Lane Kiffin: I would have paid Nick Saban for this chance at Alabama
NEW ORLEANS — Lane Kiffin would like you to know that contrary to public perception, Nick Saban does have a sense of humor. In fact, he said, at one point this season the Alabama head coach joked to his offensive coordinator: “’How did you get higher on the ‘Most Hated’ list than I did?’ He might have been mad about that.”
As part of Alabama’s offensive press conference here Monday morning for this week’s playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, America’s Most Hated Coach — silent all season due to Saban’s longstanding gag order on his assistants — spoke to media for the first time since the Tide’s preseason Media Day in August. Kiffin, who often made headlines for his wince-inducing sound bites while head coach at Tennessee and USC, managed to make it through two 25-minute sessions (one for television cameras, one for writers) without creating any mini-controversies.
But Kiffin, who’s overseen the most productive offense in school history (490.5 yards per game), did open up for the first time about his much-debated relationship with Saban; gushed about his quarterback, fifth-year senior Blake Sims (who himself called Kiffin his “role model”); and attempted to deflect speculation about his possible return to the head-coaching ranks.
Here were a few of the highlights.
On getting fired at USC and returning to the assistant ranks: “It’s very humbling. You can be really hot one minute, the next minute be unemployed.” Asked what he did for the rest of the 2013 season after USC fired him in late September, Kiffin said with a chuckle: “Not much.”
“… I thought, well, OK, [I’m] probably not going to get a head coaching job, but it will be easy to get an offensive coordinator job because of what we’ve done before and places we’ve been. [But] the phone wasn’t ringing. And [Saban] called and he took a chance. I know he thought a lot about it, because it wasn’t going to be necessarily the popular media hire, as he’s referred to before.”
On learning from Saban: Kiffin said he’s learned so much from Saban, particularly his game-management skills, that it’s almost like being a GA. He’s constantly taking notes. ”To be able to learn from somebody like him and his process, shoot, I would have done it for free,” said Kiffin. “I would have paid him for it, like most people would.”
For the record, Kiffin is in fact making $680,000 a year.
On those oft-televised sideline exchanges where it appears Saban is none-too-pleased with Kiffin: “I don’t think [we’re] ever at odds. Coach told me from the beginning, I’m going to tell you exactly what’s on my mind, good or bad, and then we’re going to move on. I’m not going to think about it again.” As for throwing up the touchdown sign when the ball’s still in the air: “I do that 30 times a game,” Kiffin said. “They only show it when it works.”
On Blake Sims’ development: You can tell Kiffin takes particular delight in watching the development of Sims, a previously dismissed fifth-year senior who’s become the nation’s seventh-rated passer in his first season as starter. Coming into the season many assumed Florida State transfer Jake Coker would beat out Sims. “The kid (Sims) never once mentions it,” said Kiffin. “I had one conversation. I brought it up because I was worried it was on his mind, about people being down on him. He said, ‘Coach, I’m not worried about that. Don’t worry about me. I’ll do whatever you want.’
“To see that attitude pay off — which is so unusual nowadays, where you stay and you play — has been great to see.” Kiffin went on to say he believes Sims deserves to be drafted.
On his head coaching future: SI’s Pete Thamel asked what Kiffin needs to do to become a head coach again, referring to him as “divisive.” “Thanks Pete,” Kiffin said with a grin. “Divisive? Gosh, this was going so well.
“You can only worry about what you can control, and that’s moving the ball and performing well on offense. You can’t worry about the other stuff.”
On if he expects to be back at Alabama next year: “Yes. Definitely. We’ve still got a lot of stuff we need to do better. We’ll obviously be working with a new quarterback. That’s always exciting, to see if we can do this again.”
On his relationship with Urban Meyer: It’s no secret Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was not a fan of Kiffin’s when both coached in the SEC — mostly because Kiffin publicly accused him of cheating. Is that an issue this week? “Coach Meyer and myself communicated a few times over texts, phone call. I don’t remember the timing of it. And it was, hey, all this kind of crap from before, let’s move on. I obviously have great respect for what he’s done everywhere he’s been and how fast he’s gotten this program up to being a top-four team.”
On his USC connection: Kiffin keeps in touch with his former USC colleagues and players and caught the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Holiday Bowl. He said he talked with Steve Sarkisian the night before that game. Perhaps most surprisingly, he said he’s talked with AD Pat Haden — the guy who fired him at an airport in the middle of the night — a couple times over the past month.
Needless to say, it was far from the typical bowl-week coordinator press conference, where most of the questions usually fall along the lines of: “What do you need to do to stop [the opponent’s] running game?”
In fact, in perhaps the ultimate sign of our collective Kiffin fascination, he did not get a single question in his print session about Ohio State.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, "The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff," is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.