If you want to make fun of Nick Saban and Alabama hiring Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, go ahead. There's fodder. Young, brash and fired is a great way to rustle up the schadenfreude. Just do not be surprised when the move ends up a success.
Kiffin takes the job in place of former OC Doug Nussmeier, who departs for Michigan in the same role.
Saban is famously meticulous and detail-oriented, to the point of his coaching philosophy being distilled into The Process. He spent eight days with Kiffin before Nussmeier even went anywhere discussing offense. Eight days with Nick Saban — and Saban still hired him.
Let's point one thing out: coaches are not their caricatures. You think of Kiffin, and you think of the guy who keeps failing up, as the saying goes, snookering various coaches and administrators into top jobs before the ruse that he's a know-nothing is found out. That's been the going narrative for years now, and his mid-season firing at an airport didn't help his public perception one iota.
But the fact is the guy has a strong resume, particularly for someone his age (he's still only 38). His dad's been coaching in college and the NFL for nearly half a century. He was an assistant for six years under Pete Carroll at USC in the Trojans' heyday, moving up from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator in that time frame. He spent parts of seven seasons as a head coach in the NFL and at high-profile BCS-conference programs, and though none ended particularly well, he did finish five seasons in college with winning records (generously counting his 3-2 2013 mark at USC as a winning record), including Tennessee's only winning season in the last six years.
I know Lane is a Pro Style guy, but you have to take more shots down the field these days. McCarron's exit also played a role in this IMO.— Tim Brando (@TimBrando) January 11, 2014
Saban isn't letting Kiffin run the entire program. Lord, no. He's letting him run the offense, and Kiffin's track record with offenses is pretty decent. He made an NFL quarterback out of Jonathan Crompton in one year in Tennessee. He crafted a strong offense around John David Booty (like Crompton, a late-round selection). He oversaw the maturation of wideouts like Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. These are not superlative talents that anybody could turn into winners. They were good; NFL-worthy, certainly. But they're not can't-miss players behind whom a bad coach can hide. And Kiffin did objectively well with them.
The Trojans led the nation in total offense in 2005 under Kiffin and dipped to 21st in his next season there (while maintaining the 14th best passing offense) before he departed for Oakland. When he came back as a head coach, the offensive production was still there, at least for the first two seasons.
Even with the concern of distractions, probably Saban's most notorious bugaboo, keep in mind who's running the show here: Saban. And under Saban, Nussmeier met with the media four times in his two years at Bama. If Kiffin's hard at work away from the spotlight and microphones, he's not that much of a distraction anymore. And if he's not much of a distraction, he's simply a young coach with a phenomenal pedigree doing his job in the best regime in college football.
This reduction in duties from head coach is a significant factor. Recall what a mess USC had become at the end of Kiffin's tenure there as a head coach, exacerbated by NCAA sanctions from the Pete Carroll era but certainly due to Kiffin's mismanagement as well. Here's what Kiffin said about the situation afterward, via ESPN LA:
"I think you're always trying to figure yourself out and mistakes that you've made," he said. "There are different things I've done that I wouldn't do again that kept following me. That's the price that you pay when you make mistakes early on."
"Any experience you have, there are good parts of it and bad parts, and you have to learn from the bad parts and the mistakes that you've made," he said. "I've made a bunch of them, so you learn from those at a young age still and you grow from there and you get stronger in your next job."
Contrite? Sure. The type of guy you trot right back out as your next head coach? Probably not. Cognizant of what he is and isn't good at? Without a doubt.
But y'know, make those jokes. See if it makes any difference on the field.