- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Three practices into spring camp, it’s been all Lane Kiffin all the time. Love him or hate him, the man moves the needle. And even though he can’t speak to the media in his new role as offensive coordinator at Alabama, he seems to be all anyone in Tuscaloosa can talk about.
The visor! My goodness, the visor!
As far as career arcs go, Kiffin’s has been interesting, erratic and downright inexplicable. He rose through the ranks almost as quickly as he fell out of them. When he finally hit rock bottom at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was called off the USC team bus and fired, an unlikely hand was there to catch him. Nick Saban, who shares an agent with Kiffin and coached against him during his brief stint as head coach at Tennessee, threw the 38-year-old a lifeline few expected, offering him a chance to rebuild his reputation at Alabama.
First he was hired. Then he sang karaoke. And now, mercifully, he’s doing the simple job of coaching football.
The Kiffin melodrama has finally taken the important turn from speculation into substance. The talk is still ongoing -- depending on who you ask, he’s either going to bring Alabama’s offense into the 21st century or send it back to the stone age -- but now at least he’s moving around on the practice field, leading an offense that lacks a starting quarterback but is loaded with talent. He’s still wearing his visor, it just has a different shade of red.
So far, players seem to be buying in to Kiffin’s coaching style. Standout receiver Amari Cooper said Kiffin has made the offense more simple and “player-friendly.” The way he calls plays, Cooper explained, makes it easier to know what you’re supposed to do.
But what’s he like underneath that visor? Has he sang to you in any of your meetings yet?
“Pretty cool guy. Pretty laid back guy,” Cooper said of his initial impression of Kiffin. “He pays attention to everything -- every little thing. I noticed that about him when we were practicing for the bowl game.”
Astute college football fans will remember the first taste of Kiffin in Tuscaloosa came back in December when Saban brought him in to help evaluate the offense during bowl practice. It caused a minor uproar, to which Saban said he “couldn’t believe there’s any reaction to it.” A month later Doug Nussmeier left for Michigan, and Kiffin took his office and his title.
Brian Vogler, who started every game at tight end last season for the Crimson Tide, had to get used to seeing Kiffin on the field directing the offense. The senior had seen him plenty on television, but having him there in person was altogether different.
“People know who he is. He's very high profile,” Vogler said. “Seeing him over there, I think it’s great, honestly.”
Vogler credited Kiffin with being more hands-on and player-friendly, just like Cooper did. How the offense will change remains to be seen, though. On the one hand, Vogler said he expected it to be “a little bit more dynamic,” but at the same time he thought things would stay fairly similar to years' past.
“It’s Saban’s, so it’s going to be the same offense,” he said.
Each new coordinator brings his own set of wrinkles, certainly, but Vogler’s observation isn’t far off from what former coaches and players told ESPN a year ago.
Will Kiffin incorporate a more up-tempo attack? Maybe, maybe not.
“We’re a team that’s made to be maulers,” Vogler said. “Guys are just going to be really physical with you, hit you from every aspect of the game and hit you in every direction. I just don't know if that's really our style of being speedy and trying to be elusive around everybody and dodge people like other schools do."
For now, Saban is mostly noncommittal about what changes Kiffin will bring to the offense. He would, however, like to see him get the ball to guys such as Cooper more often.
“Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball into the playmakers' hands,” he said.
Expectations might be under control within the Alabama bubble, but outside they’re not so reasoned. Kiffin isn’t just any new offensive coordinator. He’s still the guy who ruffled the feathers of many in the SEC and didn’t make a lot of friends during his time at USC. He’s stepped into a much different role now where he won’t make headlines with what he says, but he still has all eyes on him.
If you’re an Alabama fan, you’re watching for the spark of greatness that afforded him so many jobs in the past. If you’re not wearing crimson, you’re watching to see if he'll self-destruct as he has before.
But chances are that whoever you are, you’re watching. A lot of people are tuned in to see whether the marriage of Kiffin and Saban will work. It’s become must-see TV.
8hDavid M. Hale