By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 2, 2017
When the Crimson Tide nation woke up Monday to the news that Lane Kiffin would not be staying on through Alabama’s national championship rematch against Clemson, the initial surprise was quickly overtaken by a sense of inevitability.
The marriage between the management styles of Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin always seemed to be one of the shotgun variety, even if Saban himself had his hand on the trigger. Saban knew he needed to move on from traditional offensive methods – without getting so far away from them that his teams drifted into gimmick territory – and Kiffin was both attractive and available.
Unfortunately, Kiffin also had the sports version of a wandering eye. Not for other jobs, per se, but for the privilege to run his affairs his own way, without having to answer to a significant other.
By the middle of the 2016 season, it was becoming more and more evident that Nick Saban’s patience was wearing thin. Word begin to leak out toward the end of the regular season that Alabama had encouraged Kiffin to, at the very least, have a Plan B ready for 2017.
The very fact Kiffin landed at Florida Atlantic was no accident, and it was evidence of being pushed out of the Tuscaloosa nest. The FAU program is one of the least prestigious in all of FBS and, while it certainly has more potential to rise above its current status than most others in the same tier, the fact remains Kiffin took a pay cut to go there and no one expects him to stay very long. Or try to stay very long, at least. There’s no way, given other opportunities – such as, the one he potentially had at Houston before reportedly balking over a buyout clause – that Kiffin would have picked to go to Boca Raton.
Whether Kiffin is successful in the future will depend greatly on his ability to finally grow up. It would seem he idolizes Peter Pan, however, and growing up isn’t on his bucket list. At least the south Florida media will be kept entertained.
To be fair to Kiffin, however, his exit interviews Monday with various media sources were entrenched squarely in the middle of the high road. It was clear that reporters, starving for any piece of gotcha-gossip they could get, were trying to goad Kiffin into saying something untoward about his most recent boss, but Kiffin wouldn’t take the bait.
Saban didn’t, either, playing it off as a mutual decision. But given Saban had publicly said in the lead-up to the postseason that Kiffin would stay on for the duration of the process means something had changed.
That “something” was obvious in Alabama’s scattershot victory over Washington on New Year’s Eve, as the offense appeared discombobulated, nervous and unsure. The offensive line played one of its worst games of the year, there were clear cases of miscommunication between the coaches, QB Jalen Hurts and C Bradley Bozeman, to the extent that Alabama got caught by the play clock on a couple of occasions and looked to be in the wrong line calls on others.
There’s certainly a risk at giving Steve Sarkisian a battlefield promotion just a week prior to the title game, but given how solid and focused Clemson looked in dismantling Ohio State, Saban must think Alabama would be vulnerable if the change wasn’t made immediately. And if there’s one thing constant about Saban, it is that he’ll make tough decisions no matter what point they fall on the calendar.
The risk of sending Kiffin on his way a week early was, in Saban’s mind, outweighed by the possibility of working an entire season just to see it undone by an offensive coordinator trying to serve two masters. One of the side stories here is Saban’s rumored discontent over the lack of progress Hurts has shown during bowl practice season, and it may be too late for Hurts to catch up now. Worse yet, going off last year’s Alabama-Clemson game, the Crimson Tide will have to get some contributions from Hurts in the passing game in order to win a second time. This game won’t be all about Alabama’s defense.
In short, Saban called for the onside kick against Clemson a second time. Only time will tell if this move was as successful as the first.