It was still September and already things were looking bleak for Lane Kiffin.
Already considered something of an odd duck in Nick Saban’s homogeneous coaching staff of collared shirts, Kiffin’s star had been on the rise after 2014. Even with an inexperienced Blake Sims at quarterback, Amari Cooper was breaking every record that existed and Alabama’s offense soared to previously unseen heights in both yards and points, rising to No. 1 in the national rankings, winning the SEC Championship and adavncing to the first-ever College Football Playoff.
But there was no carryover to 2015. Alabama’s offense looked lost for the most part in the first month. Kiffin could not settle on a quarterback, the offensive line looked mediocre and no playmakers had yet emerged in the receiving corps to give defenses any real sense of a deep threat.
The nadir of all this had come in a shocking home loss to Ole Miss, in which Kiffin had pulled a fast one on the college football universe by starting sophomore Cooper Bateman against the Rebels. Bateman gave way in the second quarter to senior Jake Cooker, but Alabama committed five turnovers on the day and lost 43-37 despite gaining 503 yards.
A bunch of crazy, and still unconfirmed, rumors started swirling around Tuscaloosa about Kiffin and off-the-field antics. As with everything else related to Lane, the rumors would have been ludicrous, except that the guy involved in them has already been involved in some pretty ludicrous real-life stuff already at many of his other coaching stops.
Recall that Nick Saban’s hire of Kiffin in the winter of 2014 was met with equal parts skepticism and confusion. Kiffin came to Tuscaloosa little more than a year after Southern Cal athletic director Pat Haden fired him at the airport following a demoralizing loss to Arizona State.
Considered a hot young coaching candidate when the Oakland Raiders shocked everybody by hiring him in 2007, Kiffin looked an awful lot like damaged goods when Saban brought him to Tuscaloosa.
In retrospect, it was obvious that the arrangement at Alabama was beneficial to both sides. Saban wanted Kiffin to open up Alabama’s offense — faster tempo, more explosive plays — and Kiffin needed a place that would allow him to rehabilitate his image.
Nick Saban’s Alabama is perfect for that, if only because Saban protects his assistant coaches from the press, and he would have access to some of the nation’s best athletes while creating his game plans.
And Kiffin’s ultimate aim — we all think, anyway — was to remake himself as a college head coach.
As it turns out, this is the perfect year to be a hot coaching candidate. A number of high-profile openings have already been announced. Southern Cal, Miami, South Carolina, Maryland, Illinois, Missouri and Virginia Tech are all open, and we’re not even to Thanksgiving yet.
Kiffin’s name is bound to come up for some of these. Reportedly, it’s already happened at Maryland, where he has rumored to have interviewed. Everyone expects him to be in charge of a program somewhere else when 2016 begins.
For Kiffin, the issue of moving on probably boils down to the following two questions: 1.) If Saban retires soon, do I have a shot at his job when it happens? and 2.) Is a potential head coaching job better than my current situation?
Maryland, for example, looks like a solid opportunity. It has access to Balimore and the DC metro area for recruiting purposes, and there is a solid alumni base that will support a winning program. But does Kiffin want to throw in with a lesser Big Ten program that has to compete annually with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, particularly at a university that doesn’t really care that much about its football team?
Miami, too, has its promise — fertile recruiting grounds, tradition, and so forth. A closer look might dissuade some coaches though. Miami’s facilities are legendarily below average, and it’s unclear whether the university will continue to support a program at the level where disciples of “The U” expect it to be.
The other factor that could potentially keep Kiffin in Tuscaloosa is Saban himself. The biggest question surrounding the Alabama program is how much longer Saban intends to stay, and whether his two top coordinators (Kiffin and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart) will have a chance at the big chair once he steps down.
Saban is clearly tiring of the weight of expectations the program carries around on an annual basis, and appears to be growing more and more agitated with fans, media and everything else associated with that. If what was published about him over the summer is to be believed, he is more comfortable in a role as a rehabilitator than as what he has been the past several years, so it’s not inconceivable he could hang it up in a year or two.
If that happens, then what? Ostensibly the next in line at Alabama would be Smart, the defensive coordinator at Bama since Kevin Steele left after the 2008 season. Suppose, though, that Smart’s alma mater, Georgia, rids itself of Mark Richt in the next few weeks?
It’s still probably the safer bet that Kiffin is introduced elsewhere as a new head coach this January.
But it’s not a lock. At least, not yet.