Commentary: Memo to Kiffin: Success Masks Character


Look high. Look low. Look left. Look right. Everywhere you look, it’s difficult to find a shred of positive commentary on Lane Kiffin. Mainstream media villifies him for his antics at Tennessee and horrible record in Oakland, but it’s understandable to point out his flaws in both of those cases.

Prior to returning to USC, Lane Kiffin’s time in the spotlight was less than flattering. In 2007, Kiffin became the youngest head coach in NFL history when he secured his first head-coaching gig with the Oakland Raiders. The experiment failed as he led them to a 5-15 record before being fired as part of an ugly divorce during his second season. At a nationally televised press conference to announce the firing, Oakland owner Al Davis accused Kiffin of being “a flat out liar” and “a disgrace to the organization.”

After that debacle, Kiffin landed the head-coaching job at Tennessee, replacing the embattled Phillip Fulmer. From the second Lane arrived on campus, he came out swinging by calling out a rival in Florida coach Urban Meyer. Kiffin claimed he would sing Tennessee’s fight song, Rocky Top, all night after upsetting the number one Gators. Furthermore, he alleged Meyer broke several NCAA recruiting rules. In the end, it was Tennessee who self-reported transgressions in recruiting by Lane Kiffin. He also earned bad reputation when he reportedly told one recruit that he would be pumping gas his entire life if he chose South Carolina instead. Such acts earned him the nickname “Lane Violation” and brought unnecessary attention to the storied program. Then, in the blink of an eye, Kiffin bolted after only one season to take the job at USC and fled Knoxville amid riots denouncing his departure.

However, these times are in the past and it is time to move on. Today at SEC media day, many danced around the Kiffin topic but took indirect shots at him. Urban Meyer chimed in by commenting on new Volunteer coach Derek Dooley, “He’s a high-character guy. It’s kind of neat to see that.”  Despite all the underhanded Kiffin bashing, I hope Kiffin was taking notes today, because there is one man he can learn a thing or two from: Nick Saban.

First of all, Nick Saban is the slimiest coach in college football hands down, and that includes his absurd comments today. For starters, he exudes arrogance and seems like a real jerk. The man once turned down a dinner with the President. Today, he accused NFL agents of being “pimps” who try to exploit players and said he would be hesitant to cooperate with the NFL if they don’t fix the problem of agents. Why did he say it? Only to salvage his personal reputation and seem like he is proactive in preventing NCAA sanctions because his program is currently under investigation. If I could choose three people in sports to never encounter, Nick Saban would be on that list. He is unbelievably unpleasant and didn’t even crack a smile when he received a Gatorade bath after winning the 2009 Rose Bowl. 

Like Kiffin, Saban bailed on a coaching gig to take another job in 2007. That year, Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins and went on record saying, “When I was in college it was always about coming to the pros. This is the challenge I wanted. I had a good college job. Why would I have left that if I was going to be interested in other college jobs?” Two weeks later, Saban continued his denials, “I guess I have to say it. I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.” A few weeks after that, the lying Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa to take the job he had said he wasn’t interested in. In many ways, his departure from Miami was worse than Kiffin leaving Tennessee because Kiffin didn’t say he was staying at Tennessee for a definite period of time. However, Kiffin’s departure was messier because angry Volunteer fans chased him out of town while Dolphin fans let Saban stroll out.

Despite all these incidents, nobody ever questions Saban’s character. He is celebrated as a genius and one of the top coaches in college football because of his masterful turnaround of the downtrodden Alabama football program while Kiffin continues to be mocked.

But why? Success. Kiffin is yet to turn out a really successful season. On the other side, Saban has won a national title. These two men have a lot in common personality wise. In fact, Saban is more pompous than Kiffin will ever be. But the fact remains Kiffin hasn’t won like Saban has. When you’re a successful coach, personality isn’t something media members and the general public bother with (see: Bill Belichick).

At the time USC hired Kiffin, I liked the hire because it salvaged a sense of continuity, but I also wondered what kind of person the university had hired. His big mouth and brash comments were cause for concern. So far, Kiffin has calmed down, but he continues to have a horrible reputation across the nation. If Kiffin wants to make his past forgotten, he needs to follow the blueprint set out by the detestable Saban. The easiest way to do so is to be wildly successful; winning cures everything in sports. After all, few remember Saban’s departure from Miami, but most laud him for his 2009 national title.