College football's Odd Couple: What it was like when Lane Kiffin coached for Nick Saban at Alabama

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

 Blake Sims remembers his first meeting with Lane Kiffin seven years ago as something of a surprise. 

Coach (Nick) Saban hired him and we really didn’t know what to expect,” said Sims, who just wrapped up the 2021 Indoor Football League season as the quarterback of the Seattle Shock. “The players knew about him because he had been the coach at Tennessee, but we had heard all kinds of stuff just like everybody had. But he was great. We had a lot of quarterbacks competing that year, and before spring practice he had sat down with all of us, got to know us, listened to what we had to say. So we were the same way with him.”

That unexpected pairing of the gruff, defensive-minded Saban, Alabama football's head coach, and the quirky Kiffin, who had abruptly left Tennessee five years earlier and been fired from USC in an ongoing opera in Los Angeles, took many people by surprise.

Saban and Kiffin will face off Saturday (2:30 p.m., CBS) when No. 1 Alabama (4-0) hosts No. 12 Ole Miss (3-0) at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Sims says that while there were some rocky times that first year with Kiffin as offensive coordinator , things weren’t as out of sync was portrayed.

”Coach Saban yelled at coach Kiffin sometimes,” SIms said. “Coach Saban yelled at everybody. But when it came to choosing a starter (at quarterback), they were both really fair.”

The legend of that first season is that Kiffin came in, fundamentally altered the Alabama offense, created a new wave of scoring points that spread across the SEC and eventually landed himself the job at Ole Miss, where the Rebels play at ultra-high speed. But things didn’t start out that way, a point Kiffin continues to make until this day.

When asked on the SEC coaches teleconference Wednesday about imposing a new system, Kiffin almost bristled. 

“We do believe in running the ball, even though some people don’t think that,” Kiffin said. “That’s fine. When we had Derrick Henry (part of a 2014 running back group that also included future NFL players T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake), we ran the ball. At the end of the (2015) year, Derrick carried the ball 90 times in seven days (in wins over Auburn and Florida). He led the nation in carries. We led the SEC in rushing that last year, but no one wants to believe it.”

That will be a part of the Ole Miss plan when the Rebels visit Saturday, and Saban knows. 

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“He just wanted to get the best athletes onto the field,” Sims recalled. “We had a lot of quarterbacks in the spring (2014) and people were waiting on Jake (Coker), thinking he was going to transfer in (from Florida State) and take the job. But coach Kiffin made it fair, and the best quarterback won.”

Both Kiffin and Saban admit that there were occasional play-calling differences in that 2014 season when, as much as Kiffin may have wanted to run the ball, Saban wanted to run even more. But the offense continued to work, right up until a College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Ohio State.

In typical fashion, that game inspired little fury from Saban, who defended Kiffin’s hiring in the postgame press conference while adding a patented media dig.

"I think I got exactly what I expected,” he said. “I don’t think anybody else expected what I expected, to the point where I even got criticized for doing it by a lot of people. But I got what I expected. You all didn't get what you expected. That's what you really want to write about."

Sims adds that Kiffin did a masterful job in that first year, but not in the way people remember.

Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin and Alabama head coach Nick Saban talk before the game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss. on Saturday, October 10, 2020. (©Bruce Newman)

”He was a smart coach, but I wasn’t throwing it around everywhere,” Sims said. “It was always going to be coach Saban’s team, like it is always going to be.”

Based on that, what does Sims expect when Saban and Kiffin square off?

”Great game, a handshake at the end,” Sims said. “But you know how it is. Roll Tide.”

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