With Saban's stamp of approval, Lane Kiffin rises again
PHOENIX -- A 40-year-old offensive coordinator for a team playing for a national championship would usually be a rising star.
Unless that coach is Lane Kiffin, who is already both a reclamation project and the most infamous assistant coach in college football.
A three-time -- and twice fired -- head coach, Kiffin is in the second season of restoring his reputation with Nick Saban's stamp of approval.
Under Kiffin's direction, Alabama had a record-breaking quarterback last season, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back this season and is a victory against No. 1 Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship on Monday night from its fourth national title in seven seasons.
"I think it's worked out as good as it can," Kiffin said Saturday. "I knew what I was getting into as far as I'm going here to learn from the best coach in college football, but I didn't really know I would learn as much as I did."
Kiffin rarely gives interviews because Saban does not allow his assistants to meet with the media. But at big games, teams are required to make assistant coaches available for interviews, and when that happens, Kiffin usually draws a crowd.
During his three-plus seasons as head coach at Southern California, Kiffin had few testy exchanges with reporters and often came across as aloof and arrogant. On Saturday, he seemed laid back, cracked a few jokes with some writers from is L.A. days and talked about the unusual arc of his career.
It did not dawn on him until the bus ride from the Phoenix airport that this will be his first game coaching in Arizona since his last game as USC coach.
Kiffin was fired five games into the 2013 season after Arizona State beat the Trojans 62-41. USC athletic director Pat Haden dismissed Kiffin in the wee hours of the morning at Los Angeles International Airport.
"On the bus ride we took a right turn and I remember on the day of the game I had jogged, about 100 degrees out, I jogged that day and I remember that turn right there and I said, `Wow, I'm back in the same place,'" Kiffin said.
"So this is probably the third time I've been here. The last time I got fired at 4 o'clock in the morning. The time before that was the USC hearing for the NCAA (investigation). A lot of great memories," he deadpanned.
Kiffin said he still keeps in touch with Haden and roots for USC. He was happy longtime Trojans assistant Clay Helton was promoted to head coach after Steve Sarkisian, who was dealing with alcohol-related problems, was fired in the middle of this past season.
Kiffin and Sarkisian are good friends from days as USC assistants under Pete Carroll.
"He's doing a lot better," Kiffin said of Sarkisian.
Kiffin said he received texts from Sarkisian with play-calling suggestions during Alabama's semifinal victory against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. Kiffin also said if he gets another chance to be a head coach, he would consider hiring Sarkisian.
It seems inevitable Kiffin will get a fourth crack at being a head coach, even though the first three stints were tumultuous. He was fired after 20 games with the Oakland Raiders (2007-08). He bolted after a season at Tennessee (2009) to replace Carroll at USC. He went 28-15 with the Trojans, playing with a roster limited by NCAA sanctions.
Even Kiffin thinks he rose to the top too quickly.
"When you become a head coach so early, so young and so fast, you really don't know why you're doing things," he said. "You're just doing them because that's what Pete did. Because that's all you know."
When the next head-coaching opportunity comes along, Kiffin plans to take a graduate-level course load of lessons from Saban with him.
"There's a ton of things, but I think really probably the No. 1 thing is how he is the CEO of the program," Kiffin said. "I think as I look back there was so much focus on just the offense and calling the plays on the offense. Understanding the importance of all the other stuff, not just performance on the field."
Saban tried to hire Kiffin away from USC back in 2007 when he first took the Alabama job. When Saban called after the 2013 season, Kiffin was in need of a place to jump start his career.
"I think that a lot of the things we do and the way we do it at Alabama is probably a good fit for things that he maybe can learn and build on and grow from that would help him be a head coach again," Saban said.
Kiffin said in many ways he gets more satisfaction as a coordinator than he did as a head coach because he works more closely with players. He has been integral in developing first-time starting quarterbacks Blake Sims and Jake Coker.
"He's a football genius," Coker said.
Genius is not a description many fans would use to describe Kiffin after USC. Even before joining Saban's empire, he was one of the most vilified men in college football.
It has been a most unusual career path for Kiffin, but he doesn't think of himself as a failed head coach.
"If you would have told me when I was 24 years old, right before I went with Coach Carroll to USC, you're going to get to be the offensive coordinator for Pete Carroll and then offensive coordinator for Nick Saban, arguably maybe the two best coaches in all of football by the time you're 40 years old, I would have said, `Where do I sign up?'" Kiffin said.
"Any time those thoughts may come in, I just go back to remembering how fortunate I am to be able to learn what I have."