On the surface, new Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin might appear to be in a high-risk, low-reward situation.
If he succeeds at succeeding Doug Nussmeier, the credit will go to Nussmeier’s previous development, the leadership of head coach Nick Saban and the talent of the mostly 4- and 5-star players on the field. If he fails, the blame will be heaped mostly on Kiffin himself.
Best-case scenario, Kiffin breaks more or less even.
Worst-case scenario, he is the only coach Saban can’t win in spite of.
That’s just the surface, however, and in truth the future for Kiffin at Alabama is less downbeat. The talent and system alluded to above make the chances of Kiffin’s failure slight, and given the direction his stock has plummeted over the past two seasons, breaking more or less even in 2014 would be a victory unto itself.
Those chances look even better given the resume Kiffin brings to Tuscaloosa. His failings as a head coach are well-documented—his former team, the USC Trojans, lost eight of Kiffin’s last 18 games after going 10-2 in 2011 and earning the Associated Press’ preseason No. 1 ranking in 2012—but as an offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll in the mid-2000s, Kiffin helped forge one of the best offenses in modern college football history.
As I discovered back in January, during the brief window when Kiffin was merely rumored to be Nussmeier’s replacement, here is how the USC offense fared before and after his initial promotion from tight ends coach to wide receivers coach in 2002, and again before and after his promotion from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator in 2005:
Things have been rocky for Kiffin in the years between then and now, as he has gone from one of the hottest young coaches in football—Al Davis hired him to be the head coach of the Oakland Raiders when he was 31, making him the youngest in NFL history—to a punchline after brief and unsuccessful stints at the professional level, the University of Tennessee and, of course, the end of his tenure in Southern California.
Those jobs were all as the face of a program, however, and not just any program but three of the most recognizable in the sport.
Succeeding in such a role takes a certain special type of demeanor and disposition. It takes time spent at the podium pandering to sports reporters, the smile of a politician. It takes the patience to work outside one’s comfort zone.
These are gifts that Saban has and Kiffin does not, which is why the former is the former and the latter is the latter. It’s also why this role should be great. Kiffin needn’t focus on things he’s incapable of, duties that distract him and make him come off as bitter, robotic, entitled, curt or arrogant.
He can let his more suitable personality shine through.
That more suitable personality—the charm Kiffin conjures behind closed doors—helps explain why he’s always been so good on the recruiting trail.
In the short two months since arriving at Alabama, Kiffin has already been spotted singing “Sweet Home Alabama” to 5-star athlete Bo Scarbrough and grinning in a Duck Dynasty hat alongside 5-star cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
Both are committed to play for the Tide next season.
After meeting with Kiffin and transferring to Alabama, former Florida State backup quarterback Jacob Coker, who is the tentative favorite to replace AJ McCarron next season, explained his new offensive coordinator thusly, per Tim Watts of 247Sports:
It was interesting meeting coach Kiffin. I liked him right away and feel we had a good connection. He seems serious on TV and he’s so high profile I wondered what he would be like. But we got along right away. He is a very laid back and funny guy. He told me to come in and compete and that it was going to be a fun time. He didn’t really push me, which I liked. He was just down to earth guy and I’m going to enjoy getting to know him better.
We didn’t get too technical with the offense, but I heard enough to know he’s a great coach and I’m going to fit in just fine with what Alabama wants to do. They have so many weapons and just excited to be able to come in and hopefully contribute.
Does that sound like the Kiffin we all know and loathe?
Not in the slightest.
That sounds like a Kiffin with a weight lifted off his back, a Kiffin who can finally get back to what he loves: recruiting talent and developing an offense. Few coaches are stricter than Saban about keeping their coordinators away from the press, which is precisely what his new offensive leader needs to be successful.
It’s a high-profile gig with a low profile.
“I always thought [Kiffin] was a really good coach,” Saban told reporters in January, per Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports. “All his issues come from something we’re not asking him to do.”
On an immediate level, Kiffin must decide who his quarterback will be next season. Coker cannot practice until the fall, but a deep stable of players including senior Blake Sims, sophomore Alec Morris, redshirt freshmen Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod and early enrollee David Cornwell will vie for an early lead this spring.
At running back, the combination of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry has a chance to be one of the best thunder-and-lightning duos the sport has ever seen—especially if Henry’s breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl proves not to be a fluke.
(Note: It did not look like a fluke.)
Kiffin has experience managing such a talented binary, having done so in his first year as USC’s offensive coordinator in 2005.
That season, Reggie Bush had more than 2,200 yards of total offense and won a (later vacated) Heisman Trophy while Lendale White rushed for more than 1,300 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Why can’t Yeldon and Henry be nearly as productive?
At receiver, one could argue the Tide return more talent than any team in America. Along the offensive line, the better Kouandjio brother, Arie, is still around along with two other starters, one of the strongest groups of offensive line recruits in recent memory and, perhaps most importantly, assistant coach Mario Cristobal.
The pieces are there, from top to bottom, for this unit to be quite good.
Kiffin’s reputation as a coach (and even as a person) is deservedly low after his last few years at USC, but there was no better move for him than to relocate to Alabama. No matter the risk-reward quotient—no matter how ugly the carnage would look should this great experiment fail and Kiffin fizzle out—the best thing Kiffin can do right now is win football games, and Alabama is his best chance at doing that.
The “Blame Kiffin Era” of Alabama football will be just as inculpatory as advertised. There is no way around it
Anything and everything that goes wrong, at least in the beginning of the season, will somehow be ascribed to the controversial new coach on the sidelines. Between his own ragged reputation and the standard of success in Tuscaloosa—e.g. the “disappointing” 2013 season that started with 11 consecutive wins—that’s a bed Kiffin must know he’s climbing into. It will surprise exactly no one.
As long as those critiques are limited to early-season overreactions, though, Kiffin will be able to overcome them. As long as the offense plays well enough to score more points than its opponents, the microscope fixed on Kiffin will disappear.
As long as he isn’t actually the one person Saban can’t win in spite of, Kiffin has a chance to remind people why he got hired in Oakland and at Tennessee and USC in the first place. Better coaches have failed in bad situations before reviving their careers elsewhere.
Kiffin is just 38 years old, after all.
When Saban himself was 38, he was coaching defensive backs with the Houston Oilers. He had never been the head coach of a football team. He was a decade away from reaching the SEC.
There is time yet for Kiffin’s story to be rewritten.
This year is the start of a new draft.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter @BLeighDAT
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