Kiffin, who had turns as head coach of the Oakland Raiders and at Tennessee and USC, was damaged goods when he joins Saban’s staff in 2014 as the team’s new offensive coordinator. Saban brought him in to look at the team’s offense after he was fired by USC weeks earlier, at the end of the 2013 season. The legendary head coach decided that he wanted to move to the kind of explosive spread offense that Kiffin is known for engineering.
After three seasons, Kiffin took the head coaching job at FAU. He wound up being the first notable coach to go through what many have called Saban’s coach “rehab” program, where those who have flamed out elsewhere learn under the sport’s greatest coach and land big new jobs after a few years. Mike Locksley did the same and landed the head coaching job at Maryland, and Steve Sarkisian got one of the biggest jobs in the sport, Texas, after a few years under Saban.
“It was perfect,” Kiffin told CBS Sports of his time under Saban. “There wouldn’t have been a better job in the NFL. I say [it’s] the ‘rehab’ stamp. You go there, spend some time, all the sudden you can coach again.”
— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) June 15, 2021
Of course, it isn’t actually that simple, and Saban isn’t bringing these guys in out of the goodness of his heart. He sees them as real assets, and Lane Kiffin was impressed with how dedicated to reshaping his offense Saban was when he hired him as OC.
The 2013 season ended with a two-game losing streak, the first loss being the Kick Six game against Auburn. Saban made the decision to bring in Kiffin, who’d had months to stew after being fired at USC. Installation of the spread began.
“I remember him saying it: ‘We’re a Mercedes that’s getting ready to drive off the edge of the cliff,'” Kiffin recalled. “‘It looks good, it looks pretty, but it’s not working anymore.'”
After that two-game losing streak, Alabama only lost four times in Kiffin’s three seasons. The spread was installed in 2014 with former running back Blake Sims setting the school total offense record … at quarterback. Those seasons produced three straight SEC titles and three consecutive SEC Offensive Players of the Year at three different positions: Amari Cooper, Derrick Henry and Jalen Hurts.
“You gotta want to change, and [Saban] did,” Kiffin said. “It’s not like I came in there and said, ‘You should change.’ He said, ‘I want to change.’ It was his idea.”
Now, Kiffin is at Ole Miss, facing Saban every year in the SEC West. The Rebels were definitely a rebuilding team last fall, but they gave the Crimson Tide all they could handle, falling in a 63-48 shootout. There’s a good chance that an opportunity the level of Ole Miss wouldn’t have come back around for Kiffin, if Nick Saban didn’t take a chance on him less than a year after he was let go at USC.