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Lane Kiffin is thriving as Alabama offensive coordinator, while still tweaking USC and Pat Haden

He was 15 minutes late. It was midmorning, yet he looked like he'd just climbed out of bed.

Lane Kiffin was the last Alabama representative to stroll into the College Football Playoff national championship media day Saturday, and he did so in all his Kiffinesque glory. There was the rumpled hair, the baggy sweats, the beard stubble and, of course, that mischievous glint.

"This is the third time I been here," he said of the Phoenix area. "The last time I was fired at four o'clock in the morning. Before that, I was here for USC's NCAA hearing. So a lot of great memories."

Admit it, Trojans fans, you've missed him. Sort of.

Kiffin is offensive coordinator for an Alabama team that plays Clemson in Monday's title game, having joined the Tide two years ago after becoming the first USC coach fired in the middle of a season, in September 2013. Because Alabama Coach Nick Saban doesn't allow his assistants to talk to the media during the regular season, Kiffin hasn't had much chance to give his side of the events surrounding his now-legendary final hours at USC, an ending featuring one of the most bizarre firing scenarios in Los Angeles sports history. The mandatory media appearance Saturday offered him his biggest stage yet, and, once he tardily shuffled under that spotlight, his eyebrows jumped and his smile danced.

First, in answer to my most important question, he wanted to issue a vehement denial. No, no, no, Pat Haden did not actually fire him on an airport tarmac.

"I was a good 20 yards off the tarmac," he said.

But, yes, after the Trojans had returned from a 62-41 loss to Arizona State in the wee hours of Sept. 29, 2013, Kiffin confirmed he was pulled off a team bus to be fired in a private airport waiting room at 4 a.m.

"I should have known when J.K. [McKay, USC associate athletic director] got me, the look on his face was not good, he said, 'I'm sorry' but I had no idea what he was talking about," Kiffin said.

Kiffin confirmed that he tried to talk Haden out of his decision, even vowing to leave at the end of the season if Haden would just let him finish a schedule that the Trojans had started with a 3-2 record, giving him a USC career record of 28-15.

"I tried to talk through it . . . to get them to let me keep coaching," Kiffin said. "I wanted to try to finish what we started and see where it goes. He was listening, then he walked outside, walked around, came back, said, 'We can't do it, we've already made the decision.'"

Kiffin said he was not even allowed to return to the bus to retrieve his briefcase, and wasn't allowed to return to his campus office to clean out his things, and was never allowed to address the team.

"They packed up my stuff," Kiffin said. "It was really difficult to deal with."

Kiffin said he was especially shocked because he and Haden had just discussed the team's future in the visiting locker room at Tempe, Ariz., before boarding the flight home.

"I remember being in the locker room, I said to Pat [Haden], 'At least we found our quarterback' . . . I was talking about Cody Kessler. . . . [Haden] kind of shook his head," said Kiffin. "Little did I know he'd already fired me."

Kiffin wants everyone to know that, even though it probably was Arizona State's 28-0 run in the third quarter that convinced USC officials to end his tenure, he was fighting to the end, noting the onside kick his team successfully executed early in the fourth quarter that led to a touchdown and closed the gap to 48-34.

"We got the onside kick, I thought we could come back and win the game, I didn't know I was already fired," he said. "A good question is, what would have happened if we won the game?"

Chances are, he would have been fired anyway. While Kiffin, 40, is doing impressive things these days as Alabama's play-caller — the Crimson Tide scored 38 points against defensive powerhouse Michigan State in a CFP semifinal shutout — he was just too young and flighty for the USC head coaching job.

Yes, the Trojans went 10-2 in his second season. But in his third season they also became the first team in nearly 50 years to go from a No. 1 preseason ranking to being unranked by the final game after finishing 7-6.

Yes, he dealt with crippling NCAA sanctions that forced him to coach short-handed his entire USC career. But those sanctions didn't cause him to become involved in controversies that included a deflated football scandal, switched-jersey-number incidents, and a nightmare Sun Bowl experience on the last day of 2012 that featured Kiffin coaching the game in sunglasses to cover up a facial cut that occurred under cloudy circumstances the previous evening.

In the end, Kiffin lost seven of his last 11 games with a team that was good enough to win seven of its final nine games in 2013 under Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton, and the surprise firing was actually expected.

"It's never the perfect time to do these things, but I thought it was the right time," Haden said at the time.

Kiffin still isn't buying it, and strongly believes he was basically NCAA-sanctioned out of a job.

"There was so much talk about how 'We understand that we're going to have some tough years, we understand you're only playing with 60 scholarship players,"' Kiffin said. "It's tough because you feel like, when the ball is kicked, everybody forgets about that. When the ball is kicked, all that stuff is forgotten about and you're supposed to win like you should at USC no matter what."

He is leaving open all possible coaching options for the future, and you can believe if Alabama wins Monday night, he will receive all sorts of offers. In the meantime, Kiffin will continue to teach, and tweak, and not necessarily in that order.

On Haden? "I've talked to him a few times, which is unusual . . . surprisingly we've had a really good relationship," Kiffin said. "We talk about things we do here that they don't do there, things they might want to think about."

On Helton? "I'm very excited for Clay, really close with Clay," he said, but then later added, "This morning, my son Knox says, 'Hey daddy, we're going to be in Dallas and we're going to whip USC next year.' I didn't think about it, but now that I think about it, I can't help Clay."

On his close friend Steve Sarkisian? Kiffin wouldn't comment on the manner of Sarkisian's dismissal in October because he said he didn't have enough information, but he said, "We all go through things. . . . I can tell talking to him, he's come back stronger and will be better."

And oh, by the way, Sarkisian has already sort of returned to coaching — "[He] texted me at halftime of our game last week with some ideas for the second half," Kiffin said.

As Kiffin was leaving Saturday's media scrum, I told him I'd heard that his family still lived in Southern California. You know, that region where one of the colleges is looking for an offensive coordinator today after the announcement that UCLA's Noel Mazzone is going to Texas A&M?

"Yes, my family is still in town," he said, pausing, then added, "I know where you're going with that, and don't do it, don't get that started."

He said it sternly. He said it with a smile.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 10, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Getting back to his point of departure - Revisiting locale of his last game with USC, Kiffin recounts his airport firing" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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