Lane Kiffin and Bobby Petrino have a ton in common as prominent college football figures.
- They’ve been head coaches at three schools each.
- Both were big names as assistants, and Kiffin became famous as an assistant again for the last three years at Alabama.
- Kiffin and Petrino can recruit and coach college offenses at a high level. In 2016, Kiffin was guiding Alabama’s offense to its highest heights in years, and Petrino’s first true dual-threat QB, Lamar Jackson, won the Heisman.
- Petrino’s been involved in so many shenanigans that we had to assemble a 15-year timeline of them, and Kiffin has left four consecutive jobs in acrimonious fashion.
They have one other thing in common: these college football lifers both missed the weirdest season in college history because they were NFL head coaches at the time. And for not much total time otherwise.
Kiffin’s Raiders experiment was as disastrous as it could’ve been ...
Kiffin had been at USC since 2001, working up the assistant’s ladder under Pete Carroll. Al Davis had fired Art Shell after a 2-14 2006, and he offered the 31-year-old Kiffin the chance to head north, meaning Kiffin wasn't around when Carroll lost as a 40-point favorite to future rival Jim Harbaugh's Stanford.
Kiffin went 2-14 in his only full season. Davis fired him after a 1-3 start in ‘08 and got in front of TV cameras to drag Kiffin in a surreal press conference.
Davis said Kiffin had "conned" him.
"I reached a point where I felt that the whole staff were fractionalized, that the best thing to do to get this thing back was to make a change," the owner told reporters. "It hurts because I picked the guy. I picked the wrong guy."
Oakland’s results under Kiffin weren’t indefensibly bad. A 4-12 record isn’t good, but it’s better than 2-14, and Kiffin did not have a quarterback. He has pinned the Raiders’ drafting of JaMarcus Russell on Davis, saying he "begged" the owner to take receiver Calvin Johnson instead and sign Jeff Garcia to play quarterback.
... but Petrino’s few months with the Falcons were even worse.
Petrino had spent 2003 through 2006 in charge at Louisville, where he’d gone 32-5 with two top-six finishes and none outside the top 19. A pro-style/spread hybrid coach who liked drop-back passers and downhill runners, Petrino was going to make for a scary combo with Michael Vick.
Petrino knows the pistol. He ran it at Arkansas and called it "shot" ("One syllable is just easier," he explains). But in this universe he has Vick as his quarterback. A Vick in his prime, who would've avoided federal prison and played for the guru Petrino, who would then stay on as Falcons head coach for more than just 13 games in 2007.
"It's about how many times you want your quarterback hit. I always thought, well what if you went out and got three guys who did it in college and ran it? Would it be successful? But I tell you what, they did a great job with it in San Francisco."
Given his offensive expertise, and given that he almost coached the most mobile quarterback ever and that he's acknowledging you needed then-unseen level of speed at the QB position to get around the edge on reads, I can't not ask.
"So looking back now, you would've never installed it in Atlanta if you had stayed? Even if you'd had Vick to coach, with his mobility?"
"Never is a long time," he responds.
He pauses just a bit.
"We probably would have."
Petrino went 3-10, mostly behind retread signal-caller Joey Harrington, and left early for Arkansas, whose coach had just pulled off a stranger job exit than even Petrino's.
"I was watching his news conference at Arkansas and he was grinning ear to ear, and it made me mad. It made me real mad," then-Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall said.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he "threw up emotionally" when he found out Petrino was bolting.
Petrino’s stint in Fayetteville ended after a motorcycle crash and some personal secrets it revealed.
The 2007 college football season’s other bizarre, fleeting impact on the NFL
In 2008, the hopeless Miami Dolphins shocked the defending AFC champion Patriots, 38-13, thanks to the Wildcat offense. The Dolphins offensive coordinator who installed the Wildcat was David Lee.
A year before, in 2007, Lee was the QB coach at Arkansas, which was still using “the Wild Hog” after OC Gus Malzahn’s exit.
In 2007, two Arkansas running backs were consensus All-Americans: Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. The latter made the team as a kick returner. Also a consensus All-American was their center, Rimington Trophy winner Jonathan Luigs. Fullback Peyton Hillis could carry, catch, and had even returned kicks as an underclassman.
The Hogs were a well-oiled running machine. They beat eventual national champion LSU, 50-48, in a game that saw McFadden run for three touchdowns and throw for another.
Within about three years, the Wildcat offense was viewed as an outdated fad. But elements similar to it live on at all levels of football.
2007 is ripe for what-if games (What if UAB hired Jimbo Fisher? What if WVU beat Pitt?), and we can play so many centered on these two coaches.
What if Kiffin doesn’t flame out in Oakland?
- He doesn’t land at Tennessee in 2009.
- And he doesn’t bolt the NFL for USC in 2010.
- Tennessee probably doesn’t make a hire as bad as that Derek Dooley hire, which resulted in an epic, years-long setback.
- Maybe USC promotes Steve Sarkisian to replace Carroll, instead of hiring Sark back from Washington a few years later. If that goes how it did in real life, maybe Kiffin's leaving the NFL in time to replace Sark. USC's hiring two straight Carroll assistants, no matter the timeline.
- Ed Orgeron never becomes USC interim head coach, meaning no pre-audition before becoming LSU’s interim and head coach. It's hard to imagine Coach O would've been a serious candidate for LSU if his career record as a head coach was still basically just the 10-25 he'd rang up at Ole Miss a decade earlier.
- Kiffin and Sark might or might not visit Alabama as coordinators at some point anyway. Either way, Alabama keeps winning.
- Wherever Kiffin ends up, it almost certainly isn’t as the head coach at FAU, where he is now.
The Petrino what-if is even more tantalizing, but much simpler (other than the fact that Arkansas' 2012 head coach probably wouldn't have been fired over motorcycle accident deception): what if Vick finally turned into his Madden version in real life?