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Nick Saban vs. Lane Kiffin: Relationship then and now

Nick Saban vs. Lane Kiffin: Relationship then and now
Lane Kiffin, left, and Nick Saban, right coached together at Alabama from 2014 to 2016. (Credit: Credit Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BVM) – It’s no secret that over the years Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin have had a unique relationship, sometimes friendly and sometimes tense. After a stint serving as an assistant for Saban at Alabama, Kiffin has now become one of his top opponents in the SEC as the head coach at Ole Miss.

With Kiffin back in the SEC the last couple of years, the relationship between he and Saban has often been in the spotlight. While it’s had its ups and downs, Saban and Kiffin have ultimately benefited from their time together.

Nick Saban’s football background

It is no secret that Saban is arguably the best coach college football has ever seen. With a net worth around $60 million, Saban set a new standard for the college coaching market, signing a deal prior to the 2021 campaign that keeps him at Alabama through 2028 where he will make an average of $10.6 million per season

Since taking over at Alabama in 2007, the 5-foot-6 head coach has won eight SEC titles and six national championships as the Crimson Tide come into nearly every season as perennial title favorites.

Prior to Alabama, Saban had plenty of stops, both at the collegiate and pro levels. First hired as a graduate assistant at Kent State in 1973, Saban went on to become a defensive assistant for Syracuse, West Virginia, Ohio State, Navy and Michigan State across the next decade-and-a-half.

His first jump to the NFL came in 1988 as the defensive backs coach for the Houston Oilers. In 1989, Saban got his first head coaching opportunity at Toledo. After one season with the Rockets, Saban bolted for the NFL again to become the Browns’ defensive coordinator under head coach Bill Belichick.

Nick Saban Alabama Crimson Tide football
Nick Saban has won six national championships during his time at Alabama. (Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

In 1995, Saban earned his first chance as head coach of a Power 5 program with the Michigan State Spartans. He found success in East Lansing, particularly with a 9-2 1999 season, and eventually got his chance at the SEC after being hired at LSU the following season.

Leading the Tigers to a national championship in 2003, Saban became a hot coaching commodity, and was hired as head coach of the Miami Dolphins late in 2004. Going 15-17, Saban didn’t live up to the billing in the NFL. With Mike Shula being fired at Alabama in 2006, Saban took over the Crimson Tide program. Since, he has gone 183-25, leading one of the most dominant and successful stretches in college football history.

Through all the high and lows of his coaching career, Saban’s wife, Terry, has been alongside him, as the couple has been married for over 50 years.

Lane Kiffin’s football background

Like Saban, it took Kiffin a few stops to find his niche in the coaching ranks, but once he did so, he quickly emerged into a top candidate for numerous positions. Serving as a backup quarterback at Fresno State to finish his playing career, Kiffin became a student assistant coach in his senior year with the Bulldogs. 

He would move on to Colorado State as a graduate assistant in 1999, and made his initial leap to the NFL the next year – at just 24 years old – as a defensive quality control coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. After one season in the pros, Kiffin joined Pete Carroll at USC where he served in various offensive assistant roles for a dominant unit in the early 2000s that featured the likes of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.

In his final two seasons, Kiffin went 23-3 as the offensive coordinator for the Trojans. A sought-after commodity on the coaching market, Kiffin was hired by Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders at 31 years old. It would be a tenure that didn’t last long, however. After going 4-12 in 2007, Kiffin was fired early in the 2008 season following a 1-3 start as his relationship with Davis soured. 

Kiffin immediately got another head coaching opportunity, this time in the SEC with Tennessee. But with Carroll leaving for the Seahawks in 2010, Kiffin would go back to Southern California to become head coach of the Trojans. 

Once again, it was a failed tenure. Fired during the 2013 campaign, Kiffin finally united with Saban as an offensive coordinator at Alabama the following season.

Lane Kiffin Ole Miss Rebels football
Following his stint at Alabama, Lane Kiffin went on to coach at Florida Atlantic for three years, returning to the SEC with Ole Miss in 2020. (Credit: Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports)

He remained with the Crimson Tide through the 2016 season, finally earning another head coaching chance at Florida Atlantic the following year. Kiffin went 27-13 in three years with the Owls, and it earned him a second chance in the SEC as he was hired at Ole Miss in 2019. Kiffin has helped turn the Rebels’ program around with a win in the Outback Bowl in 2020 and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl in 2021 as Ole Miss went 10-3.

Under contract with the Rebels through 2025, Kiffin is scheduled to make a salary of $7.25 million this season, and is estimated to have a net worth of $6 million. Kiffin is the son of famous NFL defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, and has three children, Landry, Monte Knox and Pressley, with his ex-wife Layla.

Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin join forces at Alabama

When Saban hired Kiffin as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama in 2014, a unique relationship formed between the two, and so did a tremendous product on the field. The move was seen as a bit of a gamble at the time, as Kiffin’s actions and flameouts with several programs had made him a controversial coaching figure.

Despite their clashing personalities, Saban knew he needed someone to bring Alabama’s offense into the modern day, rather than continuing with a slow, ground-and-pound style. Kiffin was the right choice, doing just that while having an opportunity to resurrect his career.

Taking up a quick-tempo offense, Alabama ran over 100 more plays in Kiffin’s first season in 2014, and a program-record 1,088 plays in 2015. A more condensed and concise playbook also helped Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims emerge into a star, as he threw for a school-record 3,487 yards in 2014. 

While the on-field success was great, Saban and Kiffin did often clash on the sidelines. Reportedly frustrating some on the staff with his disorganization, Kiffin would spat with Alabama’s head coach when it came to some philosophical ideas such as resting players.

One of the most famous disagreements came in a Week 2 game in 2016 against Western Kentucky, where cameras caught Saban laying into Kiffin late in the blowout win.

Although they may not have agreed on everything, the success was undeniable. Alabama went 40-4 in Kiffin’s three seasons there, winning three SEC titles, making three College Football Playoff appearances and winning a national championship. While one of his coaching tenures would again end in some controversy as he left his offensive coordinator position at Alabama before the 2017 national championship game to get a head start at Florida Atlantic, Kiffin’s time there changed both parties for the better.

Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin since coaching together

With coordinators like Mike Locksley, Bill O’Brien and former Kiffin coaching partner Steve Sarkisian succeeding the current Ole Miss coach, Alabama’s offense has thrived, and they have had more playmakers than ever in recent years. 

Nick Saban Lane Kiffin Alabama football
Lane Kiffin helped bring a more modernized, up-tempo offense to Alabama. (Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports)

Quarterbacks like Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones have become first-round draft picks, while Bryce Young became a Heisman Trophy winner in 2021. Meanwhile, guys like Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, Najee Harris, Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle have all become impact players in the NFL after starring in the high-powered Alabama offense.

Since Kiffin’s time in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has lost just five games, appearing in three more national championship games and winning another title in 2020. The offense has been as dominant as ever, and Alabama has maintained one of the best runs college football has seen.

For Kiffin, it also launched his coaching career to new heights. The offensive mind has looked back on his time at Alabama as earning a master’s degree from Coach Saban after the failed stints of his early career.

The 47 year old found success at Florida Atlantic, winning two Boca Raton Bowl games in 2017 and 2019 as the Owls went 11-3 both seasons. In his return to the SEC, Kiffin has excelled further. A 5-5 campaign in a unique 2020 season still ended with a Outback Bowl victory, and last season’s 10-3 record is likely a sign of things to come.

Of course, Saban and Kiffin have gone head-to-head over the past two seasons. In 2020, the Rebels gave Alabama an epic offensive battle in a game which the Crimson Tide won 63-48. Last season, Ole Miss again hung tough, but Alabama pulled out another win, 42-21, at the time preserving Saban’s perfect record against former assistants.

Future for Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin

Despite many assuming tension between the two coaches, there has been a lot of mutual respect between the two since their time together. Shortly after he left the Alabama program, Kiffin described a positive relationship on and off the field with Saban.

As time has passed, the respect each coach has for each other and the success they had has only grown. In a segment featured on ESPN’s “College Gameday” in 2020, Kiffin mentioned his relationship with Saban was like “an ex,” yet explained how valuable Saban and his time at Alabama were to his career.

Meanwhile, Saban echoed similar positive sentiments about his former assistant in an interview on “College Gameday” last season.

Over the years, Kiffin has made what was once seen as a tumultuous relationship more lighthearted with some of the jokes he has made towards Saban on Twitter. 

Earlier this offseason, Saban mentioned in an interview with Paul Finebaum that he would like to see more parity in college football. Kiffin of course had thoughts on that as well.

Kiffin has been outspoken about college football’s new NIL era, too. A lot of his comments have been directed at the Alabama program, as Kiffin believes the gap between the Tide and the rest of college football will only widen, and Saban will continue to win more championships.

Recently, Saban and Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher got into a disagreement after Saban made comments claiming the Aggies “bought every player” in their top-ranked recruiting class. Kiffin also alluded to this earlier in the offseason, claiming Texas A&M would have to “pay a luxury tax” with how much they were raising for NIL deals for players.

Fisher of course fought back, calling Saban’s comments “despicable” and claiming the coach to be a “narcissist.” With the feud going on, Kiffin couldn’t help but chime in with his own thoughts, so much so that the SEC reportedly blocked he and other SEC coaches from weighing in on the feud.

At SEC Media Days in July, Kiffin again poked fun at his former boss and program, as he was asked about Alabama with the first question of his press conference.

“Well, Kirby Smart used to say sometimes you come up here and just end up talking about Alabama,” Kiffin said. “So our first question somehow is about Nick Saban, so … that’s pretty usual.”

Nick Saban Lane Kiffin Alabama Crimson Tide football
Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin got in plenty of disagreements while coaching together in Tuscaloosa, but they have maintained respect for each other as they have become SEC opponents. (Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports)

With Saban now at 70 years old, chatter about his eventual retirement continues. It does not seem imminent yet, but recently, Kiffin was asked about taking over for Saban once his time in Alabama is done, which he currently doesn’t seem interested in doing.

Saban and Kiffin will next do battle Saturday, Nov. 12 in Oxford as Alabama visits Ole Miss. Beyond that, no one knows exactly what the future holds for both coaches. However, what once seemed to be a tumultuous relationship has turned into a unique bond, and the time Saban and Kiffin spent together has ultimately been invaluable to both.