ATLANTA — Alabama head coach Nick Saban sat down with Lane Kiffin when he was hired to run Alabama’s offense in 2014 and gave him one simple, easy-to-follow rule.
“I can take good news, I can take bad news, but don’t give me surprises.”
If all goes according to plan, Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Washington won’t be full of surprises, and the Tide—two-touchdown favorites over the Huskies, according to OddsShark—will move on to the national title game on Jan. 9 in Tampa, Florida.
Making sure that plan comes to fruition is partially on Kiffin in what will be the biggest game of his coaching career.
Kiffin, the newly minted head coach at Florida Atlantic, has been double-dipping during the monthlong break between the SEC Championship Game and national semifinal. If he has success against a loaded Washington defense and proves to the college football world that he can handle multiple roles at different schools, it will go a long way toward making his stint in Boca Raton a mere speed bump on his road back to a big-time head coaching gig.
“I think as a young head coach, looking back, and I’ve talked to [Steve] Sarkisian about this before, I think as a young coach, you had so many highs and lows,” he said Wednesday morning. “So you win a big game, team plays really well. Maybe you don’t come back on that Sunday and push the staff the same way. Maybe on that Monday’s practice, you don’t push the players the same way because you start to say, ‘Wait a second. We got this made.'”
An emphatic win when all eyes are on him would prove Kiffin is a mature, responsible grown-up who has evolved from the trash-talking, brash, borderline immature head coach who got into a war of words with former Florida head coach Urban Meyer at Tennessee in 2009 and got canned at LAX in the middle of the night by USC during the 2013 season.
The “process” of learning how to run a program successfully is the most important thing Kiffin hopes to take with him to FAU.
“The process never changes,” Kiffin said. “It’s the same: 7:30 staff meeting this morning, you know, Coach goes over the practice today and says each five minutes what we’re doing in practice. You don’t have to write it down because it’s the exact same as every Wednesday’s practice for three years.”
The structure, combined with Saban’s ability to give second chances to himself, Sarkisian and several players over the last three years, has given Kiffin a broader perspective of the role of a head coach as a leader and a mentor.
“I get it way better now than I did three years ago,” he said.
How’s he handling juggling two jobs at once?
Kiffin is doing most of his FAU work at night and relying on newly named defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin (his brother) to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
“Chris has been there, been able to evaluate all of our players, recruits, start recruiting over the phone and then help interview defensive coaches. So that helped me a lot timewise,” Kiffin said.
He polished off recruiting before the dead period by inking junior college transfer De’Andre Johnson from East Mississippi Community College. The former Florida State Seminole, who was dismissed following an incident in 2015 in which he punched a woman at a bar, will likely head an Owls offense led by former Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles—son of Art Briles, who Baylor fired in the wake of the sexual assault scandal.
After three straight SEC titles running the Crimson Tide offense, a national title in 2015, two Heisman Trophy finalists (Amari Cooper in 2014, Derrick Henry in 2015) and one winner (Henry), Kiffin has proved he’s a brilliant offensive mind.
Running a program is a different story, which is what he’ll get to do once this playoff run ends. It might not be the one he wanted, though.
Kiffin was in the running for the Houston job before the Cougars—who played in the Peach Bowl last year and are one of the more prominent “Group of Five” teams in the sport—chose to promote offensive coordinator Major Applewhite instead.
“Lane Kiffin did not show me anything that Major Applewhite did not show me,” Houston regent Tilman Fertitta said on KILT in Houston (via Sam Khan Jr. of ESPN.com). “Sure, he’s been a head coach, and he’s been an OK head coach. But I can tell you this: [Kiffin] was not a safe hire.”
Not safe, because he can’t be trusted. At least, not in the minds of college football’s more prominent decision-makers.
Juggling two pressure-packed jobs and winning a national semifinal while also devoting time to building a staff would go a long way toward proving to the college football world—including potential employers down the road—that he’s trustworthy.
Plus, the matchup with Washington in and of itself is a major test.
While laying the foundation of what looks like a renegade program at FAU with Johnson and Briles in-house, Kiffin has been preparing for a Washington secondary that is loaded with stars including Sidney Jones, Budda Baker and Taylor Rapp.
“They’re very good, they have length at corner, they’re very good cover guys,” Saban said Monday. “I think the scheme that they play, they don’t make a lot of mistakes. They’re sort of a little bit Seattle Seahawk-like in the fact that we’re gonna do what we do and we’re gonna do it really well. They do a great job of executing the things that they play. They do a great job of breaking on the ball.”
Kiffin needs to break their will after juggling multiple roles during one of the busiest months of his career.
If he does that, it’s a big step toward breaking the bank with a major college football coaching job in the near future.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats unless otherwise noted.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on SiriusXM. Follow Barrett on Twitter and Facebook.
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