The reinvention of Lane Kiffin: Alabama's coordinator has learned from his past mistakes; Punt, Pass & Pork
DALLAS — Lane Kiffin's comedy career stalled Sunday. His coaching career seems to have rebounded quite well, though.
"Geez," the 40-year-old Alabama offensive coordinator said as he sat down for his second interview session of the day. "Rough crowd." A few minutes earlier, Kiffin had told a joke in the broadcast interview room. As play-calling humor goes, Kiffin constructed a quality line. Kiffin, whose offense features Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry, had been asked about Michigan State's knack for shutting down top backs. Kiffin immediately recalled the Spartans stoning Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott with an assist from the Buckeyes' coaching staff, which for almost three quarters on Nov. 21 seemed to forget that Elliott was a member of the team. "Elliott, Ohio State, they did a great job against him," Kiffin said. "Hopefully we give the ball to Derrick more than they did."
Had Kiffin given his joke a second or two to breathe, it probably would have drawn some laughs. But when it didn't produce howls, Kiffin bailed. "That was a joke," he said. "It's okay to laugh. It's early in the morning."
If Kiffin treats humor the same way he has treated coaching offense the past two years, he'll probably have his timing perfected by next year. He'll probably get those laughs. That isn't high on Kiffin's list of priorities, but given the way he has tried these last two years to learn from his previous schematic and managerial mistakes, it seems he has finally adopted the mindset that the best in any field eventually adopt. He doesn't know everything. He has admitted that, and he has accepted it. That's why he has become a better coach in Tuscaloosa, and that's why he might eventually be able to succeed after failing as a young head coach.
After cracking wise in that first interview room, Kiffin sounded wise in the second. Gone was the cockiness that marred his stints running the Oakland Raiders, the Tennessee Volunteers and the USC Trojans. In its place was something resembling humility. While it could have been contrived for one of his rare interview sessions, Kiffin certainly sounded as if he knows he blew a golden opportunity at USC. He also sounded genuinely grateful to Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban for giving him a chance to run the offense. At Alabama, Kiffin has learned some lessons he probably should have learned before he was hired to coach the Raiders in 2007 at age 31.
"He really took a chance on me when the phone wasn't ringing," Kiffin said of Saban. When Saban hired Kiffin in January 2014 to replace Doug Nussmeier, Kiffin was practically radioactive. He had been fired as the coach of the Trojans less than four months earlier. He had proven a lousy manager of assistant coaches and players, and he seemed stuck in a schematic rut.
Nearly two years later, Kiffin has re-rebranded himself as an offensive wizard. In his first season with the Crimson Tide, he took a fifth-year senior quarterback who had once been moved to tailback (Blake Sims) and ran what was essentially an up-tempo spread through an elite receiver (Amari Cooper). This year, Kiffin has adapted the offense around a completely different fifth-year senior quarterback (Jake Coker) and leaned on a Heisman-winning junior tailback (Henry) who never seems to tire.
The Kiffin who runs Alabama's offense believes that the Kiffin who coached USC wouldn't have adapted half as well. As evidence, Kiffin recalled the 2012 season, when he returned the bulk of the offense from a team that went 10–2 in '11 despite NCAA sanctions. Kiffin had quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. But he did not have any new wrinkles to adapt to changes made by the Trojans' opponents. "I don't think we grew any," Kiffin said Sunday. "What I did was just expect that we could just go do what we did and do it again. But every other defensive coordinator you're going against usually isn't the head coach. What are they doing? They're spending their off-season going, 'How do we beat SC because they're preseason No. 1?' "
Kiffin knows now that all schemes must evolve or suffer the consequences. "If we had tried to just do our offense from last year with Jake and the people that we have," he said, "I don't think we'd be as successful right now." Saban and Kiffin knew that after losing Sims and Cooper the Crimson Tide would essentially have to rebuild the offense from scratch. So, with encouragement from Saban, Kiffin visited Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie at TCU. Those two had taken the Horned Frogs from a pro-style outfit to an up-tempo spread team. Kiffin also visited Houston coach Tom Herman, who had befuddled Alabama's defense as Ohio State's offensive coordinator in last season's Sugar Bowl. Herman showed Kiffin how different motion concepts—particularly the "jet" motion that is a staple in the Buckeyes' and Cougars' offenses—can sometimes trick less-disciplined defenders into reading the wrong key and blowing their assignments. Kiffin visited Herman in Houston before spring practice. After the spring, Cougars staffers came to Tuscaloosa so that the coaches could compare notes again. This fall, the Tide made the College Football Playoff thanks to their adoption of some of the same concepts that knocked them from the playoff last season.
From Saban, Kiffin has learned the value in being willing to explore and evolve. This is one of Saban's best traits as a coach. While Saban is happy to allow his public-facing persona to suggest obstinance, in reality he is one of the nation's more schematically flexible coaches. "He is always changing," Kiffin said. "They think maybe he's old school and it just is how it is. It's not. Whether it's him bringing other people in or sending us out to go see people, and he does it on defense, too. He's always watching. He's always looking at new approaches." That's how Alabama went from averaging 63.5 plays per game in Nussmeier's final season in 2013 to 72.7 in Kiffin's first. The higher tempo helped Sims find a rhythm and also forced defenses to be too vanilla to scheme around Cooper. "Everybody would have thought [Saban] was never going to [go up-tempo] because of the things he said about it," Kiffin said. "No. He figured out that was what's winning. So, he said, 'Let's go see if we can adapt and use some of this.' "
The Crimson Tide have averaged 73.2 plays per game this season, but their offense has looked completely different than the 2014 group. In addition to the concepts Kiffin learned from Herman, Alabama has adjusted to fit Coker's skill set. The Tide have also had to alter their strategy to account for losing sophomore receiver Robert Foster for the season in September, and for a litany of injuries suffered by senior tailback Kenyan Drake, who was originally slated to platoon with Henry. The result, especially lately, has been an offense built around the 6' 3", 243-pound Henry's ability to grind out yards and get stronger while simultaneously weakening defenses. "He's unique," Kiffin said. "They just don't make guys that big, that fast and that tough. That's just genetics and work ethic."
What Kiffin has learned in Tuscaloosa is that he is not necessarily unique. He got head coaching jobs as a very young man, but he did not have some sort of preternatural ability that made him capable of succeeding in those jobs. He needed to develop his own style, to learn through trial and error. Even though he worked under Pete Carroll, Kiffin couldn't be Pete Carroll despite the fact that's what the Trojans' brass wanted when Kiffin was hired in 2010. Kiffin realized that while still at USC. In the summer of '13, he went to Tuscaloosa to meet with Saban, a fellow client of agent Jimmy Sexton. At Saban's house, Kiffin pulled out a list of 32 questions. They covered everything from what days players should wear full pads at practice to how to organize a player leadership committee. Over the course of a few hours, Saban answered every question. Those answers probably came too late to help Kiffin, who was fired that September.
If Kiffin gets another opportunity to run a team, he won't try to be Saban or Carroll. "They're extremely opposite coaches in how they deal with assistant coaches," Kiffin said. "Their whole programs are completely different. Why do they both win? Because they both have philosophies that they believe, and they have it nailed. They know how to deal with every single situation. They may be very different, but they have their philosophy nailed."
Does Kiffin have his philosophy nailed? He doesn't know, and he won't know unless he takes another head coaching job. He said Sunday that he would like to come back to Alabama for a third season. He'd relish the challenge of grooming a third consecutive first-year starter at quarterback. Of course, Kiffin also isn't hiding the fact that he'd eventually like to run his own program again. It's possible that Kiffin is simply a better offensive coordinator than he is a head coach. The good news for Kiffin is that over the next few years, someone will likely give him the chance to find out. "I don't know what's best," Kiffin said. "I don't think there are many people who would answer that question, 'No, I don't want to be a head coach.' When and if that time comes, I know that I'm much better prepared than I was before."
A random ranking
By hiring Kiffin to run Alabama's offense, Saban offered the former head coach a perfect comeback role. That got me thinking about the top 10 comeback movie roles of the past 25 years.
1. Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson in
2. John Travolta as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction (Without this, there is probably no Face/Off.)
3. Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner in Boogie Nights
4. Diane Lane as Connie Sumner in Unfaithful
5. Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler
6. Harvey Keitel as Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs
7. Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills (a man with a very particular set of skills) in Taken
8. Robert Downey Jr. as Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
9. Drew Barrymore as Casey in Scream
10. Dennis Hopper as Howard Payne in Speed (This was his second or third comeback.)
1. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer ended his career with a win over Tulsa in the Independence Bowl on Saturday. The 55–52 final score wasn't characteristic of Beamer's Hokies teams through the years, but ending the Golden Hurricane's final drive with two sacks in their last three plays certainly was.
So, #ThanksFrank for a wonderful career.
2. Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett has stressed to his older players that just because they had to tackle Le'Veon Bell when they were younger does not mean they should think tackling Henry will be the same. When Bell was a Michigan State junior in 2012, the Spartans listed him at 6' 2" and 237 pounds. That isn't much different from Henry's height and weight. (Bell's current employer, the Pittsburgh Steelers, lists him at 6' 1", 244.)
"They're different backs, believe it or not," Barnett said. "They're both big, but Le'Veon could shake you down. He could do anything he wanted to do. Obviously, he's one of the best backs in the NFL right now. Whereas, Derrick Henry, he's like [Michigan State linebacker] Riley [Bullough] said, what you think could be a two-yard gain could end up being a four- or five-yard gain and because he's always falling forward and just naturally just a big guy. Le'Veon wasn't always just trying to just be a big guy trying to run you over. He's more of a stick your foot in the ground and try to make you miss guy."
3. This is a brilliant question and answer from a reporter covering the Orange Bowl and Clemson fifth-year senior left guard Eric Mac Lain.
Reporter: "If you guys think that you've been kind of like overlooked and disrespected, and OU thinks they've been overlooked and disrespected, what happens when two teams think they're disrespected?"
Mac Lain: "It's just a great big pile of disrespect, like you said. We don't know who's getting more or less, but I think it's pretty evident when you turn on ESPN and you turn on the news who's been disrespected and who's not. I think it's pretty silly for them to say that. Of course they dropped to four, but that's the whole getting them in the national championship conspiracy, so that's interesting."
Hopefully, the Orange Bowl won't cause a disrespect singularity that forces the Earth to collapse in upon itself. If that happens, we'll never truly know which team no one believed in.
4. Oklahoma will be the only playoff team in unfamiliar territory during the semifinals. The other three playoff teams have all played in their bowl venues at some point this calendar year.
Michigan State rang in 2015 at AT&T Stadium with a 42–41 comeback victory over Baylor in last season's Cotton Bowl. Meanwhile, Alabama opened its season with a 35–17 win over Wisconsin at Jerry World.
Clemson helped get Miami coach Al Golden fired by crushing the Hurricanes 58–0 at SunLife Stadium—the site of the Orange Bowl—on Oct. 24. The Tigers also played in the Orange Bowl following the 2011 and '13 campaigns, so they should be quite familiar with the logistics.
What does this mean with regard to the outcome of the two games? Probably nothing. It's just interesting.
5. As frustrating as the start to Nebraska's fall was, the Cornhuskers improved as coach Mike Riley's debut season went along. On Saturday in the Foster Farms Bowl, the Huskers finished strong with a 37–29 win over UCLA that included a rushing advantage of 326 yards to 67.
"We went through a lot of adversity through the year," said Riley, whose team lost four of its first six games in last-minute heartbreakers. "It's caused by not winning games in our world. But I really like this group, because every Monday when we came back to get ready once again to play, they were always ready to work.… They worked, and at least we gave ourselves a chance to compete in a ton of games. In this last month, we played our best football. We probably played our best football of the season tonight."
Though Nebraska won only five regular-season games, the Cornhuskers got a chance to play in a bowl because not enough teams reached the six-win threshold and Nebraska boasted one of the nation's highest Academic Progress Rates. The Huskers made the most of their chance, and now they will have a positive result to use as a springboard into next season. "When a team can fight through the stuff that we did," Riley said, "that says a lot about the character of the young men in the program."
6. When Duke wins after November, it's safe to assume Mike Krzyzewski was involved. Not Saturday. The Blue Devils won their first bowl game since the 1960 season with a 44–41 overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. "There's tears," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said after his team accepted the trophy. "There were tears on the field. We just about broke the platform down. I don't know if y'all stayed out there during the trophy presentation. Just so many players wanting to be up around there. It's just emotional."
7. Of course, Duke and Indiana might still be playing had the goal posts been tall enough for officials to tell if the Hoosiers' final field goal attempt went through.
"The ball went beyond the end line over the top of the upright and when that occurs, the play is not reviewable," crew chief Chris Coyte told a pool reporter, according to the Associated Press.
8. In Monday's Military Bowl, Navy senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds will try to reclaim a record. Last week, Louisiana Tech senior tailback Kenneth Dixon scored four touchdowns in the New Orleans Bowl to take over the Division I lead for career touchdowns (87). Reynolds, who has scored 85 touchdowns during his collegiate career, had owned that record for a week after breaking it in Navy's win 21–17 over Army on Dec. 12. He can tie Dixon with two touchdowns against Pittsburgh or break the record again with three.
9. Les Miles in a cowboy hat? Les Miles in a cowboy hat.
10. Les Miles talking about rodeo? Les Miles talking about rodeo.
What's eating Andy?
The one person I wish I could have added to that movie-star comebacks list was Eddie Murphy. We're still waiting for his comeback role. No, the donkey in Shrek doesn't count. Where have you gone, Axel Foley?
What's Andy eating?
When discussing Alabama freshman receiver Calvin Ridley on Sunday, Kiffin used the term "playground player." That doesn't refer to someone who plays in an unorganized fashion. In Kiffin's recruiting lexicon, the playground player is the athlete your 10-year-old self would reflexively select first when picking teams on the playground. What does this have to do with food? Read on.
If you've read this space for a while, you know my palate isn't nearly as refined when it comes to pizza as it is for barbecue. But I can tell a playground-player pizza when I taste it. It takes but one bite at Brooklyn's Lucali to understand that its particular mix of dough, sauce, cheese, meat and vegetables is the culinary equivalent of a five-star recruit.
A bite probably isn't even necessary. The dinner-only hours (6 p.m. to 11 p.m., except on Tuesdays) offer the first clue. The pay system (cash only) offers the second. The aroma of pies cooking in a brick oven seasoned by thousands of pies that came before offers the third. By the time a glance at the menu reveals that fresh garlic and basil come free on every pie, it should be obvious that this pizza is special.
I made my second visit to Lucali a few weeks ago. I had learned the first time that a taste of the thin-but-still-slightly-chewy crust mixed with fresh sauce only cranks up the craving for more, so I ordered two pepperoni pies—one for myself and one for my friend. He protested, but I assured him the pizza would all be gone and we would leave Carroll Gardens happy. Not long after, only a few shards of basil remained.
Lucali offers plenty of toppings, but anything more than pepperoni, basil and garlic might be overkill. That combination ventures awfully close to pizza perfection. Lucali manages to make a thin crust that gets neither greasy nor crunchy. On the edges, the dough bubbles into a soft pillow that tastes best with just a hint of sauce clinging to it. If not for the cheese and the toppings, the crust might float off the table. That's why one pie never feels like enough.
If all the pizza houses of New York were choosing teams on the playground, one of the captains would pick Lucali. And that captain's team would dominate.