Assistant coaches aspire to be coordinators. Coordinators aspire to be head coaches. That's the food chain in college football. That's the way it's always been.
Don't tell Lane Kiffin that.
In just one season at Alabama, the former head coach reshaped his image and resurrected his career. And he did it all, not as a coach, but as the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator.
Prior to joining Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin had become the butt of jokes. He failed in the NFL. He was run out at USC midway through the 2013 season. The same coach who many felt was destined for stardom in this business found himself unemployed and without even so much as a phone call about his next job.
"It was very humbling," Kiffin told reporters in December. "In this profession, it happens all the time. You can be really hot one minute and the next minute be unemployed. So it's just a reminder that you always got to keep trying to improve yourself. You've always got to keep growing and never be satisfied where you are, and I think this year has been an example of it."
It's still too early to tell, but that phone call from Saban might have saved Kiffin's career. And other former head coaches are taking the same route and becoming coordinators in the SEC. For some it is a choice and for others, like Kiffin, it was their only alternative.
Will Muschamp was the hottest coaching name in college football five years ago. The defensive coordinator was tabbed the successor to Mack Brown at Texas, only he couldn't wait that long to make the jump. He got an offer to coach Florida that was too good to pass up.
After four seasons with the Gators, Muschamp is returning to his role as a coordinator. It simply didn't work out in Gainesville. He started strong, but he couldn't recover from the 4-8 season in 2013. It was time for Florida to move on, and it was time for him to move on.
Disappointing? Sure. But it's not a career killer. Not after watching what Kiffin did at Alabama this past season.
"It's not just about being the head coach,” Muschamp said after becoming the defensive coordinator at Auburn. "It's about being somewhere where you know that you're going to get the support, the resources and the finances you need to have to be successful and to win championships.”
At Auburn, Muschamp found the perfect landing spot for all of those things. He's set to make $1.6 million per year as the defensive coordinator this coming season. That's more than what 63 FBS coaches made last year. He's coaching for a College Football Playoff contender. And the move has rejuvenated him. He had an extra bounce in his step this spring.
"He loves it,” fellow Auburn assistant Travaris Robinson said. "He doesn't have to deal with all of the other stuff. He doesn't have to deal with you guys [the media] all the time.
"I was just watching him at Florida, and he had to deal with so much. And I'm a little different because I'm close to Will, so I got a chance to see all the stuff he had to deal with – all the phone calls he got. I was like ‘Holy moly, man. This head coaching stuff might be a little overrated.'
"But you can tell a lot is off his shoulders. He's calm. He's relaxed a little bit. He's embracing his role, and he's happy to be a defensive coordinator. I know that. He'll be ready to roll.”
Dan Enos made the same coach-to-coordinator move this offseason, but under very different circumstances. He wasn't let go at Central Michigan. Rather, he sought out the offensive coordinator position at Arkansas and the chance to work under Bret Bielema.
It seemed odd at the time for Enos, a head coach the past five years, to leave a Chippewas team that had played in a bowl game two of the last three seasons. But for him and his family, it was the right time to make the move.
"It wasn't like I sat down and said 'I don't want to be a head coach anymore. I want to be an offensive coordinator,'" Enos said. "The opportunity arose and as we investigated and looked into it -- and for my wife and my children and myself, at this time in our lives -- we thought it was a good time for a change, and we thought this was a great opportunity."
It might be a step down on the traditional coaching food chain, but Enos nearly doubled his salary by going to Arkansas. If anything, he'll be recognized more as the Razorbacks offensive coordinator this season than he ever would've been as the head coach at Central Michigan.
After all, this Arkansas team is primed to make a run at the SEC West this fall.
"To leave a head coaching position, he had to think there was something special waiting," Bielema said. "And I know we have it here at Arkansas."
This might be a new phenomenon at most schools -- only six of the 28 coordinators in the SEC have head coaching experience -- but not at LSU. Not where Les Miles has made a habit of hiring former head coaches to his staff.
Both coordinators, Cam Cameron and Kevin Steele, have coached at the Division I level, as have new defensive line coach Ed Orgeron and special assistant to the head coach Steve Kragthorpe.
"There's a whole bunch of us that not only understand where Les is coming from so that we can contribute, but also Les will ask our input because he knows that we have head coach's perspective," Cameron said.
"I think it's a good mix here, and I think it's a lot of give and take. To be a great leader, you've got to know how to follow. Once you've been a head coach, I think you understand better how to follow the head coach's lead. I know I'm a lot better assistant now, a better coordinator, having been a head coach than I was when I had not had that experience."
Cameron might have the most unique perspective of any coordinator in college football. He's been a head coach and a coordinator at both the college and NFL levels.
But he's finally found a home at LSU, and he's not eager to leave for the next head coaching job that opens up.
"You never say never," Cameron said. "I think head coaching is a lot of fun. It's a great challenge. It's something that I enjoy. But it's really inconsequential for me at least because I'm a place that I know has an opportunity to win a national championship every year, and there aren't many places that can say that."