Lane Kiffin is having another banner year at Alabama, but will his turbulent history cost him a major coaching job?
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Few people have churned through identities like Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. He's been a prodigy (USC coordinator), a paragon of petulance (Oakland Raiders), a cocky upstart (Tennessee) and an arrogant flop (USC). When Nick Saban decided to hire Kiffin as Alabama's offensive coordinator a few months after his infamous airport firing in Los Angeles, it marked a one of the more stunning transactions in the past decade. How could a coach who prides himself on being devoid of drama hire a coach who appeared to major in it?
Three years into the Kiffin experiment at Alabama, and it would be foolish to categorize it as anything other than an unqualified success. Along with two playoff appearances and the 2015 national title, Kiffin has evolved Alabama's offense to a point where it's virtually unrecognizable.
We'll find out in the next few weeks if Alabama's offensive transformation equates to a reputational overhaul for Kiffin.
With Alabama favored to go 15–0 and win back-to-back national titles, Kiffin is poised to capture another head coaching job after stints with the Raiders, Tennessee and USC that were as underwhelming as they were controversial. Three years of high production and fewer viral headlines have put Kiffin among the head of the class of coaches who've helped themselves the most this season. With a slew of high profile jobs expected to open or already open—LSU, Texas and Oregon among them—there are few obvious candidates beyond Houston coach Tom Herman, this season's mid-major darling. (See the list below of 10 coaches who've helped themselves the most this season).
Kiffin graduated from Fresno State, which has a vacancy, and that would appear to be a logical landing spot. But could another playoff run force a Power 5 athletic director to give him a long look? Kiffin's ability to build and call an offense has been on full display at Alabama. He's transformed three unproven quarterbacks—Blake Sims, Jake Coker and Jalen Hurts—in consecutive seasons. He's also nudged Alabama from stodgily pro-style to a modern offense that now imposes on teams with the same concepts Alabama has struggled with for years—spread, tempo and no-huddle.
Sims returned to Alabama last week after a phone call from Saban, who asked him to help Alabama replicate Texas A&M QB Trevor Knight in practice. In a phone interview on Monday, Sims said he's overwhelmed at how the offense has developed in the two seasons since he left. He notes the increase in quarterback runs, few huddles and the entire team looking to the sideline for signals. "Watching how the offense has developed amazes me," Sims said. "I think it shows how talented Coach Kiffin is."
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was just as impressed. He noted one intriguing wrinkle after No. 1 Alabama thumped the No. 6 Aggies, 33–14, on Saturday night. He said that on some read-option plays in the first half, the Tide line left a defensive tackle unblocked. It's an unusual nuance, as Alabama felt like A&M ends Daeshon Hall and Myles Garrett were too dynamic to leave unblocked. "We saw some plays early that we hadn't seen," Sumlin said. "Instead of reading the end they were reading the three-technique."
Kiffin, 41, has forged his latest reputational incarnation—offensive innovator. Hurts is far from a finished product, as the true freshman will be viewed as the biggest question on an Alabama team that's otherwise Saban-sound. But Hurts has also played light years ahead of most true freshmen, another credit to Kiffin. He's second in the SEC in completion percentage (63.1%) and fourth in quarterback rating (140.1). "I thought Lane has done a nice job utilizing his skill set," Sumlin said, "with some of the quarterback run things he's done."
Offensive acumen, of course, has never been the issue with Kiffin. Throughout his tumultuous head-coaching career in the NFL in Oakland (2007–08) and later at Tennessee (2009) and USC (2010–13), Kiffin was a paradox. He proved elite at some of the most complicated things in college football like playcalling and recruiting. But Kiffin's shortcomings came with the things that should come easier—dealing with people, handling the media and lacking the self-awareness and maturity to realize his smallest actions can turn into the national headlines.
Remember him banning walk-throughs at the Coliseum? The mysterious deflated footballs by an alleged rogue manager that ended with a $25,000 fine? The duplicitous jersey switch to gain an advantage against hapless Colorado? Then there's his Tennessee stint, where Kiffin's staff gained plenty of attention—including from NCAA investigators—for their aggressive nature. When Alabama played at Tennessee on Oct. 15, a plane flew overhead with Kiffin the target of an inappropriate message. It was a reminder of no matter how much success Kiffin has, he's going to have difficulty outracing his past.
Kiffin must repair his reputation for making easy things hard, which is why an easy decision based on his football knowledge will be hard for an athletic director and school president.
The market is shaping up to allow Kiffin to make a leap back to Power Five job. His on-field coaching chops have been on display for three years. We'll find out in the next few weeks if the ghosts of Kiffin's past controversies will continue to haunt him.
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(With Herman obviously positioned atop the job market this year—even after Houston lost to SMU on Saturday—here are the 10 coaches after Herman and Kiffin who have helped themselves the most this season).
1. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
Before the season, Fleck's trajectory appeared to be at a mid-tier Big Ten school. But Western Michigan has emerged as perhaps the best Group of Five team this year, and that has altered Fleck's reality. At 8–0, No. 20 Western Michigan has victories over two Big Ten schools (Northwestern and Illinois) and is ranked for the first time in school history. Fleck, 35, has shown the charisma and polish to handle a bigger stage.
2. The Survivors
We're going to lump West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen (6–0), Auburn's Gus Malzahn (5–2) and Colorado's Mike MacIntyre (6–2) into the same slot here. All three were considered on the hot seat before the season. Holgorsen and MacIntyre were close to getting fired last year. They've all saved their jobs and extended their careers. Hard to imagine any of them moving up this year, but they've created needed breathing room.
3. Larry Fedora, North Carolina
UNC's victory at Florida State this season launched Fedora into the high-end job conversation. He's 6–2 this season, coming off an 11–3 year in 2015. Considering the specter of NCAA punishment that's hung over his tenure at UNC, his body of work is impressive. If Jimbo Fisher goes to LSU, he'd be a name at Florida State. If he doesn't, there's a chance he could emerge as a name at LSU. What LSU does if both Herman and Fisher turn them down has emerged as the most fascinating question in college football.
4. Michigan staff
Hard to single anyone out here. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has the Wolverines No. 1 in scoring defense and total defense after leading Boston College to the No. 1 ranking in eight defensive categories last year. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno has orchestrated one of the country's most powerful offenses, as Michigan averages 48.7 ppg. Pass-game coordinator Jedd Fisch has turned an unproven quarterback into a star for the second consecutive year.
5. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Few have been as consistently underrated and unappreciated as Whittingham, who has the No. 17 Utes (7–1) in first place in the Pac-12 South. Overall, Whittingham's 101–47 career record doesn't truly reflect his impressive his body of work. That includes a few transition years as the Utes upgraded leagues from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. After Petersen and Stanford's David Shaw, you can make an argument that he's the best coach in the Western region of the country. Could he be a candidate at Oregon? Or USC if things fall apart for Clay Helton?
6. Bryan Harsin, Boise State
The No. 13 Broncos (7–0) are undefeated and looking at a potential showdown with San Diego State (6–1) for the Mountain West title. Harsin, 39, is one of the country's bright young offensive minds. And the success of his mentor, Washington's Chris Petersen, will only increase his value. Harsin will be picky just like Petersen was. He is from Boise, graduated from there and has the best job in the Mountain West. He's clearly the top young coach out West.
7. Chris Klieman, North Dakota State
What's helped Klieman more? The two national titles as a head coach? North Dakota State's upset of No. 11 Iowa earlier this year? Or the seamless transition of former Bison quarterback Carson Wentz to the NFL? He's 34–4 in three seasons and a strong candidate to land a Power 5 job or a high-end Group of Five job. Don't expect him to leave for a job where he can't win, as NDSU is hard-wired for winning. (Former NDSU boss Craig Bohl's 5–2 record this year at Wyoming also helps).
8. Ohio State Staff
Co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano got long looks at USC and South Carolina last year and is a viable candidate at a high-end job. Fellow DC Luke Fickell is actively looking for a head-coaching job at a time when there should be plenty of Midwest jobs joining Purdue—Minnesota? Western Michigan? Kent State? Miami of Ohio? Northern Illinois?—on the open market. Offensive coordinator Ed Warinner has thrived since calling plays from the press box and will be in play again this year.
9. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
After going 11–2 last season, No. 22 Navy is 5–1 with a signature victory over Houston. Niumatalolo flirted with the BYU job last season but decided to stay in Annapolis. The mystery about him as a candidate remains whether he would bring the triple-option style that's thrived at Navy or if he'd evolve. Right now, it's impossible to argue with his results.
10 (tie). Jason Candle, Toledo
He's quietly authoring the best year of any first-year coach in the country. The Rockets are 6–1, with their only blemish a 55–53 loss on the final play of the game at BYU. Toledo is second in the MAC in both scoring offense (41.3) and defense (22.4) behind Western Michigan. Candle, 36, will have an opportunity to play spoiler at Western Michigan in the last week of the regular season. Don't be surprised if Toledo is 10–1 and Western is 11–0 heading into that game.
10 (tie). Sun Belt leaders
Troy (6–1) and Appalachian State (5–2) will battle it out for the Sun Belt title, which lands Troy's Neal Brown and App State's Scott Satterfield here. If Satterfield didn't bungle the clock at the end of the Tennessee game, he'd be higher on this list. He's 16–4 the past two seasons. Brown nearly helped author the season's most stunning upset at No. 2 Clemson, as the Trojans fell 30–24. He's to be credited for an impressive rebound season for Troy after going 4-8 last year.