Risk...reward? Nick Saban kicks Lane Kiffin to the curb just one week before national title game
ATLANTA – Cam Robinson, Alabama’s massive and massively talented offensive lineman, was sitting in the victorious Crimson Tide locker room on New Year’s Eve trying to walk a verbal tight rope.
The discussion was about Bo Scarbrough, the sophomore running back who just rumbled for 180 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-7 victory over Washington. He did it all on just 19 carries, which doesn’t even begin to explain the confusion on why, when the passing game was going nowhere, the Tide didn’t give this unstoppable force the ball more often.
“We know what Bo can do,” Robinson said, praising his buddy yet clearly mindful of criticizing his coaches. “It’s just a matter of Bo doing it.”
So why wasn’t he doing it every other play? Robinson just smiled, shrugged his huge shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”
In other words, don’t blame me and please don’t ask me again, but, well, maybe ask or blame somebody.
On Tuesday, Nick Saban blamed somebody – offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. In a move that is both unprecedented and unpredictable, the Tide will change offensive coordinators in the middle of the playoff with the national title game against Clemson looming on Jan. 9. Alabama is 14-0 this year, on a 26-game win streak and 40-3 overall since Kiffin began calling plays in 2014.
Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin had their share of animated disagreements on the Alabama sidelines.
And yet Kiffin is out, officially leaving the program to focus solely on his duties as the head coach of Florida Atlantic, which hired him late last month. He’d planned to do both jobs through Alabama’s season, which is common with title contenders.
Former Washington and USC coach Steve Sarkisian, who joined the staff earlier this season as an “analyst,” is now the offensive coordinator and chief play caller. He was set to assume those jobs next year.
Saban, in an interview on ESPN, labeled this a “mutually agreed” decision but that’s almost impossible to believe. This was a firing. There is no way Kiffin wants to walk away from Alabama at this point in the season.
The single best way Kiffin could help his new program is to spend the next week promoting FAU to recruits by basking in the publicity of the national title game and possible consecutive championships. The game will be played in Tampa, no less, just a few hours drive across the state of Florida from FAU’s Boca Raton campus.
“It’s been our goal as a program to always give our players the best opportunity to be successful, whether it’s personally, academically or athletically,” Saban said.
In other words, Saban re-watched the offense from the Washington game, paid close attention to how dangerous Clemson looked in annihilating Ohio State and went straight gangster on Kiffin.
Saban sounded like a caller to the WJOX Roundtable in Birmingham. Give the damn ball to Bo, would you? Instead, despite a stable of tough running backs and a physical offensive front, Kiffin historically seems to favor a more pass-heavy attack, which looked particularly shaky against the Huskies when freshman Jalen Hurts played poorly (7-of-14 passing for just 57 yards).
Saban suggested Kiffin struggled handling the FAU transition with his duties in Tuscaloosa. He was effectively saying the Tide (and more specifically Hurts) weren’t offensively prepared for the game, even though there was a month to prepare for it. Against Washington, that could slide. Against Clemson, it might not.
“He did the best he could,” Saban offered.
The best he could? This was something out of the movie “Friday” … Lane not so much getting fired on his day off, but fired from a job he was already leaving.
Brutal. Just brutal for Kiffin. There is no easy way to spin the bruise this will leave.
Say this about Kiffin: He has a knack for getting high-profile jobs and then leaving them in colorful fashion. In 2008, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis accused Kiffin of trying to get fired so he could get his full salary, and then promptly fired him anyway. In 2009, after he left Tennessee, a bitter fan tried to get a local sewage treatment plant named after him. In 2013, at USC, he was pulled off the team bus and canned after the team charter landed in the middle of the night at LAX following a loss to Arizona State.
And now this.
Meanwhile, if there was any doubt – and there never should have been – about the focus and ferocity of the single-minded steamroll that exists inside Saban, this ought to do it. No chances taken. No feelings spared.
And no risk not worth pursuing.
Switching coordinators and play callers before the championship game is a move without precedent. There is no denying Sarkisian is a talented coach. If not for alcohol issues he’d likely still be in charge at USC. It’s just that he hasn’t been an offensive coordinator or, it’s believed, called plays since 2008 when he was a Trojan assistant.
And now he gets thrown back into the fire against a Clemson defense that just shut Urban Meyer out for the first time in his career … and, oh, all eyes will be upon him and every jet-sweep with the national title at stake.
Who knows if he’ll call a good game? Who knows if Clemson is so good it won’t matter? What is clear is that Saban believed Kiffin was either too ineffective or too much of a distraction to risk it. Alabama couldn’t stay the course.
Apparently the process is The Process until it isn’t.
“You guys know me,” Saban said on Saturday when discussing Scarbrough’s workload. “Whoever’s hot, that’s who’s going to get the ball. And he’s been hot lately. He’s going to get the ball.”
Here’s guessing Big Bo is going to run (a lot) against Clemson. Well, maybe. No one, including the Tigers, knows what is coming now. Maybe not even Sarkisian at this point. Alabama’s perfect season rests in the balance.
For Saban, that was a risk worth taking to get Lane Kiffin out of Tuscaloosa before it was too late.
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