of seeing Kiffin at Alabama, a few short years after his stormy tenure at Tennessee, will make Vols-Tide even more of a raucous and spirited hate-fest. Yes, this spices up life in America's most talked-about and competitive college football conference.
One thing this is not, however, is a bad move.
Oh, it might not be a great move. Saban could have done better. Saban needs to become more up-tempo in his offensive style, if only because he needs his defenses to practice against tempo so that they're more prepared for the real thing against Auburn and other SEC offenses that like to pick up the pace. However, if the parameters of the discussion are confined to the question, "Is Lane Kiffin a competent and qualified offensive coordinator?", this is a solid move by Saban. It could even become a great move.
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This is NOT a case of Kiffin "failing upward," or falling into a better job than the one he had before. When you're the head coach of USC, going to a coordinator position, no matter how lofty, is a downward move, period. For once, Kiffin has not climbed the ladder despite a lack of results. No, this is a demotion into a pressure cooker in which Saban becomes Kiffin's (demanding, perfectionist) boss.
If Kiffin fails at this job, he won't get another top-tier head-coaching job. Maybe at a Sun Belt or Conference USA program. Maybe an NFL team would take him as a position coach. Maybe a lower-tier automatic qualifier program would give him a chance as an offensive coordinator. This is a test for Kiffin. That level of urgency is something Saban, a master of psychology, is banking on.
After four-plus seasons as a collegiate head coach, Kiffin is back to the position he occupied in 2006, when he was Pete Carroll's main play caller at USC. Kiffin is once again being asked to help a superstar coach at an elite program. He's no longer the man in charge. He's no longer the focus of media scrutiny. He's no longer the face of a high-profile program. He is now, again, a helper, not the boss.
Kiffin was not a good leader. He was not an effective boss. He did not handle the pressure or visibility of head coaching with poise or skill, certainly not on a sustained basis. He has the 2011 season to his credit at USC, but that's the exception in his career as a head coach, not the rule. The extent to which Kiffin bailed at Tennessee and then failed at USC has led a lot of people to nail Saban for this hire.
However, when Kiffin bailed and failed, he was a head coach, not an offensive coordinator. You don't have to hail Saban for making this move, but you shouldn't nail him, either. When Kiffin was an offensive coordinator at USC, he did a decent job. Some would say he did a great job, based on the 2005 season in which USC's offense maxed out. Some would say he didn't do anything special, given the extent to which USC's production dropped in 2006, especially in that ugly 13-9 loss to UCLA that knocked the Trojans out of a national championship date with Ohio State.
Nevertheless, USC made the Rose Bowl in each of the two seasons when Kiffin, with Norm Chow out of the picture, had a major role in formulating USC's offensive plan of attack. That's not a bad track record. More to the point, it's not the portrait of misery that Kiffin's head coaching career has become.
Plenty of mediocre or poor head coaches are really good coordinators. Kiffin's tenure as an offensive coordinator was marked by solid results. Was this the best hire Saban could have made? Not if Clemson's Chad Morris was a possible candidate. However, this certainly doesn't rate as a poor hire.
When Kiffin called plays at USC, he was trying to put his stamp on a program in the form of the plays he called, but his leadership deficiencies cast a cloud over the X's-and-O's goals he tried to achieve with his play sheet. This job at Alabama will not be a manifestation of Kiffin's personality because Saban will not allow Kiffin to deviate from the plan. Kiffin is being asked to insert fold A into slot B. He doesn't have to deal with the wholesale politics of leading a program, guiding a full roster of players and handling a full range of media duties. He's now a day (and night) laborer, someone who must toil in the shadows.
Yes, this is the job Kiffin has to perform well if his career is to have any legs. And for all the punches Kiffin has rightly absorbed over the past five years, his track record as an offensive coordinator is marked more by success than failure. If you think Saban has lost his marbles, you might look at the floor and, to your surprise, see no rocks rolling around at all.
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