Lane Kiffin has had an up-and-down career. He went from one of the brightest offensive minds in all of football to a failed head coach at both the NFL and college level.
Kiffin, who played quarterback at Fresno State in the mid-1990s, worked his way up the ladder incredibly quickly at USC during the Trojan dynasty under Pete Carroll. However, when he left USC after the 2006 season, his career endured some tough hits.
Then, after only one season at Tennessee, after he led the Volunteers to a 7-6 record, he bolted back to USC to replace Carroll as head coach.
Kiffin seemed like a perfect fit for the Trojans at the time, but he couldn’t overcome the NCAA sanctions that kept USC out of postseason play and drastically reduced their scholarships. Although he did lead the Trojans to a 10-2 record in 2011, he also oversaw the 2012 squad that became the first team since 1964 to start the year ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls and end the year unranked.
And then five games into the 2013 season, USC athletics director Pat Haden fired Kiffin at the airport after a blowout loss to Arizona State.
Some thought that might signal the end of Kiffin. He would probably become either a position coach in the NFL, or maybe an offensive coordinator at a mid-major college team.
But then Nick Saban entered the picture. He brought Kiffin in to “evaluate the Alabama offense” in the Tide’s preparation for Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
There was plenty of speculation following the announcement, but what resulted was a marriage between Kiffin and Alabama that has blossomed into something special. With Kiffin in charge of the offense, the Crimson Tide qualified for the College Football Playoff twice, most recently defeating Clemson 45-40 in the National Championship game.
“Lane has done a good job with us, and I think the big thing that every coach that comes into our sort of organization sort of grows and develops into is there’s a certain way that we do things, and it really doesn’t matter how you’ve done them before,” Saban told Howie Kussoy of the New York Post.
Kiffin’s brilliance has been on full display in Tuscaloosa, leading the Tide offense to ultra-productive seasons despite having an inexperienced quarterback both times.
First it was Blake Sims as the signal-caller, and Kiffin orchestrated a wide-open attack that focused on getting the ball to All-American receiver Amari Cooper. Cooper ended up winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver while setting Alabama single-season records in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns.
This year, with Florida State transfer Jake Coker at the helm, Kiffin went with more of a ground-and-pound attack, which produced a monster season for running back Derrick Henry and netted the school its first Heisman Trophy winner since Mark Ingram in 2009.
While the scheme might have been different, Kiffin was not. He once again proved that he is one of the best in the country at executing a game plan, adjusting to what the defense is doing and exploiting matchups that gets the ball to his best players in space.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Alabama receiver Parker Barrineau told George Schroeder of USA TODAY. “You have 15 seconds to call a play and get it in there looking through a huge play-calling sheet, and he pulls out the right one.
“He’s smart, he knows the coverages, and he’s brilliant. A great mind.”
One of the things that makes Kiffin so successful is his incredible knack for watching how other teams were successful against the defense he is about to play, and tailoring that week’s game plan with similar ideas. For example, when the Tide dominated Michigan State in the first playoff game, on several occasions they lined up in similar formations and ran plays that worked for Oregon when they played the Spartans.
And while Kiffin’s offensive mind has certainly impressed plenty, his cerebral demeanor on the sideline has also rubbed off on his players.
"He's just so calm out there," Tide receiver Richard Mullaney said, via Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports. "Everything is so positive. He's a funny dude. He's never down. He's always encouraging. If something goes wrong, he'll take the blame. It's been great."
Add it all up, and Kiffin is ready to get another crack at being a head coach. His time at Alabama has prepared him to make the jump from an offensive-minded failed head coach to a successful head coach. Kiffin has had the opportunity to spend two years with the most decorated coach of this era, and he has made sure to soak in as much knowledge from him as possible.
“When you become a head coach so early, so young and so fast, you really don’t know why you’re doing things,” Kiffin said, per Kussoy. “There’s a ton of things [I’ve learned], but I think really probably the No. 1 thing is how [Saban] is the CEO of the program. I think as I look back, there was so much focus on just the offense and calling the plays on the offense [and not] understanding the importance of all the other stuff, not just performance on the field.”
In Kiffin’s first two stops—at Tennessee and USC—he spent the majority of his time with the offense and also called the plays on Saturdays. After all, that’s how he made his name. However, after spending two years with Saban, he has learned that a head coach has to know what is going on in all facets of the game, as well as everything within the program.
He has even said that if he does become a head coach again, he will indeed delegate play-calling duties to another coach on his staff. Which leads to another reason why a team shouldn’t hesitate to hire Kiffin to lead its program.
Kiffin recently spoke about his former colleague Steve Sarkisian, who is currently unemployed after getting fired by USC and trying to sober up after battling alcoholism. Kiffin and Sarkisian coached together as assistants under Carroll, and Kiffin bringing in Sark as his offensive coordinator in the future is a real possibility.
“Oh, I definitely would [hire him],” Kiffin said at one of the CFB playoff media days, via Sam Khan Jr. of ESPN.com. "People go through things, and they happen. There are all kinds of comeback stories. Hopefully he'll be one of them.
“People go through things, it doesn’t mean he can’t coach. The guy is a great playcaller. … There's no question about his relationships with the players, quarterback development. We all go through things, and I can tell talking to him that he has come back stronger and he'll be even better."
Sarkisian is a great offensive coach, and if he gets his life turned around and shows that he has truly learned from his mistakes, he would be a tremendous offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Kiffin’s staff.
Kiffin has earned another chance to be a head coach and, after picking Saban’s brain for the better part of two years, has what it takes to successfully lead a program.
If that happens, a potentially lethal Kiffin & Sark combo would be just a bonus.