CECIL HURT: Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin seeks a win, perhaps redemption, against Nick Saban

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

What if Monte Kiffin had been there?

That’s always been something to ponder about Lane Kiffin’s three-season stay in Tuscaloosa, give or take a game. That game was a College Football Playoff Championship Game against Clemson, of course, the perfect punctuation mark to one of the most publicized and perplexing tenures in Crimson Tide history. 

To be clear on a few things: in his three years in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin was a sports writer’s dream, a guaranteed attention-getter even if he only did interviews two or three times per season. He did not fall out of the skies onto The Quad, though. He came with a long history, one that made every social media mention seem plausible, even if some turned out to be both unpleasant and untrue. 

Also: Kiffin did what Nick Saban wanted him to do as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. His offenses had three different quarterbacks (Blake Sims, Jake Coker and true freshman Jalen Hurts) and Alabama made the College Football Playoff every time. Saban clearly liked what he heard from Kiffin in their discussions, although I’ve always wondered if that was because they spoke the same language in the way only geniuses can, like Einstein talking to Schrodinger and both thinking, “Finally, someone who knows what a cat is.”

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2019, file photo, Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin discusses the team's signing class during a press conference at the Manning Center in Oxford, Miss. The coronavirus pandemic has shut down much of Division I football, but with three of the Power Five leagues still playing, there are still some big games to look forward to. Mississippi will verse Mississippi State on Nov. 28, 2020.  (Bruce Newman/The Oxford Eagle via AP, File)

There might be a bit of overstatement in saying that Kiffin dragged Alabama’s offense into the 21st century, but Kiffin has never been one to avoid a bit of overstatement  

"They aren't going to line up all day under center in the I-formation and hand it off and score only four field goals with Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and an NFL offensive line," Kiffin said recently, referring to Alabama's 12-10 win over Tennessee in the only previous head-to-head meeting of the two as head coaches. "This team is way harder to prepare for."

That was complimentary enough, and unless you have parsed Kiffin’s words carefully you haven’t heard the occasional aside, delivered with the wide-eyed look of innocence but bearing a stinger inside. His comment that “Coach (Saban) has done a great job” in preventing players from opting out of the season contains layers like an onion.

Nov 14, 2009; Oxford, MS, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Lane Kiffin waits with Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin as injured Tennessee linebacker LaMarcus Thompson (42) (not pictured) is strapped to a backboard during the second half against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mississippi defeated Tennessee 42-17. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

That’s been going on for the past three years: not incessantly, but on those occasions when the distractions available in Boca Raton, where Kiffin spent three years coaching Florida Atlantic before returning to the SEC at Ole Miss, weren’t distracting enough. ESPN’s Alex Scarborough did a nice job of chronicling a Saban-Kiffin timeline that included some sideline blowups at Alabama, but the last three years have consisted mainly of Kiffin smacking a tennis ball and getting nothing in return. Saban has no social media presence and no time for feuding. He’s also not the first older authority figure to seem exasperated with Kiffin at times. The late Mike Slive, like Saban, more or less kept it to himself. The late Al Davis did not.  

The effect seemed to work both ways. Kiffin grew frustrated in various locales. He may be deliriously happy these days, but it’s hard to be sure. There’s always been one video, not a sideline blowup but something quieter, that I’ve wondered about. Saban was in Alabama’s recruiting room, one of the prior versions that has been updated at least three times since, doing an interview with a television reporter. Suddenly, Kiffin appears in the background, saying nothing: not holding up a sign that said “Help!” but with an expression that made you want to replay the tape to see if he was blinking out a message in Morse Code.

I’ve wondered about that many times. Maybe Lane Kiffin’s stay in Tuscaloosa died of natural causes. Many people didn’t think he would last one season, much less three. Or maybe he would have been happier if he’d had his dad, Monte, to talk to occasionally.

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Last year, Kiffin did an interview on the Dan Patrick Show. This isn’t the place for amateur psychology, but Patrick asked a question about Saban (the general gist was how long would Saban coach) and Kiffin immediately invoked Monte Kiffin in his answer. Did Lane want a father figure at Alabama? One can’t imagine Saban wanted more than having a job done the way he wanted it done. Or was Lane Kiffin projecting, looking at his own future in a life that has been defined by football since he was young?

"My dad’s turning 80 this year and still coaching for us, walking around the field, meeting players, helping young coaches," Lane Kiffin said. "So there are certain people like that I call, like, prisoners. They can’t go in the real world, like 'Shawshank Redemption.' When Brooks (Hatlen, the aging librarian played by James Whitmore) goes in the real world, he can’t do it. He’s like, 'Wait, I need to be in prison.' You know? So they come back."

The question it raises is intriguing. The reference is to two revered older coaches, Saban and Monte Kiffin, but what about Lane? Was leaving Alabama like an escape from prison for him? Or are there bigger walls that still keep him in, wherever he coaches?

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt.