Tide Assistant Kiffin Returns To Tennessee

Nick Saban is the most famous coach in college football today, and most would agree the best in his business. Butch Jones is doing a very fine job in rebuilding Tennessee. So who is the coach most on the minds of fans as the Crimson Tide prepares to go to Knoxville to take on the Vols Saturday?

Alabama Assistant Coach Lane Kiffin.

Lest you have forgotten, Kiffin was head coach at Tennessee in 2009, leading the Vols to a second place finish in the SEC East and an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. He came within a Terrence Cody blocked field goal of upsetting Bama when the Tide was on a national championship run.

After the 2009 season, he bolted from Knoxville to take the head coaching job at USC. He was head coach of the Trojans from 2010 until being fired midway through the 2013 season. Southern Cal was 28-15 under Kiffin.

He joined the Alabama staff early this year and is offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Crimson Tide.

Unlike previous Alabama play-callers, Kiffin is not working in the press box this year. He has been on the sidelines. That makes him a little easier target for the barbs likely headed his way from orange-clad fans.

On Monday, Nick Saban was asked about Butch Jones and the job he is doing at Tennessee.

“I think that Butch has done a really good job there,” Saban said. “He's done a really good job in recruiting. The players really played hard and with a lot of discipline. They don't get penalized much. They have got very good scheme on both sides of the ball. They are very sound in terms of what they do. I think he focused on coaching his philosophy and what he wants to do to have a successful program and I think the players have responded to it in a positive way. I think they played really well this year. I made this statement before, they lose by three to Georgia and lose by one point to Florida and they are a 5-2 team and everybody looks at them in a completely different light. We have a tremendous amount of respect for Butch and the job he's doing and their team.”

Still, the subject kept coming back to Kiffin.

Could Kiffin’s return to Knoxville be a distraction to the team?

Saban said, “I think it's only a distraction if you allow it to be a distraction. I always sort of use the analogy that when I was at Michigan State, we always had all these things that were going to happen when we went to play at Notre Dame. The Gipper was coming back to speak to the team, and all these things were going to happen. What I always used to tell the team is that doesn't really mean anything unless it means something to you.

“So if it doesn't mean anything to us and we can stay focused on what we need to do to do what's best for our team, then that's the way you manage it, that's the way you handle it, that's the way we need to look at it. So it doesn't really mean anything to us. The game, our players, their players. That's what means something to us and that's what should mean something to every coach on our staff.”

There was a question as to whether the attention to Kiffin could work in Alabama’s favor, to galvanize the team.

” I have no idea,” Saban said. “The only experience that I have was when I went back to Baton Rouge. It was very negative, getting hung in effigy and burned at the stake and just about everything that could happen happened.

“The way I tried to manage that with the players is to let them know that that was going to happen and to not be affected by it, and that it would probably be pretty rowdy when we got off the bus to go to the locker room, but that would really have nothing to do with what happened in the game. That was going to come down to what we did on the field. I would hope that's our approach to it and that we'll do the same thing in this game.”

Saban is more concerned about the management of the game on the road, and he was asked about communications, which is particularly important from Kiffin (play-caller) to quarterback Blake Sims.

Saban said that in earlier road games, “I don't think it was a communications issue. Focus and execution has to be better. We can't be affected by the external factors of playing on the road. We have to have a better energy level to execute what we want to do. The quarterback is the starting point of all that to manage the game. His in and out of the right plays and make the right checks.

“I think that all starts with the preparation. I think it's really, really important to have great preparation this week because it is a challenge we have to overcome, especially offensively. I think it's going to be really important we play really, really good on defense as well because they have a really good defensive team. It's going to be a challenge for us offensively, being able to execute the way we need to, to have success.”

The Kiffin and Sims discussion brought up the recruiting battle between Saban and Kiffin for Sims.

Sims was asked about the recruiting battle. He said Kiffin as Tennessee coach was “a crazy guy. He's funny and he was a good guy. The way his attitude was, you could tell he was a guy who wanted to win. That's why it doesn't surprise me that Coach Saban went and got him for this program because he fits it all the way around.”

Sims said he was “pretty close” to going to Tennessee. If Kiffin hadn’t left for USC, Sims said, he probably would have signed with the Vols.

Sims predicted that he and Kiffin would talk about what might have been. “It’s going to be a good conversation,” Sims said.

He said the relationship between him and Kiffin has “come a long way. We have a great relationship right now.

“We’re happy to be around each other again.”

Alabama (6-1 overall and 3-1 in Southeastern Conference games) will play Tennessee (3-4, 0-3) in Knoxville Saturday. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. EDT (6:30 central time) with television coverage by ESPN2.

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