SCOTTSDALE, Az.–Lane Kiffin deserves another chance. Wow, typing that didn’t hurt as much as I thought.
Once upon a time, admittedly, it would have been like saying “Donald Trump is misunderstood.”
The only thing we do better than bring people down is lift them up. We are a righteous lot. We love people to fall, rise, fail, then rise again.
Kiffin is a human elevator. He didn’t deserve three prime head coaching jobs before the age of 35. Of course, he would not exactly admit that Saturday at Media Day in advance of Monday’s national title game between Alabama and Clemson.
Kiffin said his tenures at Oakland, Tennessee and USC were valuable learning experiences. What we learned was he wasn’t ready for any of those positions.
He was the privileged, seemingly petulant son of a coach who won life’s lottery when he got attached to Pete Carroll’s staff at USC. He was foolishly anointed by Al Davis, then fired, then hired at Tennessee, then hired, and fired, by USC.
Kiffin, though, has won back a lot of what he lost. It took only two years of prison time serving as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama.
Alabama was the best thing that could have happened to Kiffin after his trap-door firing during USC’s 2013 season. There are no mutinies on Saban’s “Bounty.” He keeps his assistants on a leash and allows them only to speak twice a year.
Keeping his mouth mostly closed allowed Kiffin to silently rebuild his career and reputation.
He is back in good graces days after his brilliant battle plan at the Cotton Bowl, where Kiffin convinced Saban to use Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry as a decoy against Michigan State.
Imagine if that had not worked?
Kiffin figured Michigan State would be keying on Henry and put the game in the hands of quarterback Jake Coker. Henry was held to 75 yards, Coker went bomb-route bonkers and Alabama won 38-0.
“If we didn’t want it to be one of these 10-7 games we were going to have to go after them and take some shots,” Kiffin explained to reporters.
Lane’s plan was daring, ballsy and magnificent. He enters Monday’s title game a redeemed man in the same greater metropolis where he coached his last game at USC. That was a humiliating, pungent defeat at Arizona State, after which Kiffin was fired in the wee hours upon arrival in Los Angeles.
“So, a lot of good memories,” Kiffin joked.
Time is a healer. Kiffin said he is even on friendly terms with USC athletic director Pat Haden. Yet, he can’t let all of it go.
“I had no idea at all,” he said of his blind-side ouster. “Totally caught me off guard. I got off the plane. I put my bag on the bus, I was going to sleep at the facility … I was on the bus, someone came on the bus and said ‘Pat wants to see you.’ I left my briefcase on the bus. It was a private airport there at LAX, they’d already made the decision. It was made during the game, I guess.”
Kiffin, the story goes, was fired on the tarmac.
“I was a good 20 yards off the tarmac,” he jokingly corrected.
Kiffin is in a better place now, and actually in a better place than USC.
Getting older helped, but so did working the chain gang for Warden Saban.
“We’re not here to have fun,” Kiffin mused. “We’re here to win.”
Kiffin is one victory from winning the national title he was supposed to win at USC. It would be Saban’s title, of course, but Kiffin would deserve credit as a major contributor.
It’s a mild shock Kiffin didn’t land one of the 14 coaching openings this season. Kiffin is still seen as toxic by some athletic directors, but maybe that thinking needs to change.
I wouldn’t hand Kiffin the keys to a top 10 program, but he should be allowed a path back. You have to to think Saban knocked some sense in to him, right?
Kiffin seems perfectly suited, at this point, to lead a top mid-major, or ever a struggling program in a power conference.
He deserves one more shot to see if he’ll ever be more than a good play caller. Nobody’s dream should be written off at age 40.
Kiffin should be better now than he was then. He has worked under Pete Carroll and Nick Saban, two of the greatest coaches in this generation.
“When you become a head coach so early, so young and so fast, you don’t really know why you’re doing things,” Kiffin said. “You’re just doing them because that’s what Pete did. Ok, now situations come up. This is what Pete would do, this is what Coach Saban would do.”
It’s only been a little more than two years since Kiffin flamed out at USC. He says it seems like 10 years.
“That was so long ago,” he said. “I do think things make you stronger.”