- Nick Saban hired Lane Kiffin in 2014 to modernize Alabama’s offense. It worked. This season, the Crimson Tide offense looks stale under Tommy Rees.
- Dan Mullen would have been a more traditional Nick Saban coordinator. Mullen, however, is entrenched at ESPN and Saban hired a coordinator whose Notre Dame offenses regressed.
- Lane Kiffin is respectful to his former boss. He says Nick Saban helped him at a difficult time in his career.
Hiring Lane Kiffin remains one of Nick Saban’s smartest decisions, and he made a lot of them. Looking back, Saban’s decision to bring in Kiffin to run Alabama’s offense before the 2014 season seems even smarter.
Alabama’s 2015 team won the national championship with Kiffin calling the offense. Kiffin brought the Crimson Tide into the modern era and made Alabama an inviting destination for quarterbacks. In turn, Alabama became a springboard for Kiffin to resume his head coaching career.
Oh, how the Crimson Tide could now use Kiffin’s ingenuity and deft hand with quarterbacks.
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Alabama’s offense has been so bad the last two weeks that I can imagine Saban going into loving grandfather mode, wrapping Kiffin in a hug and saying, “Sorry for yelling at you, you wonderful boy. “
They will meet again Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, CBS) at Bryant-Denny Stadium, where Kiffin’s No. 16 Ole Miss Rebels (3-0) will face No. 12 Alabama (2-1).
Is Lane Kiffin the next former Nick Saban assistant to beat Alabama?
Unfortunately for Alabama, Kiffin’s return to Tuscaloosa is a pit stop. Ole Miss backed Brink’s truck to fend off Auburn’s pursuit of Kiffin last fall and retain a coach whose best win at Ole Miss remains a 2021 bowl triumph over Indiana. A win against Saban would be a marquee moment for Kiffin, a chance to prove he can elevate the Rebels beyond their pesky welterweight status.
Saban had a hold over his deceased assistants that seemed almost supernatural. Some assistants have left to become mediocre head coaches. Others left to become successful head coaches. Regardless, Saban’s former aides would kneel to their former boss, on and off the field. Saban remained undefeated in his first 24 matchups against former assistants.
Then Jimbo Fisher decided he’d had enough of this reverence. In 2021, Fisher promised to spank Saban and carried it out one fall night in College Station, Texas. He then called Saban a narcissistic false god.
Saban lost his mantle of invincibility and Kirby Smart and Steve Sarkisian joined the parade to beat Saban, although they did it with more class than Fisher.
Kiffin, however, continues to fall short. His Rebels tested Alabama in 2020 and 2022, but they fizzled in the final minutes.
Part of Saban’s genius so far has been recruiting coordinators who help him make himself look good. There is no shame in that. Part of good leadership is hiring good people.
The more Smart dominates at Georgia, the more his effect as Saban’s defensive coordinator during Alabama’s dynastic rise becomes evident.
Defenses won championships early in Saban’s reign. After the sport evolved toward quarterbacks, pace and offensive ingenuity, Saban knew enough to know he needed a new direction. Offensive minds like Kiffin and later Sarkisian — not to mention an unprecedented crop of quarterback talent from Alabama — helped keep the Tide in power.
This coordinator thing is what made Saban’s offseason hiring of Tommy Rees so commonplace.
Nick Saban could use Lane Kiffin’s playmaking ability
A more traditional Saban move would have been to rejuvenate the career of a Dan Mullen type, a fired coach but a proven offensive engineer. Mullen enjoys his job at ESPN, however, and Saban hired an offensive coordinator whose infatuation with tight ends and whose offenses at Notre Dame have gotten worse every year.
Rees reached into the Alabama dough and churned out a stale product. Alabama’s goal of reinstating the bully ball produced a boring ball. The Tide has tried three quarterbacks in three games. He now plans to recycle Jalen Milroe as a starter.
A forward-thinking player like Kiffin would better integrate Milroe’s best asset: his wheels. He would simplify the offense for a quarterback who has trouble reading the field. He would integrate tempo to put the defense on its heels and help a struggling offensive line.
Under Rees, many of Milroe’s rushing yards in two starts were the result of scrambles rather than planned runs. He threw two interceptions in double coverage in a loss to Texas. Alabama’s offensive line is lame. Milroe didn’t help himself against Texas. He also received little help.
Meanwhile, Kiffin’s Rebels rank fourth in the nation in scoring, and Ole Miss’ Jaxson Dart leads all SEC quarterbacks in rushing yards.
A coordinator like Kiffin would be a boon for Alabama. Hell, even Brian Daboll or Bill O’Brien calling plays would be an improvement over these last two games, and John Parker Wilson could give this generation of Alabama quarterbacks a clinic.
Kiffin remains loyal to Saban. He credits Saban with bringing his career back from the abyss after Southern Cal literally left Kiffin on the tarmac with his career compass spinning.
“He really helped me at a difficult time in my life,” Kiffin said Monday.
Kiffin makes sure his old boss doesn’t run out of rat poison. He is full of praise for Saban and rallying to his support whenever someone criticizes him or suggests his reign is over.
As time goes on, Kiffin said, he appreciates what he learned from Saban even more.
Saban also benefited. This has never been more obvious.
Blake Toppmeyer is the USA TODAY Network’s SEC columnist. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btopppmeyer.