Lane Kiffin’s absence from major college football lasted roughly three months. The former USC Trojans head coach was hired Friday to serve as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama.
Kiffin, 38, who has already filled three head coaching jobs at the college and pro levels since breaking in as a Fresno State assistant in 1997, making a quick return to the coaching ranks comes as little surprise for those following his career — but a return to the Southeastern Conference, the league he infamously bolted from after one season at Tennessee (drawing the ire of commissioner Mike Slive), writes its own headlines. Slive twice reprimanded Kiffin in 2009, once for wrongly accusing then-Florida coach Urban Meyer of a recruiting violation and another time for criticizing officials following a loss to, you guessed it, Alabama.
Now he’s back in the spotlight for one of college football’s preeminent programs, attempting to provide balance for the nation’s most successful and respected defensive mind. Alabama has reportedly signed Kiffin to a three-year deal.
"I’ve always had the utmost respect for what Coach Saban has done with his programs. Having the unique opportunity to be here last month, I was able to meet some of the great players and the great people in the organization, and I’m very excited to start working with them," Kiffin said in a statement released by the university. "We’ve seen the passion and support of the Alabama fans firsthand, and when that’s combined with the storied history and tradition of the program, this is a very special place to coach."
Kiffin’s arrival — he replaces Doug Nussmeier, who accepted the offensive coordinator position at Michigan on Thursday — should bring an interesting dynamic to Alabama’s methodical (and effective) pro-style approach on offense. The pace is expected to speed up, but just how much likely hinges on the amount of rope Saban gives his new coordinator.
In his first three seasons at USC, prior to the 2013 campaign in which he was fired at midseason, Kiffin’s offense finished in the top-40 nationally in points per game — the highest ranking coming in 2011 (16th) as a Matt Barkley-led attack put up 35.8 points per game. He owns a 35-21 career record at the collegiate level. Plus, as ESPN’s research department points out, Kiffin’s stint as offensive coordinator for USC back in 2005 and 2006 was highlighted by one of the most dangerous offenses around (second in total yard, third in scoring).
There’s little denying the offensive success of Kiffin’s past teams, and he’ll have plenty of tools to work with among Alabama’s annual top-five recruiting classes.
But here’s a point of interest for this new combination: Kiffin’s teams at USC were, by and large, pass-dominant systems. That’s not Alabama right now. It could be the Alabama of the future, but not of the present. Instead, perhaps he can find ways to re-create the ground game success of USC’s 2005 team, featuring star running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White, both of whom combined for 3,042 yards and 40 touchdowns.
The Crimson Tide are graduating Heisman finalist AJ McCarron this season after two national title runs, but he was never the catalyst of their offensive success. The rushing attack in Tuscaloosa has finished top-30 nationally in rushing yards per game in each of the past three seasons, and with stars like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, and T.J. Yeldon it’s not hard to see why. Next season, Kiffin will have rising juniors Yeldon and Kenyan Drake and potential star Derrick Henry, a former No. 1 running back recruit who dominated the Crimson Tide’s Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
As for fulfilling his duties as quarterbacks coach, Kiffin will need to find a replacement for McCarron, with Blake Sims, the only other quarterback on Alabama’s roster with a career pass attempt, the likely frontrunner. Of the four other QBs behind Sims — Alec Morris, Parker McLeod, Cooper Bateman and Luke Del Rio — only Morris has even stepped foot on a college football field. Incoming recruit David Cornwell could also get a look, though a true freshman starting under center for a Saban-coached team would certainly be a departure from the norm.
"He is an outstanding and creative offensive coach who has great experience both at the college and NFL level," Saban said of Kiffin in a statement.
As is customary under Saban’s leadership, Kiffin is expected to fall in line with other Alabama assistants in at least one regard: limited media availability. So without his occasionally brash comments behind the mic, Kiffin’s return will hardly resemble the grand entrances he made in Knoxville and Los Angeles, but he certainly wasn’t gone for long.
Saban, who reportedly has a strong rapport with his new offensive coordinator, must believe Kiffin has the goods to put the stalled dynasty back on the right track following a 11-2 season that included losses to archrival Auburn and Oklahoma. The nation will tune in to see if he’s right.