Nick Saban raised some eyebrows when he hired Lane Kiffin to be Alabama's new offensive coordinator.
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February 04, 2014

The most fascinating coaching transaction in college football this offseason united two of the sport's most polarizing figures: Alabama's Nick Saban and former USC coach Lane Kiffin.

It's a union that nearly happened in 2007, when agent Jimmy Sexton contacted Kiffin to see if he had any interest in leaving USC, where he was an assistant, to become Alabama's offensive coordinator. Kiffin listened but politely declined, and a few weeks later he took the Oakland Raiders head coaching job.

But after Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier left for Michigan in January, the Kiffin-Saban alliance finally occurred.

There's a backstory to the most compelling pairing of head coach and offensive coordinator in the country. Saban got a preview of having Kiffin around in December, when Kiffin flew to Tuscaloosa to spend eight days evaluating the Crimson Tide. In early January, before he got hired at Alabama, Kiffin went into detail with about what he learned from being ensconced in Saban's world. When asked what impressed him, Kiffin asked, "How long you got?"

On Kiffin's first night in town, he had a three-hour dinner at Saban's house. Every night after that, they'd spend 15 minutes going over their respective notes on the day. Kiffin said Saban paid for his flight and hotel room.

"It was something neat Nick did knowing I was out here doing nothing," Kiffin told in January. "It was good for both of us, and it was good for me to be around ball again."

Kiffin said the Crimson Tide had an NFL vibe. "It's an absolute machine from when you step into that building until you walk out at the end of the night," he said. "Everything from recruiting to offense to defense. Everyone in there is just working."

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Kiffin's most interesting observation came from watching film of Alabama in SEC play. Kiffin coached at Tennessee in 2009 before going to USC and sees the SEC trending more toward the Pac-12's style of wide-open play.

"In watching a lot of film of their season, (the SEC is) starting to change a little bit toward the Pac-12, spread out with a running quarterback," Kiffin said. "You're seeing that with Texas A&M. The SEC is changing, which is surprising."

The organization at Alabama wasn't the only thing that looked like the NFL. The talent did, too.

"It was the first week of bowl practice and they were practicing like it was a game," Kiffin said. "They were physical and aggressive and tough practices. They've got a lot of top talent. At USC we had it, but they've got 85 scholarship players. There's a lot more of it."

The visit from Kiffin, which was not announced to the staff, left Alabama coaches on both sides of the ball confused as to why he was there, as little explanation was given. Some considered it Saban overreacting to losing to Auburn. Kiffin's visit didn't lead directly to Nussmeier leaving for Michigan, where he'll be among the country's highest-paid assistants. But no one on staff looked at it as a ringing endorsement.

Kiffin won't be making a financial windfall at Alabama, as he'll make less than high-end SEC coordinators. USC owes Kiffin more than $10 million over the next several years. Any money Alabama pays him is offset, meaning that it's subtracted from what USC owes him. So expect Kiffin's deal to be similar to the $680,000 Nussmeier made at Alabama, not the typical million-dollar salary for a high-end SEC coordinator.

Will he earn it? That's going to be the most fascinating question in 2014.


1. Meet Lincoln Riley

Lincoln Riley doesn't drink Red Bull, wear skinny jeans or obsess over pirates. On the colorful coaching tree of Washington State coach Mike Leach, which includes Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia) and Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech), Riley is the plainest branch. "I'm probably the most normal of all them which isn't saying a whole lot," says Riley, who turned 30 in September.

Riley will never have a stuffed pirate in his office like his old boss, but he could become his next protégé to become a head coach. That's an impressive list that includes Baylor's Art Briles, East Carolina's Ruffin McNeil and Cal's Sonny Dykes. Riley's meteoric rise as one of college football's top young offensive minds prompted overtures this offseason from Notre Dame about its offensive coordinator position.

The youngest offensive coordinator in the FBS when East Carolina hired him four years ago, Riley's offense ranked eighth nationally at 40.2 points per game last season. His philosophy has veered from Leach's Air Raid offense, as it's more up tempo, has more formations and is more committed to the ground game.

"We've got a fearless mentality," Riley says. "We've got very, very high expectations. We expect to score every time we touch the ball. You've got to have that mentality."

Riley walked on at Texas Tech in 2002. Leach noticed that Riley, a native of tiny Muleshoe, Texas (population 5,128), picked up on his offense quickly. After a year leading the scout team, Leach approached Riley about becoming a student assistant to work with the Red Raiders' young quarterbacks. Riley wanted to coach in high school someday and knew he had to accept.

"My so-called college experience ended pretty quickly," Riley says. "I was living the life of a 30- or 40-year-old when I was 19."

After four years as a student assistant and graduate assistant, he was promoted to being Leach's all-important inside receivers coach. And when Leach was suspended for the 2009 Alamo Bowl amidst allegations that he abused a player, Riley called the plays in Texas Tech's 41-31 victory against Michigan State.

Less than three weeks later, McNeil left Texas Tech for East Carolina and took Riley with him. The Pirates went 10-3 last season with a win in the Beef 'O' Brady Bowl.

"I've seen a lot of different ways of doing things," Riley says with a laugh.

Riley likes to hunt, fish and grill, and he's a good enough golfer that he once birdied the 10th hole at Augusta National. Just don't expect Riley to brandish a sword, be involved in a casino controversy or write for Esquire any time soon.

2. Franklin's Presidential ambitions

James Franklin had two goals last week when he attended president Barack Obama's State of the Union address. A guest of Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), the new Penn State coach wanted a photograph with the President to display in his office and to invite Obama and his wife, Michelle, to a Nittany Lions home game.

"I'd like to have the President on the sideline with a headset on," Franklin says, "making a third-down call."

Before Obama's speech, Franklin dined at The National Republican Club of Capitol Hill. During the address, Franklin sat in the gallery in an aisle seat. But while the President spoke about hot-button topics such as minimum wage, immigration reform and unemployment, Franklin's focus was on Obama's delivery.

Franklin says he's not political, but took mental notes on the President's presence, body language, command and how the crowd responded to him. "The thing that to me is so powerful is how confident and relaxed he is or at least he comes off that way," says Franklin, who was hired last month to replace Bill O'Brien. "How he's able to not only make his points, but also able to have some fun and humor mixed in there on the biggest stage. That was great just to see somebody in that position do it all it in a very, very genuine authentic way. It came off very, very natural. It's impressive."

Even before and after Obama's speech, Franklin carefully surveyed the room, particularly how the crowd interacted. "I have always been fascinated by people," says Franklin, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology from East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University. "I am attracted to great leaders and what makes them tick. I'm not political, but I love studying leadership and body language."

Initially, Franklin wasn't sure if he should accept Thompson's invitation to the State of the Union. He felt guilty sacrificing a night of recruiting just eight days before Signing Day for his inaugural Penn State recruiting class, but was finally convinced by his staff to attend.

No regrets. Franklin has a new recruiting pitch.

"Me and the President," he says with a laugh, "are now best friends."

3. Is Al Golden unhappy at Miami?

Although Al Golden won the most games (nine) of his difficult three-year tenure at Miami last season, questions continue to swirl about how content he is with the Hurricanes.

Golden didn't help himself by remaining silent about his interest in Penn State, his alma matter, until it was clear that he had been passed over for the job. Even then, Golden issued an uninspiring statement through the athletic department indicating he was not a candidate for another job.

Al Golden has done a terrific job in three seasons at Miami, but some say the Penn State alum has had his eye on the Nittany Lions job.
Larry Johnson (center) spent 19 years at Penn State before accepting a job with Ohio State last month.
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Johnson: It's great to get back into those areas that I've recruited for so long. It's going to help me. And Rutgers and Maryland coming to the Big Ten is going to open more doors.

Michigan commitment Jabrill Peppers can play safety, corner or linebacker and should play immediately.
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When visiting Boston, Boston College coach Steve Addazio recommends a hole-in-the-wall restaurant: The Daily Catch in the city's North End. It's a Sicilian-style seafood and pasta restaurant with an open kitchen and fewer than a dozen tables. The food is served in the pan it's cooked on. Be prepared to wait in line and be seated directly next to strangers. That's all part of the charm. "It's a tiny place, no frills," Addazio said. "Not a lot of privacy. But the food is unbelievable." Addazio recommends the calamari meatball for an appetizer and the homemade pasta with seafood, "clams, mussels and all that."

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