Lane Kiffin wasn’t available to speak for this story.
Since becoming Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2014, he has spoken to the media only twice outside of bowl settings. That isn’t a complaint, mind you. Under Nick Saban, media access is tight, coordinators are rarely available and that’s just the way it is.
The lack of fresh Kiffin quotes these days underscores a broader point about the 40-year-old coach: We’re slowly moving past his colorful past. Past Al Davis’ unusual news conference in which he used an overhead projector to explain firing Kiffin after one unsuccessful season with the Oakland Raiders. Past Kiffin hurling unfounded accusations at other SEC programs while at Tennessee. Past his abrupt and less-than-ideal departure for USC, his mediocre tenure there and his firing on an airplane tarmac hours after a 21-point loss to Arizona State less than halfway through the season.
Those infamous mile markers of Kiffin’s career haven’t disappeared from the public record, but they’re receding from memory. The caricature of Kiffin is gradually fading and what’s left is Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator and championship-winner. The most colorful thing he does now is predict touchdowns, throwing up his arms to indicate a score on the sideline while the ball is still in the air. It’s hilarious because so often he’s right.
As he says less, we’re beginning to know Kiffin more for his coaching ability. His actions thus far at Alabama have been without fault. He’s helped the Tide to a 26-3 record, breathing life into what some saw as a stagnant offense. He turned Amari Cooper into a Heisman Trophy finalist one year and Derrick Henry into a Heisman winner the next. Getting Cooper 100-plus balls wasn’t altogether surprising, but the fact that Kiffin went all-in with Henry, feeding the beast for 5 yards a pop rather than putting the ball in the air in search of bigger gains, was a mild upset over Kiffin’s previous M.O.
The biggest feather in his cap, however, is what he’s done with a pair of quarterbacks many had left for dead. In 2014, he took Blake Sims from career backup and former part-time receiver to the single-season record holder for passing yards at Alabama. Then last year, he saved Jake Coker’s career at the last moment, giving the fifth-year senior the opportunity to start and lead Alabama to a national title, throwing for more than 3,000 yards along the way.
In a world full of sports hot takes, there aren’t many to be found on Kiffin anymore. There’s just no ammunition. The last time he put his foot in his mouth was when he overpraised a true freshman wide receiver prior to the start of last season, comparing him to “a couple of Biletnikoff winners and a bunch of All-Americans.” Saban wasn’t pleased with Kiffin putting someone with no career catches on such a high pedestal, but then Calvin Ridley emerged as the best young receiver in the SEC and a worthy heir to Julio Jones and Cooper at Alabama.
Kiffin isn’t perfect, of course. Every now and then he’ll make some calls on offense that have you scratching your head. But that’s to be expected of any coordinator at this level. And, besides, you can’t argue with results.
The questions facing Kiffin now aren’t about what he’ll say next or how he might cause a stir. Rather, you look at what he’s done at Alabama and wonder what’s next. Will he somehow find a third starting QB in three years and help lead the Tide to a third playoff berth? If he does, at what point does he start to become a viable head coach candidate again?
Many athletic directors don’t appear ready to give Kiffin another chance, according to a story from ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg in early December. One Power 5 AD went the other way and said he thought someone would go after Kiffin, but called it a “renegade hire.” By the time the coaching carousel stopped before signing day, Kiffin didn’t get an offer to be a head coach and stayed at Alabama.
As he continues to reshape his image in Tuscaloosa, it feels like only a matter of time until Kiffin gets the call he’s looking for. After all, every radioactive element has a half-life; maybe we’ve reached Kiffin’s.
Saban will turn 65 years old this season and with his longtime defensive coordinator Kirby Smart now the head coach at Georgia, it's unclear who Alabama would turn to in the event of his retirement. Former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain was a fan favorite after leading Colorado State to back-to-back bowl games in 2013-14, but now he's at Florida for the foreseeable future. So does that leave Kiffin as the in-house candidate to replace Saban? If not now, then what about a few years from now, when he's fully in tune with Saban's process?
Kiffin might need to prove himself at another job in order to become a more viable candidate to take over one of college football's top programs. But in the few comments he's made since becoming coordinator, its clear that he wants to be a head coach again.
Then and only then will we know whether he’s changed or not, whether these last two years or relative quiet have brought a new sense of perspective.
Kiffin doesn’t have to say anything right now. He’s doesn’t need to stand up for himself. The more he coaches under Saban’s umbrella and the longer he stays out of the news, the more we all move on.