NEW ORLEANS -- There was a time when Lane Kiffin fully expected to coach Blake Sims in college. Only the year was 2010 and the school was Tennessee.
In fact, Kiffin believes that was a likely outcome before his abrupt departure from Tennessee. Instead, he became USC’s head coach and Sims held firm on his commitment to Alabama -- and the working relationship between coach and quarterback didn't begin until this season, when Kiffin accepted Nick Saban's offer to become the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator.
"I met Blake when he was in high school. He was committed to Alabama," said Kiffin, who was Tennessee's head coach in 2009 and accepted the USC job a few weeks before national signing day in 2010. "Myself and Ed Orgeron went to his high school, went to his home with his family, spent an entire day with him. He can tell you the story -- I don't know if he's ever told it-- and he's decommitting to Alabama to come to Tennessee. And I don't know the exact timing, but it might be one or two days later when we go to USC.
"So it's really kind of … a crazy story. Here was a kid that we were going to be together at Tennessee, leave. Who would have ever thought you circle all around after everything that's happened, and now you're together for one year here?"
Their partnership at Alabama has been more successful than most college football observers would have predicted. Sims, a converted running back and a fifth-year senior, had been a forgotten man behind AJ McCarron at Alabama. Even this season, most expected Florida State transfer Jacob Coker to overtake him and win the starting job.
Even Sims was inundated with such insinuations before the season.
"Pretty much [I heard] that the position was already [given] to Jacob. That's what I was hearing," Sims said. "But even when Jacob came and I started hearing all these good things and people were putting me on the back burner, I didn't let that change my personality towards him."
Instead, Sims won the job during preseason practice and held onto the job once the season started. He capped the regular season by finishing second nationally in Total Quarterback Rating (88.5) and winning MVP honors when the Crimson Tide routed Missouri in the SEC championship game.
For a guy who was once an afterthought and easily could have opted to transfer elsewhere in search of a better opportunity to play, Sims turned in an awfully successful final college season.
"We're in an age now with kids of, 'Things don't go my way, we're going to move you. We don't like the coach there, we're going to put you on a different team because he doesn't play you.' As opposed to you stay and you play and you fight through it. And Blake's an example of that," Kiffin said.
Not only did he stay and fight through it, Sims never made his competition against Coker into an issue that could divide the locker room. Quite the opposite, actually.
Offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio recalled how media members made a big deal out of Sims being the first to congratulate Coker on the field after the backup capped an early-season drive with a touchdown.
"Some people say they're in it for the team, but you can tell he really is," Kouandjio recalled. "I remember like one of the first games or something like that, I think before he really solidified his role as the starting quarterback, I remember Jake scored a touchdown and … the media made a big deal of him running over to Jake and being the first one there. I agree that it was a big deal. I like that a lot. I shook my head -- in a positive way, though."
That mentality is why Sims was a popular choice among teammates to claim the job. But it was his production that helped him keep it.
He might not have been the Tide's anticipated starting quarterback before the season began, but he still led his team to a No. 1 national ranking entering the Jan. 1 College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State. And he played a vital role as Kiffin beefed up the passing game, completing 64.8 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
"[I'm] just happy for him because he's showing he can run a system that is part NFL and part spread and the success that he's had," Kiffin said, "where a year ago I don't think anybody would think about this guy potentially being drafted in the NFL, which now he should be drafted. His performance and what he's done, he's shown. When you watch the film and watch the tape of him, what has he put on there that he cannot do? He's done everything."