Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin: The Alabama Odd Couple


If new Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is seen with duct tape over his mouth, or an electric-shock dog collar around his neck, pay it no mind. Nick Saban is just keeping the potential firestorms to a minimum.

The months since Kiffin was hired to replace Doug Nussmeier were quiet, a result of Saban’s policy on assistants speaking to the media. And the backlash to some hyperbolic, if not innocuous comments Kiffin made about Alabama’s loaded corps of running backs explains that policy.

Kiffin was not in violation of Saban’s policy, speaking to an audience at the DEX Imaging 20th annual L’Arche Football Preview in Mobile. But’s Mike Herndon was in attendance, and reported one especially intriguing comment in reference to running backs Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and T.J. Yeldon:

As you guys know extremely well, I think the offense is led by the tailbacks. … There probably aren’t three more talented tailbacks in the NFL on a roster than we’re fortunate to be able to work with at Alabama.

Certainly Nick Saban would never utter such lofty praise. The Crimson Tide head coach is the master of downplaying his own clearly superior teams’ abilities, and it’s an effective tactic. But it’s also not much of a deviation from other programs, where if any praise is lavished on players to the media, it typically comes from assistant coaches.

And most any other assistant spouting off something so oozing in rhetorical hyperbole would be quickly dismissed as such–particularly in reference to a running back corps as great as Alabama’s. But then, Kiffin isn’t most other assistants. He’s more the Joe Biden of college football assistants, both in prominence of job and propensity for gaffes, and media outlets responded in kind.

A headline from the Sports Illustrated NFL blog reads: “Lane Kiffin disses current NFL running backs while heaping praise on Alabama trio.”

Ouch. And lest you confuse the incendiary headline for click-bait, the column itself holds quite firm to the premise.

Such is the existence of Lane Kiffin, a frequent and easy target.

From Al Davis’ public lambasting of Kiffin upon the latter’s firing from the Oakland Raiders in 2008, to the acrimonious split with Tennessee and for the final year of his run at USC, Kiffin has been pummeled in the press at one stop after another.

That’s not absolving Kiffin of all responsibility, howver, as some of his frequent criticism is warranted. His departure from Tennessee after just one scandal-ridden season, and his USC tenure was rife with disappointment and PR gaffes.

As things with the Trojans began to unravel in 2012, Kiffin did little to ingratiate himself to the media. It started with his publicly misrepresenting his vote in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Later, he blackballed longtime Los Angeles Daily News reporter Scott Wolf for violating a nonexistent policy about reporting injuries.

It wasn’t until LA media responded that Wolf’s ban was lifted. But Kiffin was no less volatile when it came to injuries, at one point running out of a post-practice session because he was asked about the injury report.

Then it devolved intro true silliness via in-game jersey swaps and the deflating of balls being blamed on a rogue student manager.

The phrase “it is what it is” was his go-to response of 2013, up until his firing midseason. And who can blame him?

Once some reporters and columnists sense a pattern, they’ll follow it. And if a public figure’s pattern is one of controversy, all the better.

Texas Tech played in an NCAA men’s basketball tournament regional I was covering in 2005. While press conferences throughout the week involving coaches like Mark Few, Kelvin Sampson and a then relatively unknown Gregg Marshall were sparsely attended, the media station was shoulder-to-shoulder when Bob Knight stepped to the podium.

Don’t expect notoriously guarded Saban to welcome such intense scrutiny into his program any time soon. While Kiffin may not be talking directly to media, that shock collar might come in handy for any future public engagements.