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By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 13, 2016
If you were shocked by Lane Kiffin leaving Alabama for the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic – which if initial reports are accurate, may have actually resulted in a pay cut – don’t be.
There wasn’t much chance Kiffin was going to remain at Alabama as offensive coordinator beyond the 2016 season. For that matter, the possibility of Kiffin remaining as offensive coordinator just through the playoffs weren’t assured.
In the end, everyone gets what they wanted out of this move, which brings to a close a three-year arrangement that saw one of football’s brightest offensive minds align with perhaps its greatest defensive mind of all time. And the results were predictable, with perhaps even higher heights awaiting the program in the coming weeks.
Lane Kiffin came to Alabama to rehabilitate his image, prove his continuing worth as a coach and collect championship hardware. He has already done all three, although it would seem the first of those aims may still take a little work.
The University of Houston interviewed Kiffin for its vacant head coaching job just long enough to notice a still-wandering eye. Houston attempted to attach a restrictive, if not punitive buyout to the contract, Kiffin balked, and both sides walked away from the deal.
South Florida was next, a job that seemed to have Kiffin’s name written all over it. Instead, and in somewhat surprising fashion, USF quickly went in another direction.
That left Kiffin to pick between Florida Atlantic, one of the least prestigious jobs in all of FBS, or either returning to Alabama as offensive coordinator or taking a similar job elsewhere, while he played the long-shot card and hoped for another job to come open later, most likely as the result of an NFL team plucking a successful coach from the college ranks.
There’s little doubt that if Kiffin stays in the college game, he’ll ultimately want to do so at a plum job on one of the two coasts, not in some place like Houston, Texas, or Lincoln, Neb., or even Tuscaloosa, Ala. How long it takes him to get there (again) is up to no one but Kiffin himself. It’s not going to be just about the wins and losses, but how he manages his career, his future job opportunities and his conduct away from the field.
There is no use dancing around the issue – Kiffin’s maturity has never been the best, or even appropriate for his young age. He has rubbed people the wrong way, most notably just about every former boss he’s had shy of perhaps Pete Carroll. At times, this list has included Nick Saban. It’s just that the genius has, at least until now, caused his employers to bite their bottom lips and say, “Yeah, we know, but look at those numbers!”.
While Kiffin gets a shot in Boca Raton to show that he has learned how to operate without a bigger name running interference for him, Alabama has to move on to the next name, and hope that Saban’s Process® continues to plow over opponents like it has the last 10 years.
After the ill-fated Major Applewhite/Joe Pendry combination of Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has won national championships with Kiffin, Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier all calling the plays at one time or another. Kiffin was by far the most innovative of the group, Nussmeier the least, but the common denominator has been that Alabama has never really had a truly bad offense under Saban, not really even in year one. It would be revisionist to suggest offense doesn’t matter here, but Alabama wins games now the way it has historically won games for 100-plus years: Defense, defense, defense. Alabama doesn’t need “another Lane Kiffin,” it just needs another talented playcaller and quarterback developer who can grasp the big picture and understand his role.
In that regard, the three names on the current staff that are gathering the most initial traction for the long-term job are offensive analysts Steve Sarkisian and Mike Locksley, and current wide receiver coach and former Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier. In any of those names, Alabama would be taking a risk. Both Locksley and Sarkisian ran into controversy while head coaches – Locksley for an altercation with another coach, Sarkisian for alcohol-related issues off the field – and Napier’s time at Clemson was a bust, although he was barely in his 30s at the time and has surely learned from his mistakes.
Each also brings something positive to the table. Sarkisian was Kiffin’s counterpart during Southern Cal’s rise to prominence under Carroll, Locksley is considered a plus-plus recruiter, and Napier has been praised both as a recruiter and for his contributions to helping Kiffin design the current offense. Both Sarkisian and Napier would be considered candidates to soon move up (or back up, in Sarkisian’s case) to a head coaching job, although Locksley’s career record of 3-31 will probably be too much for him to overcome.
There are other names swirling – former Georgia offensive coordinator and current Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich, current Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley just to name a few – but most expect the search to start with an evaluation of the three current staffers.
The real question, of course, is what the transition will do to Alabama’s current identity. The safe bet is, not much. While Alabama certainly made use of Jim McElwain’s measured-but-innovative approach and has blossomed under Kiffin’s no-holds-barred gunslinging, the basic format of Alabama’s offense hasn’t changed much from the first day Saban was in Tuscaloosa. It will be a multiple, pro-style attack that runs the ball behind power formations while also getting the ball to its plethora of four- and five-star talent at the receiving spots. It will keep defenses off-balance; it will salt away games in the fourth quarter when ball control is paramount.
In short, it will be Nick Saban’s offense, just like it’s always been.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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