When Alabama Coach Nick Saban tapped Lane Kiffin to be his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator following the 2013 season, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Some probably expected the team to explode with the addition of Kiffin, perceived as something of a spoiled kid who failed as a head football coach. Others – and put Crimson Tide offensive players into this camp – had visions of a more explosive offense under Kiffin.
The word from the 40-year-old Kiffin is that he won’t be making wholesale changes in the offense, but he expects positive changes for himself by being a part of Nick Saban’s Bama staff.
Saban is the man who made the decision to bring Kiffin to Tuscaloosa after he was fired mid-season at USC last year.
On Sunday, Saban said, “Lane has done a really good job since he’s been here, providing good leadership for the whole offense. The direction we want to go, the identity we want to have, and emphasizing some of the intangible things – the fundamentals – we needed to impove on. I think he does a really good job.
“It’s not just about knowledge. Some people have a tremendous amount of knowledge, but you have to be able to articulate it to the players in a way they can understand it and it’s simple for them to go out and execute it. Systematically, Lane does that with the players he coaches and with the entire offense, which I think is really, really important.”
Kiffin was not the only new staff member this year. Saban also brought in Kevin Steele to coach inside linebackers and Bo Davis to coach the defensive line. Unlike Kiffin, though, Steele and Davis had previously coached under Saban at Alabama.
Saban said, “I think there are two things. When you have staff changes, you like to have new ideas, new enthusiasm, neew people. But also there is always the question of how is the new assistant going to fit with the other people you have. When you have guys who have worked with you in the past, you know the fit, and the buy-in they have relative to how you do things, why you do things, how they work the players, that has a tremendous amount of currency you have to take into consideration, and it certainly does help the transition because the players know the guys and the guys know how to coach the players relative to how the players have always been coaches. So I think some of those things are real positives, but we don’t limit ourselves to that because we still like new ideas, new enthusiasm, new energy as to how we develop as a program and what we do systematically.”
Occasionally, reporters have an opportunity to meet with Saban coordinators. Sunday was one of those occasions.
Kiffin quickly put to rest any thoughts that there would be a complete makeover of the offense.
“As far as the offense, the last thing we'd want to do is come in and change a bunch of stuff,” he said. “It's a great offensive staff that's been together here. Had a great run here last year on offense; a number of players had great success last year.
“Really just coming in and looking at some things. Very small changes just to make sure at the end of the day we're putting our great players in the best position to utilize their talents in the best position for us to win games.”
No one knows who will be Alabama’s quarterback this year, but Kiffin said he expects to have a close relationship with that man.
Kiffin, who was his own play-caller as a head coach at Tennessee and Southern Cal, brought up that role as the reason for the importance of the relationship he will have with his quarterback.
“I think it’s extremely important,” he said. “We have to be on the same page. I have to see the game through him and he has to see the game through me. Because it doesn’t matter what I know. I might know everything to be able to draw it up or whatever, but that has nothing to do with if he’s going to be successful. So we have to make sure we have a relationship. We get to the point, eventually like the great quarterbacks that we’ve had, that we start to think the exact same way that you do. You might be sending in a play and they start turn around and start calling the play because they know what play you’re getting ready to call because of the relationship you developed.”
Kiffin described his return to football as an opportunity”to learn everything that you can from Nick Saban. I’m sitting here every day learning stuff from him.”
He said there is an adjustment from going from a seven-year career as a head coach back to coordinator. “You have to go from running everything to back to being an assistant coach, but it’s not like I haven’t done it before. This is easy here because you go from being a head coach and you come in to a place, the last thing you’re going to do with Coach Saban’s success he had here and the way he runs his program is to sit here and say ‘I don’t know why he does this, I don’t know why he does this.’ So you just come in really to learn and to be a part of it. That part’s been easy.
“This was an opportunity that came about that was the easy decision for me and there were some conversations about assistant coaches in the NFL that I was going over. I just wanted a job where I can be learning and growing and I can’t imagine a better place in the NFL or college to go and learn from someone who has been so successful and someone that teaches his coaches. It’s one thing to go to a successful head coach who doesn’t have a lot of meetings and just kind of runs his own deal. Coach Saban teaches his coaches every single day about what he wants and the way he expects things to be done and how you can improve and helps his coaches grow, which is why he’s had so many assistant coaches go on to be so successful.”
Kiffin first appeared on the Alabama scene last December when the Crimson Tide was preparing for its Sugar Bowl game. He said, “I don't think being here for those practices for bowl preparation had anything to do with this. Obviously you have to ask coach Saban that. Knowing him before and just really knowing what he's about, I always thought this would be a great opportunity if it ever presented itself somehow. There was actually some conversations a long time ago, coach's first year when he first got here actually, on the phone we had some conversations about coming here at that time. Decided to stay at USC at that time. It was something I kind of always thought about because I think the more you can learn from more people, obviously, the better you become as a coach. To be able to be around all the successful people before and now to be able to learn not just about the process here, but what it is about the players, the everyday way he goes about the way he works. I don't know how someone could be more dedicated to a program as a head coach. Whatever his age is, how does he do it? He's relentless every single day about making the Alabama football program better and everybody within the program.
“Coming for those eight days was really a phone call coach made. Obviously he knew I didn’t have much going on so I had some free time to come in. So I took my vacation in Tuscaloosa here for eight days at the Capstone Hotel.
“It was just interesting to come in and not have to work as far as running meetings as a head coach.”
He said he was able to “just sit back and look at the entire program, and watch players, the staff, everything. It was really good for me. I saw what I’m now seeing even more about the commitment and the dedication and the hard work and the way he approaches every day from the coaches down to the players and throughout the entire building. This is a place that is completely committed to winning and to playing extremely well and working really hard and that’s what you see every day here.
“It was amazing to see the style of practice and how physical practice was and how the players responded to it.”
Kiffin said he is learning the process.
“You talk about toughness and discipline and commitment and pride about what this place is about and what he's built over seven years,” Kiffin said. “To come in here and learn that, it's been really exciting. It's one thing to learn it, it's another thing to see it. I was here for eight days during the bowl preparation. I got to hear about it, see a little bit. Then when you see the way the players and the entire building buy into it, you can see why the success has been here over the last seven years.
“When you're hired here, you're going back into football and recruiting and spring ball and everything. Having a little time off there after getting fired at USC, it kind of re-excites you to get back. Obviously I loved being a head coach, there's lots of great things about that but when you step back, when you go into a role of being an assistant coach and your focus is so much back on football and player development and working with the players and the other coaches. When you're a head coach, you're pulled in so many different directions. That's been exciting, too, to get back to that. Obviously I did that for a long time before becoming a head coach.
“Coming here and being around the people of Alabama, they have been great. They've really welcomed me from the day I got here and really made me feel at home no matter where it is around town. Whether it's the people in the building, whether it's the fan base, I'm just excited to be a part of this and just excited to go back to work, doing like the last two days and being in there, to grind in football, to grind in camp, and just be a part of this staff and program with these players.”