In New Orleans Monday, Alabama Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin was making only his second appearance in front of the media and the first in a national forum since accepting a job as Nick Saban’s offensive guru last January. From his days with the Oakland Raiders to a brief stint as head coach at Tennessee to a much-publicized departure from head coach at USC, Kiffin has never been shy in front of the cameras and has always been willing, almost eager, to speak his mind.??
And on Monday morning, the question most Alabama fans were asking – and which Kiffin was asked -- was whether the architect of the most prolific offensive unit in school history would return for an encore in 2015.
“Definitely,” Kiffin said. “I think we’ve still got a lot of stuff we can do better. You know we’ll obviously be working with a new quarterback and that’ll be exciting. To me, that’s always exciting, the unknown. You’ve got a new quarterback, see if we can do this again, see if we can perform really well. And, obviously, Coach (Saban) has recruited really well, year in and year out, so who are going to be the next guys up.
We’re going to lose the all-time leading receiver (Amari Cooper) in the history in the school and maybe after this game the all-time leading rusher (T.J. Yeldon) in the history of the school – I think he’s getting ready to break that – and now the quarterback (Blake Sims) who has had the most productive year in the history of the school and we lose them all at the same time. So that’s a big challenge.”?
Yeldon, who actually ranks fourth among school rushers, wasn’t as revealing as his offensive coordinator, but is expected to make an early entry into the National Football League draft along with Cooper.
As for Sims, Kiffin takes a lot of pride in watching a fifth-year senior overcome the obstacles to lead his team into Thursday night’s Sugar Bowl matchup with the Buckeyes after starting the year with plenty of skeptical fans wanting to see transfer Jacob Coker at quarterback.
“What do we see is going to happen in the next month all over the country? Quarterbacks that aren’t happy are going to transfer,” Kiffin said. “Well, he had so many opportunities, every year, obviously, of not playing, moving positions, signing Jake Coker as a transfer that everybody assumes is coming in to be the starter. The kid never once mentions it. I think I had one conversation and I brought it up because I was worried it was on his mind about people being down on him or no trust or belief in him.
“He’s like, ‘Coach, I’m not worried about that. Don’t worry about me, I’ll do whatever you want.’ To see that attitude pay off, which is so unusual nowadays, where you stay and you play, has been great to see. I think it should be a really good lesson, not just in college but when you talk about younger kids playing sports around the country. You don’t just leave because it’s not going your way.”?
Sims, he added, “should be drafted” based on his 2014 performance. And while Sims’ success is one of college football’s feel-good stories in 2014, there’s been a similar rise from the ashes for Kiffin, who was one of the bright young coaching stars in the game when he was named as the head coach of the Raiders in 2007. A year later, a tailspin of fortune that seemed to grow with each stop as he was fired by telephone by Al Davis, who admitted he had “picked the wrong guy” to lead the Raiders; his abrupt departure from Tennessee after a year sparked outrage among Volunteer fans which lasts to this day; and he was embarrassingly terminated by the Trojans in September, 2013, when he was pulled off of the team bus at Los Angeles International Airport.
“You can be really hot one minute, then the next minute be unemployed,” Kiffin said on Monday, acknowledging the last year has been humbling. “So it’s just a reminder that you have to always got to keep trying to improve yourself.”???As an example of that self-evaluation, he said Alabama coaches spent their first open date in September taking offensive schemes from Texas A&M and Auburn and implementing them in the Tide’s offensive scheme later in a 2014 season, one that ended with the unit setting school records in pass offense and total offense.
Kiffin served as a graduate assistant at Fresno State in 1997-98, an offensive line assistant at Colorado State in 1999, a defensive quality control assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2000 and an assistant with USC in 2001-06.
Returning to a coordinator’s role in 2014, Kiffin said, provided him a valuable opportunity to learn from one of the nation’s top college coaches. It wasn’t nearly as combative as some would have believed when the union between Saban and Kiffin was announced.??“I think that assumption about us being so different is very fair but I don’t think it’s very accurate,” Kiffin said. “We may not have the same personality but we do have a lot of the same beliefs when it comes to coaching.
“That was why this was so perfect for me to come into. I should pay him for this opportunity, to be able to learn from him. There are a lot of good coaches, but I don’t think there are many coaches that coach the coaches like he does every day so you’re learning while he’s doing everything. And I think that’s awesome.”
When asked if he wants to be a head coach again, Kiffin said he doesn’t have anything to prove. Saban’s rule of shielding his assistants from the media may have helped his resurrection, however. Kiffin’s candid comments often backfire, something the brash assistant doesn’t apologize for. ?
“I just always took the approach and it haunted me at times – especially when you lose, everything is magnified – but I was just going to say what was on my mind,” Kiffin said. “And it wasn’t going to be coach-speak and I wasn’t going to get up there and say what every other coach gets up and says. So I had to answer questions with exactly what I was thinking as if I was having a one-on-one conversation. And sometimes that comes back to haunt you, like it did.”
As he wrapped up his revealing and candid interview on Monday, Kiffin was asked whether he was interested in returning to the National Football League as a head coach.
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “I do really like the college game because I do like the development of the kids. I like the stories in the game. This Blake Sims story, I’m just hoping we can end it and make it a great story for all time (by winning a national championship). You don’t really get those in the NFL. It’s more business, obviously. So I do like the college game better because of that.”