<
>

Twitter trolling, early TD celebrating and title winning: The resurrection of Lane Kiffin

Set aside the famous last name and the famous failures.

Forget USC, Tennessee, Oakland.

Never mind the truth, the rumors and everything in between.

Look at Lane Kiffin for what he is now -- offensive coordinator at Alabama -- and what do you see?

It's a messy ruffle of hair, the kind that might have been washed yesterday but most definitely hasn't seen a comb in weeks. It's baggy sweatpants that look borrowed from an offensive linemen, an orange tie when Tennessee comes to town. It's trash talk during practice, pre-emptive touchdown signs, fist pumps and a swaggering Twitter presence, a strange concoction of trolling and random Bitmojis. And it's the game to back it up.

It's Lane Kiffin, bro genius and quite possibly the best O.C. in college football.

The Nick Saban-Lane Kiffin marriage still feels as unorthodox as when it began three years ago, but there's no denying its success. It has produced two playoff berths, a pair of 3,000-yard passers and one national championship. And you know what? They're still together, still going strong after all these years. Under the seemingly heavy-handed leadership of Saban, Kiffin has never felt more like himself.

"I call him a 12-year-old child," said Fresno State offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, who was Kiffin's roommate last year while on staff at Alabama as a consultant.

"I tell my son, 'Make sure you brush your teeth.' That's what I did with Lane: 'Lane, make sure you brush your teeth before we go to work.' But he's awesome. He's light-hearted and all about football and winning games."


Kiffin was serious about being a coach even before his playing days were over.

At Fresno State, he was destined to be a career backup quarterback. He knew it, his coaches knew it. Billy Volek was going to be the starter and some freshman named David Carr had just arrived, so rather than ride the bench his senior season, he decided instead to become a student coach.

Pat Hill, who coached 15 seasons at Fresno State, gave Kiffin all the responsibilities of a graduate assistant, working closely with then-offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford.

"It worked out best for everybody because he was able to, really on a student level, spend a lot of time with those two young quarterbacks and really helped them understand things," Hill said. Volek would go on to play 10 years in the NFL and Carr would become the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2002. "He was really sharp at that age. He knew football because of his dad [longtime NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin]. Just a sharp guy."

Thus began an odyssey that would make Kiffin an offensive coordinator by age 30, head coach by 32 and unemployed before reaching 40.

He clearly had a mind for the game, but maybe not the maturity. From Oakland to Tennessee to USC, there were a series of avoidable missteps. And that's where Saban came in. From Alabama's successful taskmaster, maybe Kiffin could learn a few things. Without the burden of being a head coach, maybe he could rediscover what made him such a hot commodity in the first place.

At Alabama, he'd reinvent himself, bonding with players in a way that some former coaches were surprised to learn. One such coach thought he was awkward during his USC days because he was trying to act older than he was, positioning himself as an authority figure. That couldn't be further from the truth now. There's a healthy amount of respect, of course, but there are other interactions that come as natural as trash talk between friends.

"He's gonna do that," said tight end O.J. Howard, grinning from ear to ear. "He's going to tell [the defense] what route we're running, who he's going to throw it to -- and we still might score on them. He's that type of coach."

Said safety Eddie Jackson, who is thrilled to jaw back and forth: "Coach Kiffin is fun, man. He loves the competition."

Make no mistake, though, working with world-class athletes helps. First, it was wideout Amari Cooper, who became the focal point of the offense in 2014 and wound up a Heisman Trophy finalist and first-round pick. Then along came Derrick Henry, who convinced Kiffin to run the football to the tune of nearly 400 carries and 2,219 yards last season, earning him only the second Heisman in school history. At the same time, Calvin Ridley emerged as one of the best freshmen receivers in the country, racking up more than 1,000 yards despite not starting a game until four weeks into the season.

Everyone knew Kiffin could call a game, but he has raised eyebrows at Alabama. When Saban hired Kiesau to go all-in on the no-huddle, it was as if Kiffin was given the toy car he was meant to drive his entire life.

Kiesau helped convert Tedford, Steve Sarkisian and Charlie Weis to the no-huddle, but none took to it as quickly as Kiffin. During the first scrimmage, Kiesau said he looked at Kiffin and said, "Lane, this is the best thing for you."

"He's really, really sharp," Kiesau said. "He knows what he's doing. And to be quite honest, going no-huddle and going fast works for him better. Because when you're a playcaller you get into a rhythm and it's more a reactionary mode, whereas when you huddle you have more time to think and you can overthink yourself."

What's more, it has allowed Kiffin to take greater control during games. Rather than let the quarterback audible at the line of scrimmage, Kiffin can do it himself from the sideline using play cards and hard signals.

Essentially, the no-huddle creates a video-game feel where the coordinator is controlling the quarterback. Kiesau, who called it the magic behind the offense, said that when you have good players, "You sit there and just press F1 or Y or whatever you want and boom!" The result: Blake Sims transformed from a former part-time receiver to the school's record-holder for passing yards in a single season, and Jake Coker went from an overlooked fifth-year senior to a 3,000-yard passer and national champion.

"That guy on game day is for real," Kiesau said of Kiffin. "He has a good feel for the game."

Pressed for a specific instance, he said, "I'm telling you, it was every Saturday."

"When we first started doing this, in my mind, I said, 'We haven't practiced this, we haven't practiced this.' Then the guy would go do it and we'd rip it. I can't tell you how many of those touchdowns to Calvin Ridley when we threw a bomb over their head he saw the safety cheat down and said, 'All right, we're going to do this,' and literally drew it up in the dirt on the sideline with the guys and he would tell them, 'This is going to be a touchdown. The safety is going to cheat down and it's going to be a touchdown.' And sure enough, it happens."

He added: "We'd look at each other and laugh like, 'Practice is so overrated.'"

Maybe the most visible evidence of Kiffin's brilliance came during the national championship. Clemson was playing a lot of man defense and Kiffin noticed their linebackers were slow moving across the formation. So he put a tight end on the right off the ball and let him slide left up the field. Calling screens and "naked slides," the linebackers couldn't find the tight end by the time the ball was snapped. They couldn't catch Howard, who went from a fourth or fifth option in the passing game during the season to hauling in 208 yards and two touchdowns during Alabama's 45-40 win in Arizona.

Said one SEC defensive assistant coach: "The games are slow motion for Lane Kiffin on the sideline. He's able to see the defense, call the play, help the [QB]. I think he's one of the finest coordinators in all of football. He's proven it."


One more SEC championship.

One more remarkable turn at quarterback.

One more season like the last two and Kiffin could be done with his career rehab at Alabama, only 42 years old and entering what should be his prime coaching years. Some athletic director, whether it's at a Power 5 or Group of 5 school, won't be able to resist the opportunity to hand him the keys to a program.

But while this period in Kiffin's career could be nearing its end, he appears to be content where he is. Addressing the media last Sunday, he said being at Alabama has been "a very different two years."

"I think of it kind of like the players who come here: freshman, sophomore, junior," he said. "Continue to learn, continue to grow under Coach."

And continue to have fun.

More than anything else, Kiffin seems to be having fun at a place not typically associated with such pleasures. He has offset Saban's scowl with a childish grin like the one that showed up when he was asked about his approach to Twitter. Kiffin said that, in fact, he did not run his own social media accounts. "Coach Saban runs it," he deadpanned, prompting a sea of laughter.

He was baited with questions about USC and wouldn't bite. He said he hadn't thought about playing his old employer, said it doesn't matter.

It's as if he wasn't told that the college football world had given up on him when he was fired by USC in 2013. Either that or he has forgotten all about it.

During Alabama's team picture Sunday, Saban and every other coach on the staff wore white sneakers. Kiffin wore red. After the photographer was finished, he was the only coach to untuck his shirt as he left the field.

"He's a character," Kiesau said. "That's his deal; he doesn't care."

So call him what you want -- a failure as a head coach, a cocky playcaller, a bro. But be sure to call him a brilliant offensive coordinator while you're at it, because there's no denying that.