The only thing more better than Nick Saban hiring Lane Kiffin as Alabama’s offensive coordinator is the irrational hatred some people maintain towards Kiffin. Kiffin, who to my knowledge has never committed a crime or even cheated on his wife, sparks moral outrage at the mere mention of his name. One national sports columnist seemed to take personal offense at Kiffin’s hiring:
It’s disappointing, disheartening, even disgusting that people like Kiffin and [former Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle] Shanahan continue to find open doors and welcome mats after spectacular failure, when good men — men who didn’t climb onto Daddy’s back for their start in the football business, or any business — sit by the wayside, either unemployed or underemployed because they don’t have a father who was better at their job than they ever will be.
It’s hard to see how Kiffin was a “spectacular failure” in his last post as head coach at Southern California. Kiffin’s record over three-plus seasons was 28-15. He was 3-2 when he was fired. It may not have been up to the national championship standard set by Pete Carroll, but then again Kiffin labored under NCAA sanctions arising from that standard. For comparison’s sake, Bill O’Brien produced a similar record (15-9) in two sanction-riddled seasons at Penn State, left for an NFL job, and the media consensus seems to be that he was justly rewarded. (Of course, it’s fair to note that Kiffin was on Carroll’s staff during the sanctioned years while O’Brien was an outsider at Penn State.)
RELATED: Alabama fans react to Lane Kiffin
Kiffin doesn’t rub people the wrong way because his father is Monte Kiffin, a career assistant now serving as the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator. Kiffin’s major crime was getting his first head coaching job, with the Oakland Raiders, at the age of 31. No doubt that still ruffles a lot of feathers among media elites who imagine themselves as equal or greater intellects when it comes to football. And while Kiffin was the youngest NFL head coach in the Super Bowl era, his hiring fit the management practices of the later Raiders owner Al Davis. Davis frequently hired young, relatively inexperienced offensive head coaches in their 30s, including Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden and Hall of Famer John Madden.
You could point to Kiffin’s 5-15 record with the Raiders as a “spectacular failure,” but again Davis was a mitigating factor. His mismanagement of the Raiders during the last years has been well documented. Kiffin succeeded Norv Turner, a veteran offensive coach, who went 9-23 in two seasons. Kiffin’s successor, Tom Cable, didn’t fare much better. Nobody held it against Turner or Cable when they went on to get other assistant jobs in the NFL, so there’s no reason to single out Kiffin for getting a college coordinator’s position.
“Meritocracy” for Coaches, But Not Athletic Directors?
Except, of course, his father is a coach. If we follow the reasoning of the columnist cited above, Kiffin’s parentage is sufficient cause to deny him a high-profile job. We must collectively hold Kiffin back to preserve some romantic notion of meritocracy. Fortunately, strong managers like Nick Saban know better.
And management is really the issue here. I won’t go so far as to call Kiffin a victim of circumstances, but it’s clear that with the Raiders and Southern California, Kiffin labored under weak management. Kiffin’s firing at Southern California is Exhibit A. Athletic Director Pat Haden decided to fire Kiffin in the middle of a game, making it official in an airport parking lot a few hours later. Kiffin was even barred from returning to campus on the team bus. That doesn’t strike me as professional management.
Haden’s hiring as athletic director in 2010 was, in fact, a much bigger offense against “meritocracy” than Kiffin’s stint as head coach. Haden didn’t work his way up through the ranks of the athletic department or build a resume at smaller schools. His primary qualifications for the job were (1) he played quarterback at Southern California in the 1970s and (2) he was well-known as a color commentator for NBC’s Notre Dame telecasts.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that someone with Haden’s lack of experience would prove so inept at managing his coaching situation. After impulsively firing Kiffin four games into the season, Haden got lucky that an experienced assistant, former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron, took over as interim coach and led the Trojans to a respectable 6-2 finish. Despite that accomplishment, Haden never interviewed Orgeron for the full-time coaching job and instead hired another ex-Pete Carroll assistant, Steve Sarkisian, who previously posted a 34-29 record at Washington.
Avoiding Media Tropes
The Sarkisian hiring at Southern California—and Kiffin’s hiring at Alabama—reflects another universal truth about management: All other things equal, managers tend to hire people they know. There’s no such thing as a blind hiring process in any industry, much less football coaching. Yes, sometimes initial connections are formed because of family relations, but over the long haul, what matters are the professional relationships formed by the managers and employees. Nick Saban knows and trusts Lane Kiffin to run his offense. He’s not going to make a key staff hire based on negative (or even positive) feedback from outsiders in the press who know little, if anything, about how a coach works on a day-to-day basis.
Never forget that media members—especially national columnists—are in the business of selling narrative, not facts. They construct artificial storylines to attract attention from readers and other media outlets. Often these narratives are simplistic “good and evil” tropes, i.e. “Lane Kiffin is a bad guy who only gets work because people know his daddy!” They have nothing to do, however, with running a multi-million dollar enterprise like the Alabama football program. That’s why you have professional managers like Nick Saban running the show, not some dime-a-dozen Internet pundit.