Fast Lane

Great coordinators can be great head coaches, but they must first learn and embrace a new set of skills
October 06, 2014

NO OFFENSE IN the history of Alabama offenses has been more prolific through four games than the one currently run by coordinator Lane Kiffin. The attack has been Tide ultra—nearly 600 yards per game, generating an average of 42 points—and it has given rise to the notion that the oft-ridiculed Kiffin is undergoing some sort of rebirth after brief and unsettled tenures as coach of the Raiders, Tennessee and USC (combined record: 40--36). It's much less nuanced than that. Nick Saban wanted Kiffin because he had directed powerful offenses elsewhere. In other words, the Bama coach brought in a guy to do what that guy had proved capable of doing.

"I thought it was a good hire," said Saban, who does not allow his assistants to talk to the media but responded last week to a question about Kiffin. "Nobody else did. I got beat up like a drum over doing it, and now all of a sudden it's great."

Kiffin was the offensive coordinator when USC averaged 49.1 points and 579.8 yards in 2005. During his later, ill-fated tenure as Trojans coach, 2010 to five games into '13, the team averaged 31 and 35.8 points in his last two full seasons. Even the Raiders averaged 7.2 points per game more in his one full season in Oakland.

After the Crimson Tide raked his team for 672 yards on Sept. 20 in a 42--21 victory, Florida coach Will Muschamp noted Kiffin's work with senior quarterback Blake Sims, a first-year starter, remarking that the OC is "really dialing that guy in and taking him to the right spots." Meanwhile, junior receiver Amari Cooper has entered the Heisman Trophy discussion because Kiffin makes sure to get him involved as much as possible. Cooper has 43 receptions, catching 10 or more balls in three of four games.

"Lane does a really, really good job of taking advantage of what players can do," Saban said. The success has the 39-year-old's name bubbling up in speculation—however premature—for top jobs that may come open. Kiffin in Michigan? Lane the Gator?

The more pertinent question: Is Kiffin where he should have been all along? Some great coordinators make for great head coaches. Some make for great coordinators. And when they try to climb to the last rung of the ladder, they lose their grip.

Muschamp is hanging on at Florida with a 24--17 record after leading top 10 defenses at Auburn and Texas. Greg Robinson coordinated Super Bowl--caliber defenses in the NFL and a top 25 unit at Texas in 2004 before crashing with a 10--37 record at Syracuse; he's now running the D at San Jose State. The jury is still out on Dana Holgorsen, who orchestrated the nation's No. 3 scoring offense at Oklahoma State in 2010, won 10 games at West Virginia in '11 and has gone 13--16 since. Kiffin's father, Monte, began coaching in 1966 and became one of the most renowned defensive coordinators at any level but was a head coach once, at North Carolina State from 1980 to '82. He was 16--17.

Being the boss requires a different set of skills, especially the ability to balance the noncoaching duties piled upon the top man. "If you're a head coach at one of the elite programs, you're not in staff meetings very much," says Gerry DiNardo, who was the offensive coordinator for Colorado's 1990 national championship team before assuming control at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. (He was successful at the first two stops.) "If you are, you're neglecting everything else." DiNardo, who's now a Big Ten Network analyst, adds, "What Lane wants to do is coach quarterbacks and call the plays. If he gets a head coaching job, he has to make a switch."

It would be absurd for a Power Five school to hire Kiffin as its coach; he hasn't yet proved he can handle the job. At a smaller school, where he could find his way with less pressure, it could make some sense. In truth, it would almost be more absurd for Kiffin to choose to leave Alabama this soon when another two or three years spent absorbing Saban's Process could be invaluable. DiNardo has spoken with Crimson Tide assistants who are unequivocal: "They always say working for Saban, it's like a clinic on how to be a head coach."

Even Saban, once a defensive coordinator, needed time to develop. In his five years at Michigan State, he only won between six and nine games. He has now won four national titles. That seems like a faraway goal for Kiffin, no matter how many plaudits he gets for his offensive touch in Tuscaloosa.

Saban crowed last week that he's been "begging" his coordinators to open up the offense for years. His latest hire sized up the personnel and delivered. Alabama's 3,203 passing yards in 2013 represented the second-best total in program history; Kiffin's unit is on pace to beat that by more than 1,000 yards. It's a job well done. Maybe it's for the best if that's enough. At least for now.

Golf

Singular Loss

19

Extra Mustard

22

Dan Patrick

Taysom Hill

24

Faces in the Crowd

26

The Case for

Michigan Men

27

GO FIGURE

225

Hits for Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, the most in franchise history and the most in the majors this season. Altuve won the AL batting title with a .341 average, becoming the first Houston player to lead a league in hitting.

1

Hit this season, in 19 at bats, by an Astros pitcher. Samuel Deduno got the only one, a double, last Saturday. Two teams, the A's and the Mariners, had their pitchers go hitless this year.

0

Punts in Sunday's Bears-Packers game in Chicago, just the second time that has happened in the NFL's regular-season. Green Bay won 38--17.

2:02:57

World record time set by Dennis Kimetto, 30, of Kenya at the Berlin Marathon on Sunday. Kimetto's time eclipsed by 26 seconds the previous mark, set by fellow Kenyan Wilson Kipsang last year in Berlin.

200

Losses for Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown, breaking the NCAA record of 199 held by Amos Alonzo Stagg. A 50--7 loss to Northern Iowa last Saturday dropped Brown—whose brother Mack coached at Texas—to 128-200-1 in 30 seasons in Division I.

PHOTOJASON PARKHURST FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDLearning Process A three-time flop as a head coach, Kiffin is again thriving in a role that is likely to land him another top job. PHOTODARREN CARROLL FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ALTUVE) PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (DEDUNO) PHOTOBRANDON LAUFENBERG/GETTY IMAGES (PUNT) PHOTOMARKUS SCHREIBER/AP (KIMETTO) PHOTOMIKE MCGINNIS/GETTY IMAGES (BROWN)

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