Former USC coach Lane Kiffin rolls with the Tide, and the punches

Fifteen months after USC fired him, Lane Kiffin is still a lightning rod as Alabama's offensive coordinator

The black SUV drove up to the hotel entrance and idled for a few moments before Alabama's offensive coordinator emerged from the back seat.

Lane Kiffin pulled his black suit jacket over his lavender shirt and straightened his crimson necktie.

“All right,” a Sugar Bowl official said. “You ready for this?”

With that, Kiffin walked a gauntlet of flashing camera bulbs and entered a ballroom packed with a media throng that had been awaiting one of the most anticipated news conferences of the college football season.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban allows assistant coaches to speak to the media twice a season: At the start of training camp and during bowl game news conferences when their appearance is mandatory.

With Alabama a few days from playing Ohio State, Kiffin calmly — and at times humorously — fielded questions about his transition from fired USC head coach to offensive mastermind of the Crimson Tide.

Kiffin said he felt like a graduate assistant, “sitting there trying to learn every day” from Saban, winner of one national title at Louisiana State and three at Alabama.

“I would have done it for free,” he said of the opportunity. “I would have paid him for it.”

The sideline shots of Saban and Kiffin during games, so often in animated exchanges, rank among the season's most entertaining television highlights. But the combination of the control freak Saban and the once-irascible Kiffin is working.

Alabama is 12-1 and the top-seeded team in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

“We may not have the same personality,” Kiffin said, “but we do have a lot of the same beliefs when it comes to coaching.”


Kiffin oversees an offense that is producing 490 yards and 37 points a game. He turned quarterback Blake Sims into a record-setting passer and helped receiver Amari Cooper become the Biletnikoff Award winner and a Heisman Trophy finalist.

“Lane has done a fantastic job for us across the board,” Saban told reporters in Alabama during bowl preparations. “He's a very good teacher. He has a really good way with the players in terms of how they respond to him.”

On Monday, Kiffin was serious, self-deprecating and remorseful throughout a near-hour of questions.

The coach who once gleefully baited Urban Meyer when they schemed against each other at Tennessee and Florida said they had reconciled — “It was, ‘Hey, all this kind of crap from before, let's move on'” — and professed nothing but respect for Ohio State's coach.

“That was just one of my many mistakes,” he said.

Kiffin also was playful.

Asked by a television reporter if his relationship with Saban was father-son, older brother-younger brother or “crazy uncle-immature nephew,” Kiffin responded, “You're really trying to get me to make ‘SportsCenter' today.”

When a magazine reporter said Kiffin was viewed as a “divisive guy,” Kiffin laughed. “Thanks,” he said, adding, “Divisive. God, this was going so well.”

He then explained that he could only control the Alabama offense and not worry about anything else.

“Like that article you wrote about me that was so bad,” he said to the reporter, grinning. “It's going to take me years to recover from it. So it's really your fault.”

Laughter erupted.

That was also the reaction from college football fans this month when Kiffin made a brief speech in Arkansas. Kiffin was a finalist for the Broyles Award, which recognizes the sport's top assistant coach.

Kiffin thanked Saban for taking a chance on him, and then joked about the disparity in his and Saban's heights when they are shown on the sideline during broadcasts.

“This is why he doesn't let me talk to the media,” Kiffin said.

He then joked about what Saban says to him on the sideline.

“He's just saying, ‘Hey Lane, I love you so much. Thank you so much for coming here. Can you please stop throwing the ball so much and just run it a few more times, please?'”

Saban seemed to take it in stride.

“I thought it was kind of humorous,” he told reporters a few days later. “But I think what he said at the end was probably the best message: It's why we don't let him talk to the press.”


Kiffin, 39, said he was not immediately focused on becoming a head coach again and would “definitely” be back at Alabama next season.

Opportunities could beckon after the job he has done, especially with Sims.

The fifth-year senior played running back as a redshirt freshman and had thrown only 39 passes in two previous seasons before he beat out Florida State transfer Jake Coker.

Kiffin had recruited Sims when he coached at Tennessee. Sims was on the verge of switching his commitment from Alabama before Kiffin left for USC in January 2010 to succeed Pete Carroll.

“He's been hard on me when I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing,” Sims said, “or if I'm not being the best player that I can be.”

Cooper, too, had a breakout season. He had a combined 104 receptions in his first two seasons but said Kiffin told him that he would catch more than 100 passes. The coach showed him film of former USC All-Americans Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

“Just the type of routes they ran, the types of concepts coach Kiffin was going to introduce to us,” said Cooper, who has 115 receptions, 14 for touchdowns.

Ed Orgeron, who worked with Kiffin at Tennessee and USC, watched Alabama this season and was not surprised by Kiffin's success.

“Lane is the offensive coordinator I remember in the heyday,” said Orgeron, who lives in Louisiana. “He's doing the things he did … at SC, and now he's put in the no-huddle.

“Everyone knows Lane is a fighter.”


Kiffin was unemployed until Saban picked him off the scrap heap.

He went 28-15 in his three-plus seasons at USC before Athletic Director Pat Haden fired him at Los Angeles International Airport after a loss at Arizona State in the fifth game of the 2013 season.

“The phone wasn't ringing a lot,” he said of his job prospects at the time. “That's the reality.”

Kiffin had visited Saban's home after the Trojans finished 7-6 in 2012.

“Just a lot of questioning for him about handling situations and different questions that I had for him,” Kiffin said.

Last December, Kiffin spent time at Alabama observing the Crimson Tide. Saban hired him the next month.

“I thought it was a good hire — nobody else did,” Saban said in September, a few days after the Crimson Tide rolled up 672 yards against Florida.

“I got beat up like a drum over doing it and now all of sudden it's great.”

Kiffin can't thank Saban enough for the opportunity.

“After the great run at USC in those years being there with Pete Carroll, and now to be able to be with him,” he said, “it will be a good book someday.”


Kiffin's appearance Monday came two days after USC completed a 9-4 season under first-year Coach Steve Sarkisian.

Kiffin said he was “rooting” for the Trojans.

“Any time that you go through what we went through and you recruit kids as the head coach to a program, you want to see those guys have success,” he said.

As he made his way to the exit after the news conference ended, Kiffin said he had spoken with Haden a few times about players, games and the Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences.

“You have times when there's obviously hard feelings and things, and then there's time to move on and not take things personal,” he said. “He did a lot for me, a lot for our family and I learned stuff from him too.”

Kiffin spoke to Sarkisian before USC's Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska, a win that was not secured until the Trojans batted away a Hail Mary pass.

“Like [Sarkisian] said,” Kiffin deadpanned. “They're entertaining.”

Kiffin exhaled as he climbed back into the SUV so he could be whisked to a team meeting.

A reporter reminded him about the bowl official's question upon his arrival.

Had he been ready for this?

“Yeah,” he said as the door was closing, “it's been great.”

Twitter: @latimesklein

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times