NEW ORLEANS – The cameras crowded around the door as the visiting dignitary emerged from a black SUV. The photographers clicked vociferously and a buzz rippled through the hotel lobby area. In the insulated world of Alabama football, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin meeting with the media gets similar coverage to a red carpet premiere or a visit from Barack Obama. His performance always receives more intricate reviews than a Broadway play.
On Monday morning, Kiffin emerged in a dark suit and pinstriped pink tie to speak for the first time since August. He exhibited an enjoyable mix of humility and snark that makes him one of college football’s most fascinating and polarizing personalities. “Must not be a lot going on,” Kiffin cracked to a staffer, bemused by his boy band greeting.
Kiffin’s next hour was quintessential Kiffin. He sounded alternately thoughtful and irreverent, insightful and guarded, grateful and defensive. He described his season at Alabama as offensive coordinator like he was a graduate assistant, so lucky to be there that he should be paying Nick Saban for the experience. “The phone wasn’t ringing, that’s the reality,” Kiffin said, reflecting on his firing from USC.
No one argues the positive impact this move had on Kiffin's career, which has been scrutinized, criticized and in need of serious rehabilitation. Ultimately, the most fascinating question involving Kiffin’s future will be if he can convince a new athletic director to hire him.
How close is Kiffin to returning to becoming a head coach? SI.com took an poll of 11 athletic directors about potentially hiring him. Their answers were as varied as you would expect regarding a divisive character like Kiffin. (When I asked Kiffin what he had to do to get a head job as he’d emerged as a divisive figure, he joked, “Divisive, gosh this was going so well.”)
The poll of athletic directors didn’t go so well for Kiffin, at least not for the immediate future. Nine of the 11 athletic directors said they wouldn’t consider him right now. Four of the athletic directors indicated that Kiffin needs more time as Saban’s assistant, citing reasons like his maturity, personality and penchant for losing as a head coach. A sampling of some of the reactions:
AD 1: “In the right situation. He’s a talented coach and should get another head coaching opportunity at some point.”
AD 2: “As a head coach, he had mediocre success at brand name programs. (Truly only one good collegiate season). Too many integrity/character question marks.”
AD 3: “Not a chance. I suspect that he will still be a successful head coach, but the deficiencies and the record to date are real. A single year with Nick is not enough to convince me that he has figured it out. I would take the chance if I were a mid-major willing to rent him for a couple of years.”
AD 4: ““He’s hire-able. More so next year than this year. I think he needs to show one more year of maturity and a few more gray hairs. He will be a Big 5 conference coach when he re-brands himself.”
AD 5: “No, I wouldn’t at this time. Two items stand out for me -- [the] way he left Tennessee and lack of success at USC. While he had to deal with sanctions, he also had a great deal of talent.”
In one sense, all this season did was reaffirm what we knew about Kiffin. He’s respected as an Xs and Os coach, play caller and recruiter. Winning also helps, as Kiffin went a mediocre 35-21 with no bowl wins as a college coach in his five seasons between Tennessee and USC. In the NFL, he went 5-15 with the Oakland Raiders.
While Kiffin has plenty to thank Saban for, Saban needs to thank Kiffin for making chicken salad out of an offense with distinct weaknesses. There’s no doubt this has been a mutually beneficial marriage. Let’s hope Kiffin has also thanked agent Jimmy Sexton, who did a masterful job reviving Kiffin’s career behind the scenes. Sexton helped convince Saban, another client, to swipe right on college football’s oddest Tinder match. Who else could have seen this working?
Saban found a coordinator creative enough to mask the Crimson Tide’s glaring offensive weaknesses. Kiffin guided career back-up Blake Sims from liability to asset, spread out the offense to take pressure off a pedestrian offensive line and invented creative ways to get transcendent receiver Amari Cooper the ball.
After Saban, the first call for an athletic director curious about hiring Kiffin will go to USC’s Pat Haden. Kiffin had myriad issues at USC, many of which were self-inflicted. Balls deflated mysteriously on the sideline, numbers changed for special teams advantages and Kiffin was combative with the media. But after firing him at an airport last September, Haden said in a phone interview on Monday: “I would give him a ringing endorsement. I think Lane Kiffin is a terrific football coach.”
One of Kiffin’s biggest issues at USC was, oddly, that he tried too much to act like Saban. When things went cold, he put on a front of “it is what it is” ambivalence. The problem was that he wasn’t smart enough to realize that his aloofness wouldn't be tolerated without consistent winning.
Haden described Kiffin as a deft play caller, relentless recruiter and committed to academics. He also said that he found Kiffin to be compliant with NCAA rules. That assertion that may make SEC commissioner Mike Slive -- for whom Kiffin was a constant headache -- spit out his coffee. But Kiffin did guide USC back from the NCAA sanctions of the Pete Carroll era. Haden summed up Kiffin’s coaching future this way: “He’s going to get more and more mature.”
Kiffin, 39, revealed a lighter side on Monday, including saying that Saban once wondered to him, “How did you get higher on the ‘Most Hated’ list than I did?”
Kiffin’s career goal now is to be a viable head coaching candidate again. By working with Saban, producing big numbers on offense (Top 20 nationally with 37.1 points per game) and staying out of the media, his rehab will continue. Realistically, he’s probably two years away. One solid media appearance can’t take away his spotted reputation. That may not fade away until an athletic director picks up the phone to hire Kiffin, bringing a whole lot of history with it. And if Alabama tops Kiffin’s old rival, Urban Meyer, be ready for more waiting cameras when Kiffin speaks before the national title game.