Lane Kiffin always was an odd fit at Alabama.
You can’t say it was a bad fit. Not even close. Not with College Football Playoff appearances all three years he was the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator and a shot a second straight national title for Alabama next week. If Kiffin was doing a lousy job, Nick Saban would have kicked him to the curb right away.
When the announcement came Monday, however, that Kiffin won’t be calling plays for the championship game against Clemson, the personality gap between this flashy, me-first coach and every other Saban assistant was made evident one last time.
“We made the decision because it was in the best interest of our players, our program and for Lane for him to assume his duties at Florida Atlantic,” Saban said. “We mutually agreed that this was best for both programs.”
Compare that to what Saban was saying about Kirby Smart last January, back when Georgia had already hired Alabama’s former defensive coordinator as head coach but Smart was permitted to stay with the Tide through the College Football Playoff title game against Clemson.
“You know, it’s sort of like you have a son and he’s moving away, and you want to see him do really, really well,” Saban said of Smart at the time.
“I certainly appreciate the fact that he’s stuck here with us and done a really good job as far as trying to finish this year for our players. I think that’s the number one reason that he’s here.”
The Georgia job is a whole lot bigger than FAU, with more impactful recruiting energy to be spent in keeping up with the SEC neighbors. Yet Smart saw the value of standing in the confetti shower of a national championship celebration and decided to do it the hard way, postponing many of his new duties at Georgia to get his hands on another trophy at Alabama.
“Kids see it,” Smart said after Alabama beat Clemson 45-40, not exactly his greatest night as a coordinator but a trophy moment all the same. “They identify with it. Me being on TV and being in the national championship did way more for me tonight than say somebody who wasn’t.”
Now Kiffin joins the vast majority coaches who won’t be on the field at Tampa next Monday when Alabama and Clemson do it again.
That’s too bad for him and too bad for FAU, which can use every precious syllable of network TV conversation in the raising of its Div. I football profile. That’s why the Owls hired Kiffin in the first place. Win games in the fall, sure, but get people talking all year round.
What caused the breakup at this critical moment for Alabama football? Probably nothing major, but when you lose focus on Saban’s objectives for even an instant, that’s a tidal wave of trouble in Tuscaloosa.
A couple of times Kiffin was late to meetings prior to the Peach Bowl national semifinal, including Media Day, when he missed the bus back to the team hotel. Then, in an easy win over Washington, the Alabama offense was good but not great.
Couldn’t have helped, either, when Sports Illustrated came out with a long article about Kiffin house-hunting in Boca Raton during Christmas week, with $4 million waterfront homes on his target list so that boats and jet-skis will always be at the ready.
Made me think of the more common SEC coaching profile, Will Muschamp. When he was plucked off Texas’ staff to be head coach of the Florida Gators, Muschamp lived in a Gainesville hotel for several months while waiting on his family to finish school and join him. All work, no play, the Saban way.
That takes us back to that recent SI story. While referencing the relative social isolation of life in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin told the writer who tagged along on his house search, “This will come across wrong, but it’s like dog years. Three years is like 21.”
He knew it would come out wrong but he said it anyway. That’s Kiffin, who always goes back to smooth things over, but the joke too frequently is on him.
Why would a guy who desperately needed the structure of Saban’s system to restore credibility to his own career get sloppy the moment that the payoff of a new job is secured? It doesn’t say much about the maturity that Kiffin supposedly has gained since his days at Tennessee and USC, or about his stated desire at the FAU introductory press conference to keep it boring for a while.
None of this means, of course, that Kiffin can’t be successful at FAU, or that the Owls won’t benefit from his magnetism and his coaching, or that Nick Saban regrets the modernization that Kiffin brought to the Alabama offense.
The bottom line is that Kiffin has been quiet for a long time. It’s bound to get noisy at FAU, and fast, because the goal is to keep him around for more than a few crazy headlines, and it’s unlikely that anyone over there is going to have the nerve to tell him to tone it down or else.