Column: Saban gambling again with early purge of Kiffin
You can only poke the bear so much.
Lane Kiffin kept running his mouth , and it may have cost him a chance to stay at Alabama for one more week.
But Nick Saban is taking a real gamble here, even more than the onside kick that helped turn the tide in last year’s national championship game.
If Alabama’s offense performs well against Clemson and helps deliver a fifth national championship in eight years, then Saban will be vindicated in his decision to switch up offensive coordinators a week before the big game.
If the Crimson Tide falters – and, frankly, they didn’t look all that impressive offensively in what turned out to be Kiffin’s farewell at the Peach Bowl – then Saban is sure to face plenty of questions about the wisdom of carrying out what has all the looks of a Soviet-style purge.
Kiffin, of course, was already set to leave Tuscaloosa at the end of the College Football Playoff to take the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic . He was supposed to stay through the end of the Crimson Tide’s season, and indeed was on the sideline last Saturday, flip card in hand, for a 24-7 semifinal victory over Washington.
Two days later, Saban stunningly announced that Kiffin wouldn’t be around for the championship game, giving way immediately to offensive coordinator-in-waiting Steve Sarkisian.
The head coach issued a vague statement that created more questions than it answered, something about the ”time demands of managing both jobs” being too much for Kiffin to handle even though this has become a familiar arrangement for assistants moving on to head coaching jobs.
Kirby Smart stayed on as Saban’s defensive coordinator through the national championship game last season after being hired by Georgia. Two seasons ago, Tom Herman finished out Ohio State’s title run as offensive coordinator before becoming the head coach at Houston and, now, Texas.
Kiffin may have sealed his fate at Alabama with some inflammatory comments in the days leading up to the Peach Bowl. When asked about the happiest moments of his three-year tenure, Kiffin said he only remembered the many times he was chewed out by his boss. Kiffin also said that he thought Sarkisian’s personality would be a better fit with the demanding Saban.
Given that Saban extended a coaching lifeline to Kiffin after he was unceremoniously fired at the airport by Southern Cal, those comments surely didn’t go over well.
Considering the way Alabama played in the Peach Bowl, passing for 57 yards and getting just 17 points from the offense (one touchdown came off an interception return), Saban had further reason to push up Sarkisian’s start date, even if that meant ditching a coach the offensive players are much more familiar with – some for as many as three seasons.
As an analyst, Sarkisian wasn’t permitted to have that sort of relationship.
”They’re involved in the planning. They’re involved in the organization. That’s where they make their contribution, in the coaching meetings,” Saban said. ”They’re not really allowed to be involved with the team.”
It will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out next Monday night in Tampa.
Just don’t expect Saban to spend any time talking about it.
”I don’t know why you all keep asking me what changes we’re going to make,” Saban said during a previously scheduled teleconference Tuesday, one that he surely would have preferred to skip.
Then, he added sarcastically that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney ”is a good friend of mine. Maybe I’ll just call him up and tell him what we’re going to do.”
Saban got especially testy when asked to elaborate on why it was the best interests of Kiffin and Alabama that he not hang around for seven more days.
”I don’t have anything else to say about this,” Saban said. ”We did what we did for the reasons that I’ve stated many, many times before, and there’s really nothing else to talk about. So there’s no why, there’s no if, there’s no but. It just is what it is. The statement says what it is. We’re moving forward, so let’s talk about the game. I mean, it’s only fair to the players who have worked hard on both teams to have an opportunity to play in a great, competitive venue, and that’s what we’d like to talk about.”
Not long before Saban spoke, Kiffin made it sound like it was his decision to leave, which really stretched the bounds of credibility – especially when he also raised the idea of essentially flipping jobs with Sarkisian to stay on with the Crimson Tide as an analyst through the title game.
”This was not something that Nick Saban forced me to do by any means,” Kiffin insisted. ”If I wanted to coach this game, I would have coached this game. I just thought that it wasn’t the best thing for the players.”
Saban quickly shot down the idea of Kiffin helping out next Monday.
”It’s really not even possible from a legal standpoint for him to do those things,” the Alabama coach said. ”That’s not something that we’re interested in pursuing.”
Saban is rolling the dice again.
Let’s see if it pays off with another championship.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
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