The confetti had not stopped falling inside Georgia Dome, and Lane Kiffin stood on the turf, at about the 30-yard line, and considered his immediate future. He had straddled the line between Florida Atlantic head coach and Alabama offensive coordinator for a month. One game remained, the biggest game, after Alabama had throttled Washington in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Saturday. Kiffin imagined nothing would change.
“I’ll be back in Alabama,” Kiffin said. “We do stay here tonight. We’re going to leave in the morning. I’ll be with the team. It’s a [recruiting] dead period. It’s not like we’ve got a month. We basically just have a little bit longer of a week. It’ll all be dedicated to Alabama. The No. 1 focus will be finishing what we started.”
The stunning announcement Alabama made Monday afternoon, then, may have blindsided Kiffin. Nick Saban declared Kiffin will “focus on [his] new head coaching job at Florida Atlantic.”
What that means is, Saban could not stand Kiffin being around his program, even for one more week, the seven days before the Crimson Tide faces Clemson in a national title rematch.
Kiffin helped Saban during his three years in Alabama, modernizing an offense that had started to become dated, leading three different quarterbacks to three Southeastern Conference titles and three playoff appearances. But Saban helped Kiffin much more. Kiffin earned $1.4 million in a high-profile job. He landed on his feet after a humiliating exit as Southern Cal’s head coach, when Kiffin admitted there were few schools soliciting his services.
And now their relationship has ended awkwardly, as most relationships with Kiffin tend to do. When he parted ways with the Oakland Raiders, owner Al Davis used a slide show to illustrate his misdeeds. He left Tennessee with a disorganized, late-night news conference and with a crowd of angry students and fans gathered outside the football complex. USC fired him at a private airport in the wee hours. And now Alabama has dismissed him on the eve of the national championship.
Saban’s announcement made it seem like a mutual parting. The strain of trying to set up his recruiting at staff at FAU while leading Alabama’s offense had become too much, not productive for the team or Kiffin. There’s some truth in that. But part left unspoken is both more important and blatantly clear: Saban wanted Kiffin to take a hike.
The final straw may have been the remarkable story published last week in Sports Illustrated. Kiffin said he had not any fun coaching at Alabama, equating three years to 21 – as in dog years. He complained about the cost of alimony and taxes. He presented scientific evidence his personality shared nothing in common with the personalities of Saban or the other coaches he worked with. He made these comments, and more, with the backdrop of house hunting in South Florida, trying to find something in the $6 million range, with a view of the water.
Saban does not permit assistant coaches to speak with reporters during the season. During bowl preparation, there are many opportunities when all coaches from participating schools must talk. Kiffin’s hiring at FAU also gave him occasion to speak publicly. When given the chance, Kiffin was everything Saban wants kept light years away from his program: brash, distracting, selfish.
Alabama’s performance in Peach Bowl probably didn’t convince Saban of Kiffin’s focus. The Tide wanted to be conservative to thwart Washington’s turnover-happy defense, so an explosion couldn’t be expected. But the Tide passed for only 57 yards, and Kiffin wasn’t able to get Bo Scarbrough – clearly the best player on the field – a significant workload until the fourth quarter.
So Alabama will turn to Steve Sarkisian to call plays in the national title game, against a Clemson defense that has future NFL players and a defensive line that might rival even Alabama’s. Sarkasian spent the season ensconced in Alabama’s program, and his knowledge of Kiffin’s offense dates back to their time together at USC. But changing coordinators a week before the biggest game of the season cannot be ideal.
Kiffin, it turns out, will not be where he thought he would be this week. He will be far away from Alabama, which is just where Nick Saban wants him.