Nick Saban and departed offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin never seemed to click quite right. Sometimes it was cute, like that time Kiffin overruled a Saban timeout or made a joke about his boss’ height while praising him, and sometimes it was awkward.
Saban said multiple times that he felt Kiffin was ready to be a head coach again. The former USC/etc. head coach came to Alabama during the 2013 season as a consultant and wound up with the full-time OC job for almost three full seasons. The product delivered most of the time, Kiffin helped to modernize the Tide, and the big mystery was whether enough of The Process had rubbed off on him for the next time to be different.
Kiffin had planned to stick around for the title game while preparing for his new head coaching job at FAU, but Alabama announced seven days before kickoff that “we recognized that it is best for our players, and for Lane, that we allow him to turn his full attention to his new head coaching role,” per Saban. In the same statement, Kiffin described the decision as mutual, concluding with, “Roll Tide!”
The timing is stunning, especially once you remember the last two Playoffs included Tom Herman and Kirby Smart successfully working as coordinators through the Championship before moving into their new offices elsewhere.
1. In 2008, Raiders owner Al Davis aired Kiffin out while firing him after only 20 games.
Davis said he was "embarrassed to watch" the Raiders play under Kiffin.
"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," Davis said during the lengthy news conference. "It hurts because I picked the guy. I picked the wrong guy."
At one point, Davis read a letter that he sent to his former coach that detailed mistakes Kiffin made on and off the field. The owner said he finally fired the coach for cause because he "disgraced" the organization, citing a variety of issues, including conflicts over personnel moves and outright lies to the media, according to Davis.
"I don't think it was any one thing," Davis said. "It was a cumulative thing. I think the pattern just disturbed me."
"I think he conned me like he conned all you people," Davis said.
Years later, Kiffin affirmed one of Davis’ charges: that the coach didn’t want the Raiders drafting QB JaMarcus Russell. Kiffin claims he wanted WR Calvin Johnson instead.
2. Fourteen months later, Kiffin left Tennessee for USC.
Returning to the Trojans, where he’d been an assistant under Pete Carroll for half a decade, made sense. But the exit was so sudden and concluded such a run of immature behavior in Knoxville (a wide range of minor NCAA violations, public spats with veteran coaches like Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, a wrecked Lexus, and so forth) that it had UT fans losing their minds in public.
Also, from a since-disappeared column at AOL’s Fanhouse, my personal favorite anecdote:
In February of 2009, just a few months after Lane Kiffin's tenure began at the University of Tennessee, Vols senior center Josh McNeil walked into the Neyland-Thompson sports complex on the university campus. He paused alongside the Vols 1998 national championship trophy and shook his head in disbelief.
"They'd replaced our highlight video from the past season with Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, and Dwayne Jarrett from USC. I was like, 'Man, I know we were 5-7 last year, but this is Tennessee. Right beside our national title trophy? Come on, man.'"
Walking up the stairs, McNeil, a 6-foot-4 280 pound offensive lineman, says that all the televisions in the complex, at least 20, were tuned to still photos of stellar plays featuring USC athletes. In particular, McNeil paused in front of one photo of Reggie Bush diving into the end zone on a sunlit California field.
3. Oh, and then the really bad part happened.
Kiffin was fired following that ASU loss in the early morning hours after touching down at a private airport near LAX. The episode was famously reported as Haden axing Kiffin right there on the tarmac near the team plane.
“I was a good 20 yards off the tarmac,” Kiffin said.
It was actually a private room near the team bus where Haden broke the news. Kiffin tried to talk his boss into being able to coach the rest of the season after a 3-2 start. Haden didn’t budge.
“I had no idea at all,” Kiffin said. “It totally caught me off guard. I got off the plane. I put my bag on the bus. I was going to sleep at the facility. Someone came and said, ‘Pat wants to see you.’ I left my briefcase on the bus.”
The next time he saw that briefcase, a staffer had delivered it to his house. Kiffin was driven home that night by a team security person.
Kiffin said the firing was the lowest point in his career -- “by far.”
4. And now Steve Sarkisian, who later replaced Kiffin at USC, takes over for Kiffin immediately.
And does so amid reports like these:
Not shocked Nick Saban has made this move now.. Heard there was LOTS of drama inside the #Alabama program with Lane Kiffin in the past week.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) January 2, 2017
FWIW: Most people we talked to in Dec didn't think Kiffin would coach CFP semi. Became clearer he wasn't managing 2 jobs very well.— Travis Haney (@travhaney) January 2, 2017
One source said "a 1000 paper cuts" led to Saban's decision to move on. Accumulation. Final straw may have been his focus in meetings Sunday— Travis Haney (@travhaney) January 2, 2017
Late to meetings, getting left behind at media day, public “ass-chewing” comments contributed to Lane Kiffin’s exit, sources told @ESPN— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) January 2, 2017
Kiffin went on TV a few hours after the announcement and denied some of that, including that he was bothered or distracted by a Bama team bus leaving him behind for the second time.
Saban on his interaction with Kiffin during the game: "There were no arguments. Those are called ass-chewings."— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) September 10, 2016
Since taking the FAU job while planning to coach for Bama through the Championship, Kiffin’s spoke to media more than he had in the previous three years. And when Kiffin speaks to the media, Kiffin says stuff. It’s always interesting stuff, but it’s often hard to know exactly how to take it.
Alabama OC Lane Kiffin asked if his 3 years at Bama had been fun: “Fun? Yeah. We don’t use that word a lot”— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) December 29, 2016
For what it’s worth, he’d said the same thing a year prior:
Lane Kiffin was asked if they were having fun at Bama. He game an odd look (might be his only look) said "We don't use that word here."— Tom Mendoza (@TomMendozaTalks) January 12, 2016
He’s also told SI he considered hiring fired Baylor coach Art Briles at FAU, along with son and new FAU OC Kendal Briles, but didn’t want to deal with protestors.
So now Kiffin’s a full-time head coach again, effective immediately.
He’s spending all of his professional energy on winning football games for a Conference USA school in Boca Raton.
When he took this job, it was assumed that a couple of good years would have him back in the Power 5. But after yet another awkward transition that calls into question a lot of the last three years, Kiffin’s next exit is back to being hard to predict.