Few coaches successfully navigate their way through clutter the way Nick Saban does.
That’s especially important to remember for all those people trying to wrap their hands around Saban’s hiring of Lane Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama.
Kiffin was the SEC’s version of Eddie Haskell in his first tour through the league, a tumultuous, 14-month stay at Tennessee when Kiffin attracted the attention of the NCAA, called out Urban Meyer (wrongly) for cheating and generally became a royal pain in the backside of SEC commissioner Mike Slive.
Not many people would have predicted that Kiffin would land back in the SEC after getting the boot as USC’s head coach in September, and even fewer people would have pegged Alabama as his landing spot.
But Saban has long been an admirer of Kiffin’s football acumen, his ability to call plays, his development of players and his ability to recruit.
In Saban’s world, those are the things that count.
Still, it's a hoot to think of Saban and Kiffin on the same staff. On the surface, they might seem like polar opposites. After all, Lil Wayne once dropped Kiffin’s name in a rap song and referenced Kiffin’s penchant for trash-talking.
You never say never about anything (see Saban’s hiring of Kiffin), but does anybody really see Eminem rapping about Saban any time soon?
The best news for Kiffin is that some of the things he wasn’t the best at in head coaching roles at Tennessee and USC – such as managing a program and being the face of a program – will be a moot point at Alabama.
There’s only one face of the program, and one voice, at Alabama.
It’s Saban and Saban alone.
Kiffin won’t have to deal with the media because Saban’s assistants don’t talk to the media, at least not regularly. Kiffin won’t have to make booster club appearances, and he won’t have to wear all the different hats he had to wear at Tennessee and USC.
He’ll coach football, call plays, develop players and recruit, and that's what he does best.
Let’s face it: Kiffin is best remembered at Tennessee for all of the things he did and said off the field, and, if you talk to Vols fans, for the way he bolted just a few weeks before signing day. Somewhere on Tennessee's campus, there are surely some remnants of the couches angry students burned the night news broke that Kiffin was leaving.
In a lot of ways, Kiffin had almost become a sideshow at Tennessee with some of his antics, most of which were admittedly contrived to try to make the Vols a national name again among recruits. There's no question that he went overboard, and if he had it to do over again, he would tone things down a bit.
But what Saban remembers about Kiffin is different than most people. He remembers how competitive Tennessee was between the white lines that season, how the outmanned Vols nearly upset the eventual national champion Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa and the splendid job Kiffin did with quarterback Jonathan Crompton.
Before Kiffin’s arrival, Crompton struggled mightily. But he prospered during his senior season under Kiffin and was drafted in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL draft.
Not that anybody in Tuscaloosa needs to be reminded, but the Crimson Tide will be starting anew at quarterback next season with AJ McCarron departing, so bringing in somebody who has a history of developing/retooling a quarterback was critical.
There will be some who point to USC’s struggles on offense the last couple of seasons and wonder if Kiffin is genuinely all that as an offensive guru.
But rest assured that Saban has done his homework.
Being Saban’s offensive coordinator isn’t the easiest job in the world. There’s always going to be a blueprint for what he wants in an offense, but that blueprint has changed some, given the way offenses are playing now and how fast they’re playing.
Kiffin is creative enough to adapt, and Saban – as much of a control freak as he is – still believes in hiring quality coaches and allowing them to coach.
Most of all, he believes in hiring coaches who will challenge his thinking and make the team better.
Everything else is, well … clutter.