Word on the street is that Lane Kiffin, Alabama's offensive coordinator, is the frontrunner for the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator position. This is timely news because Kiffin was fined for deflating footballs before a USC-Oregon game in 2012. It's also hilarious news, because a Belichick-ian willingness to deflate footballs might be Kiffin's primary NFL headset-wearing credential, given that he's indisputably bad at coaching.
And yet: he keeps being offered jobs to do just that.
Kiffin spent five pretty good years as an assistant coach under current Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll at USC. Then, in 2007, the Raiders inexplicably hired him as their new head coach, the youngest in the organization's history. He was not their first choice for the job—the guy they actually wanted was fellow USC assistant (and current Trojans head coach) Steve Sarkisian, only Sarkisian was smart enough to turn the job down. Kiffin, who had no head coaching experience and had only spent a single year in the NFL in 2000 as Jacksonville's quality control assistant—read: staff grunt who splices game film until his eyes bleed—did not have the necessary foresight to say no. At the time of his hire, the San Francisco Gate summed him up thusly: "a young prospect with more upswing than experience, and a flair for offense." That ... did not work out.
Kiffin stayed with the Raiders for 20 dismal games. But maybe dismal isn't a strong enough word. Kiffin's near-cinematic failure in Oakland culminated in an actual 76-yard field goal attempt. After going 4-12 in 2007 and getting off to a 1-2 start in 2008, Kiffin refused to resign quietly, as he was reportedly asked to do. Instead, in a late September game, he sent Sebastian Janikowski out onto the field to kick said impossibly long field goal against San Diego. Again: that's a real thing that happened. He was fired soon after and Al Davis, the Raiders' owner, pulled no punches when explaining why via the last, best use of an overhead projector in recorded human history. To reasonable humans, it seemed that Kiffin would never get another head coaching job and/or chance to order a field goal attempt directly into the center of the sun again.
"Guys, did you know I'm really bad at this?" Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
That is, until he was hired mere months later to be the head coach at the University of Tennessee. Within six months of his hiring in Knoxville, Kiffin had committed multiple recruiting violations, some of them out in public for all to see, and some of which haunted the team long after Kiffin left. He also infamously used hostesses (female UT students) to help with recruiting, in part by flirting with coveted prospects. After coaching Tennessee to a meh 7-6 season, he abruptly left to return home to USC as their new head coach, greatly angering Tennessee fans. After the news broke, a crowd of roughly a thousand people gathered outside UT's sports center, chanting their anger and burning mattresses, as one does.
These days, UT fans probably miss those mattresses, and appreciate the bullet that they dodged. Kiffin spent the next three and change years disappointing USC fans in a number of spectacular and creative ways. Here's a short list of lowlights: getting sued by the Tennessee Titans for luring away a coach, jersey number switching against Colorado, a locker-room brawl over a player's honor, and wearing a sombrero in El Paso. Then there was the ball deflating. Recently, Brian Baucham, who was a cornerback under Kiffin at USC, sued Kiffin and USC for "forcing him to play in a game when he was ill and that they did not follow the school's injury-plan guidelines, leaving Baucham with cardiopulmonary damage and brain injury."
USC began Kiffin's last full season ranked first in the polls and ended with a 7-6 record. Kiffin's dad, the famed defensive genius Monte Kiffin, was his defensive coordinator. Monte resigned in November, possibly to spare his son from having to fire him. It didn't matter in the end. Early the next year, USC fired Kiffin after a lopsided loss to Arizona State, literally dumping him at LAX. According to Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News, Kiffin was pulled off the team bus outside LAX, fired, and the team went back to USC without him. Cold, but it's not like Kiffin didn't seal his own fate, except not really.
Certainly there's a point at which you mess up enough that you stop being the frontrunner for jobs, except that somehow hasn't happened to Kiffin yet. At the end of September 2013, SB Nation ran a piece called, "The rise and fall of Lane Kiffin's coaching career, in 11 steps." Frankly, 11 seemed low. Only claiming Kiffin's career had fallen was premature. Months after he was fired at USC, Nick Saban hired Kiffin as the new offensive coordinator for Alabama (leading to what can objectively be called "the greatest photoshopped picture ever in college football history.")
With Kiffin running the offense, Alabama went to the semifinals in the new college football playoffs, losing to eventual champions Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. They finished fourth in the SEC in yards per play and second in points per game. But Kiffin got low marks for his coaching in the playoff game, mostly because he abandoned a productive run game for a not-doing-it passing attack. And so, naturally, the 49ers have supposedly come calling.
Kiffin's career is an enigma. Whether looked at in pieces or as a whole, it is hard to figure out how or why he keeps getting hired. Is there something about him that insiders know that has slipped the attention of everybody else? Or is it just that he's the son of a legend in his field? Whatever the case, say this for Kiffin: he's a white guy whose privilege stands out in a field dominated by privileged white guys. And that, by itself, is quite an accomplishment.
We keep laughing, and Lane Kiffin just keeps on winning. Kinda.