When late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis fired Lane Kiffin four games into his second season as coach in 2008, Davis said Kiffin had “conned me and conned all of you people.”
When former USC athletic director Pat Haden fired Kiffin five games into his fourth season as the Trojans’ coach in 2013, Kiffin was famously left behind on a tarmac at a private airport near LAX.
In a stunning move, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban announced on Monday that former USC and Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian will replace Kiffin as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and play-caller for the title game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, on Jan. 9.
Kiffin, who was named Florida Atlantic‘s new head coach last month, is no longer part of the Alabama coaching staff. Saban and Kiffin said the move was a mutual agreement, but it hardly seemed to be a friendly handshake and sunny farewell at the end.
Honestly, they always seemed to be college football’s odd couple since the first day Saban rescued Kiffin from the coaching trash heap. Saban seemed to be willing to tolerate Kiffin’s immaturity as long as the Crimson Tide were scoring and winning, and Kiffin seemed to tolerate Saban’s ridiculously long work hours and iron fist as long as it was going to help him get another head-coaching job.
Their odd relationship lasted for three seasons, in which the Crimson Tide reached the College Football Playoff three times (losing in the semifinals the first year, winning a national title in the second and playing for their fifth title in eight years in the third). But they couldn’t even coexist for seven more days in the end.
And let’s face it: Kiffin is about the only coach who could be fired from a job that he’d already quit.
“This wasn’t an easy decision and we appreciate the way Lane handled this in terms of doing what is best for our team,” Saban said in a statement. “At the end of the day, both of us wanted to put our players in the best position to be successful. Obviously, we are in a unique situation here where we have our next offensive coordinator already on staff. We have full confidence that Sark will step in right away and make this a smooth transition.”
Privately, Saban was worried Kiffin already had one foot out the door before the Crimson Tide played Washington in Saturday’s CFP semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta. He worried that Kiffin was spending too much time assembling his coaching staff and recruiting players for his new school. Kiffin had coaching candidates flying to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for interviews during the holiday break before the Peach Bowl, and then he and new Owls offensive coordinator Kendal Briles interviewed more candidates in Atlanta last week.
According to sources, Saban fumed when Kiffin was several minutes late for a staff meeting in Tuscaloosa before the Crimson Tide broke for the Christmas holiday.
It wasn’t the first time Saban had dealt with one of his coordinators taking a head-coaching job before Alabama’s season was over. At the end of the 2011 season, offensive coordinator Jim McElwain was hired as Colorado State‘s coach. McElwain directed the Tide’s offense in a 21-0 win over LSU in the BCS National Championship game before leaving.
Last season, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was named Georgia ‘s coach before he directed Alabama’s defense in a 38-0 win over Michigan State in a CFP semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic and again in a 45-40 win over Clemson in the CFP National Championship.
In an interview with ESPN two weeks ago, Saban said the transitions weren’t a big issue in the past.
“You do the best you can do to make sure everybody’s doing their job the right way,” Saban said. “I have no reason to think it’s not being done the right way, but I still think that you don’t really know until you go to play.”
Clearly, Saban wasn’t pleased with Alabama’s offense in its 24-7 victory over Washington at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Saturday. The Crimson Tide passed for only 57 yards and were penalized numerous times for delay of game and false starts.
Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts never found a rhythm and never seemed comfortable in the pocket. Saban also believed the Tide didn’t run the ball enough in the first half, even though tailbacks Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough were having success against the Huskies.
In fairness, if this really was a mutual decision, we might have to give Kiffin at least a little bit of credit. Kiffin didn’t have to watch film from the Peach Bowl to realize that he wasn’t very good at trying to balance two jobs.
Even more than that, Kiffin’s undoing was caused by what had often doomed him in the past: his immaturity and mouth.
Saban wasn’t pleased that Kiffin created distractions with inflammatory comments he made to Sports Illustrated in an article that was published last week. Kiffin told SI reporter Pete Thamel even though he was one of the sport’s highest-paid assistants with an annual salary of $1.4 million, he really didn’t make that much after paying taxes and alimony to his ex-wife.
“I make [about] 9 percent and I’m living in Tuscaloosa,” Kiffin told SI.
Later in the SI article, Kiffin complained about Saban’s 7:30 a.m. staff meetings and having to live in Tuscaloosa away from his three children.
“This will come across wrong,” Kiffin told SI. “But it’s like dog years. Three years is like 21.”
No, the biggest surprise of the unlikely Kiffin-Saban marriage isn’t that it ended a week before the Crimson Tide plays Clemson in the CFP National Championship Game.
It’s that it didn’t end a helluva lot sooner.