Lane Kiffin was a few minutes into his mandatory appearance during the Allstate Sugar Bowl news conference Monday when the Alabama offensive coordinator paused after one question about his relationship with Nick Saban before asking back, “Are you trying to get me to make SportsCenter today?”
Well, yeah, sorta.
Why else would a gaggle of cameramen and photographers be gathered eight deep around Kiffin — who was making only his second media appearance since becoming a surprise hire in January, per Saban’s edict barring his assistants from speaking to anybody but him, the players, and presumably their families from time to time — except in hopes of his popping off about something?
When you’ve been involved in three sudden — if not downright bizarre — departures from the three high-profile jobs you held before coming to Tuscaloosa, there’s going to be high anticipation of what you might say, especially given your history for Rob Ryan-esque brashness, on this rare day when Saban’s gag order is temporarily lifted.
“I really haven’t thought much about this at all,” Kiffin said, perhaps being slightly disingenuous after he moved from the digital to print portion of his 40-minute talkfest. “I didn’t even know I was doing this until last night.”
But either Kiffin did prepare a few lines, or he had a lot of pent-up verbiage since the brief time when Saban loosened the vocal reins back in August on the third day of preseason drills, during which Kiffin mostly demurred that he hadn’t seen enough of the Crimson Tide offense to render a judgment.
So here is a bit of the former Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Vols, Southern California Trojans coach unleashed:
On his referencing Saban’s short stature during a banquet honoring the finalists for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant coach: “I don’t know what Nick’s initial reaction was. I wasn’t with him at the time, and he’s never brought it up.”
On returning to play Tennessee, which he bolted after one season for Southern California, and preparing to face the wrath of the Volunteers fans: “We were on the bus, and I said, ‘Coach, who’d have thought that one day I was going to be back here as an assistant working for you? And the next game, we’re going to go to LSU and have the same thing happen to you.’ And then he jokes back to me about how I’ve gotten higher on the most-hated list than he is. I think he might have been mad about it.”
On what he did after being unceremoniously fired by Southern California Athletic Director Pat Haden on the LAX tarmac after the Trojans’ 62-41 loss at Arizona State early in the 2013 season: “Not much. It’s very unusual when all you’ve been programmed to do is to go to work every day, because in this profession, you don’t have a lot of free time. The phone sure wasn’t ringing a lot. That’s the reality.”
When you’re only 38 and have already been accused by the late Al Davis of “being a flat-out liar’ and “bringing disgrace to our organization,” when Davis fired him in 2008 a month into his second season, plus running through the two college jobs, that can be a very cold reality.
But at some point in time, the phone did ring — or Kiffin called Saban.
Whatever. Kiffin came to Tuscaloosa last December during the Tide’s preparations for its Sugar Bowl meeting with Oklahoma, and the two talked for three hours.
Then, a week after Bama’s stunning 45-31 upset loss, then-offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier left to take the same post at Michigan. Kiffin was hired the next day.
The perception around Tuscaloosa was that Nussmeier, now at Florida after the Brady Hoke firing this season, did not leave of his own accord, although that’s never been verified.
What has been verified is that this has been the most-prolific offense in Alabama history.
The Tide is averaging 490.5 yards and 37.1 points per game, thanks to a system introduced by Kiffin that has incorporated the program’s traditionally strong running game with a varied passing attack led by fifth-year senior but first-year starting quarterback Blake Sims and Heisman-finalist/receiver Amari Cooper.
“It was just different when coach Kiffin got here,” Cooper said. “He was moving everybody around and trying new things.
“I knew the offense would be more open.”
Beyond that, Kiffin has brought a different dynamic to the Alabama staff.
“It’s always (good when) you bring new blood to the staff,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “Lane has fresh ideas, has a lot of energy and is fun to be around.
“He’s definitely not afraid to speak his mind. Maybe he hasn’t learned yet.”
At the same time, Saban, despite his dictatorial reputation, isn’t afraid of give-and-take, either in the meeting room, the practice field or the sideline.
During the Auburn game, which Alabama trailed until the fourth quarter thanks in large part to three Sims interceptions, Saban and Kiffin were caught by the camera in a heated exchange.
“Nick is going to tell you exactly what is on his mind, and then move on,” Kiffin said. “That’s a good quality in a coach, because you’re not still thinking about it 10 plays later.”
Being around Saban, Kiffin added, has made him realize his own shortcomings as a head coach, mainly that he focused only on the football aspect, especially on the offensive side, instead of realizing that there’s a bigger picture to consider.
That will go to help Kiffin in his next opportunity, when and if it comes.
There was talk of his being a fallback candidate at Michigan if Jim Harbaugh didn’t take the Michigan job, as well as less-prominent places such as Kansas, SMU or UNLV.
But nothing developed. Perhaps, given his history, Kiffin is considered too untrustworthy to be given another shot right away.
Neither does he seem interested in the NFL right now, although offensive innovation is considered this year’s prized commodity.
“The right spot’s going to come along,” said Ed Orgeron, who followed his close friend as interim coach at Southern California. “And Lane will be better at it than he’s been before.”
In the meantime, Kiffin said he is content to be at Alabama (Could he be thinking of being Saban’s successor one day?), relishing the Tide’s being in the CFP semifinals against Ohio State, and returning to Alabama next season when he will face the challenge of replacing the program’s single-season passing leader in Sims, career receiving leader in Cooper and likely career rushing leader in T.J. Yeldon.
And to continue to work with Saban.
“To be able to learn from somebody like him, and his process, shoot, I would have done it for free,” Kiffin said. “I would have paid him for it.”
Just not by the word.