Nick Saban hiring Lane Kiffin should not be surprising

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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.

RELATED: Another Alabama coach leaves for Texas

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.

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COMMENTS

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  • I read this column twice. Just to make sure Iidn’t miss anything. Is this writer in LaLa land? One ofthe main reasons Kiffin is hated down south is because of his one stint at UT. I don’t think the Raidors job or his failings at USC are the crux of the hatred. I think if you had addressed the complete set-back or downward spin he started at Tennessee and his recruiting antics. You would be closer to the mark. His blatant accussing of 3 or 4 well established SEC coaches of cheating . His midnight train departure from UT. And his recruiting antics with helicopters at highschool games etc. He acted like a complete classless bafune. Then left UT holding the bag. The AD has since resigned after Bruce Pearl and the Kiffin debacle. They are still trying to dig out from Lame Kitten.

    • I thought it was widely acknowledged that Fulmer was the problem that ruined Tennessee.

      • Um…. NO WAY. It was most definitely Lane.

      • If you thought that you are either clueless, or just haven’t paid attention to football in the last 5 years. While Fulmer left after a losing season, he left a year after he took his team to the SEC championship, and he left a team that still had respect in-house and in the SEC. Kiffin came in and embarrassed Tennessee by running his mouth about every team in the SEC, all of which would have been forgotten if he was a winner, which he was in his year at UT. THen he walks out of an SEC coaches meeting to take a job at USC not only taking what good work he had done with him (recruits that left and decommitted) but leaving UT no time to find a descent coach. Due to this Dooley came in and did, what was in my opinion, all he could do to put the program back on its tracks giving Butch the first real chance the team has had since. Get your facts straight, Fulmer left a down team, but Kiffin came in and dismantled it.

  • Personally, I think Nick just wants to hang out with Lame’s hot wife… I can’t come up with any other sane reason for the hiring…
    So, I would imagine we’ll soon see the Tuscaloosa paparazzi snagging pics of Nick and a hot blond in a convertible running around town…

  • Amazing how the writer of the story leaves out the fact that Kiffin was a complete failure at tennessee, ruined the program, and then bailed immediately to take over a USC job in which he was spectacularly unsuccessful. He was also the recruiting coordinator at the time when USC committed the recruiting violations that led to the probation he coached under. Went full circle on that one. Also, he was co-OC at USC with steve sarkisian, who successfully turned around a UW program that was 0-12 before he got there. That would make him a successful HC, something no one mistakes Kiffin as.

  • I read this three times to be sure I wasn’t missing something. The writer needs a clue about Kiffin and why this is so upsetting to Tennessee Fans. He is responsible for the downward spiral of Tennessee. Mike Hamilton should have been fired after the incident with Fulmer. He is a word class idiot. I hope Saban keeps Kiffin on a short leash.

  • Did he really just say….”The only thing more better….’ Really? more better?

  • either this is the WORST hire in the history of college football or Saban just hired someone to pump his gas…

  • Successful manager-leaders, regardless of profession, are successful for a number of reasons but at the top of the list is people…..the people they surround themselves with to help implement strategy/tactics. Clearly, Saban has confidence in Kiffin’s ability to do that at a top level.

    • Yes, Kiffin is former Gators quarterback John Reaves’ son-in-law. Reaves, as you may recall, was an assistant under Spurrier at Florida and Brad Scott at South Carolina. He was a star quarterback in the USFL for the Tampa Bay Bandits in the 1980s, but never could break out in the NFL. There were rumors of alcohol and drug abuse while he was a player, and alcohol and drugs later derailed his life after coaching. Layla Kiffin is his daughter.

  • What i am afraid of is that in 5 or 6 years when Saban retires that this bozo will be “next guy up” and I don’t think he would be a good fit. I know he won’t be well liked. I know Saban knows what he is doing, just hope it works out.

    • Surely the powers that be in Tuscaloosa will have enough sense to look at the history of success by the Tide in the past and hire a head coach with a resume that boasts of defensive prowess. Granted, 2013 was a season of offense in the SEC, but UA and the rest of the conference are usually led by teams with strong defenses.
      I share your fears of having Kiffin work his way to the top at Alabama. I have this fear not because of his competence as a coach, but mainly because of his off field antics. This latter behavior shows a true lack of character. Every coach that has been successful in the SEC and college football have tried and true characters on and off the field. Kiffin’s behavior at Tennessee shown irresponsibility and, frankly, childish behavior. I have no doubt that the USC job was one of his dream situations, but he had a responsibility to the administration of the University of Tennessee, their fans, and most of all, the players and recruits that he had most certainly formed bonds with to get them to commit to him and the school.

  • As a #volforlife, I wouldn’t wish Kiffin on my worst enemy (Florida), or even Alabama. The damage he did during his one year at UT, and having to sneak out of town, before he could be tarred and feathered, remains today. Did I mention how ticked off we were when he took his competent and respected father along with him? Looking forward to Oct. 25 – let’s see what kind of reception he gets if he dares set foot on Rocky Top.

  • If Kirby Smrt takes the Georgia job? Something is going on in Tuscaloosa. Coaches bailing?