PHOENIX — Riding in one of the buses taking Alabama’s football team to its hotel for Monday night’s College Football Playoff title game against Clemson, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin saw a landmark he recognized, and the memory of his last trip to Phoenix as head coach of Southern California came rushing back.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m back in the same place.’ So this is probably the third time I’ve been here. The last time, I got fired at 4 o’clock in the morning [at the airport in L.A.], and the time before that was the USC hearing with the NCAA for three days. So a lot of great memories.”
Cue the laughter from a crowd of reporters gathered around Kiffin as he talked about the low point of his coaching career. Running a USC team that had been hit with severe scholarship restrictions, Kiffin was fired by athletic director Pat Haden after the Trojans returned from a 62-41 loss at ASU on Sept. 29, 2013. It was the third messy ending to a head coaching job, including his firing by the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and his departure from Tennessee when he went to USC.
But if his reputation seemed tarnished by three head-coaching changes by age 38, none of that mattered to Alabama coach Nick Saban, who seized the opportunity to add fresh ideas and Kiffin’s energy to his staff as offensive coordinator. So does that mean Kiffin has found happiness as an assistant at Alabama after two trips to the CFP?
“I don’t think anybody would say ‘fun’ is a term that is really used around our program very much,” Kiffin deadpanned, playing off Saban’s reputation as a grueling taskmaster. “You’re not here to have fun. You’re here to win.
“Coach has said it before: ‘You win the trophy, you hold it up and take a picture, and then you hand it away and you go get ready to win the next one.’ I’m sure, if we’re fortunate to win this game, we’ll have a staff meeting at 7:30 the next morning.”
Now that his career has been resurrected by Saban, there undoubtedly will be more head-coaching opportunities for Kiffin down the road. “It’s only been two years, but it feels like 10 years because it was [Saban],” Kiffin said. “You learn so much, and you work so much all the time. It’s been such a valuable experience. I just go back to how fortunate I am to learn what I have.”