TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — After an unceremonious firing at USC, Lane Kiffin found himself with nothing to do in December, something the football coach wasn't necessarily used to.
He got a phone call from Alabama coach Nick Saban asking if he'd be interested in coming in as an offensive consultant as the Crimson Tide prepared to face Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
"So I took my vacation in Tuscaloosa here for eight days at the Capstone Hotel," Kiffin said on Sunday, referencing the on-campus hotel at Alabama.
Kiffin claims those eight days had nothing to do with his hiring eight more days after Alabama's 45-31 loss to the Sooners. Saban said he came away impressed with what he saw from Kiffin in that span.
Regardless of how it happened, the bottom line is that Kiffin is Alabama's offensive coordinator. And by all accounts, he's learning how to put his controversial ways, his weaknesses as a head coach, behind him and getting back to running an offense.
Saban may be the perfect mentor for him at this time in his life, and his influence is already readily apparent.
The Sugar Bowl is not when Saban and Kiffin's relationship started. The pair goes way back, according to Kiffin.
"There was actually some conversations a long time ago, [Saban]'s first year when he first got here actually, on the phone we had some conversations about coming here at that time," Kiffin said. "Decided to stay at USC (as offensive coordinator) at that time. It was something I kind of always thought about because I think the more you can learn from more people, obviously, the better you become as a coach."
Kiffin actually ended up in the NFL as the Oakland Raiders' head coach in 2007, where he lasted until a few games into the 2008 season. His subsequent 15-month tenure with Tennessee was marked by controversial public comments, including calling out then-Florida coach Urban Meyer. He left in the dead of night after one season to take what he called his dream job at USC, where he was fired in his fourth season while the Trojans dealt with scholarship limitations and other NCAA sanctions.
Kiffin has always been a respected coach and coordinator.
"He is an outstanding and creative offensive coach who has great experience both at the college and NFL level," Saban said when announcing his hiring. "He has a very good understanding of the game, and I have always been impressed with what I saw in the games he called."
But his brash personality has rubbed many the wrong way and made him such a controversial figure.
He had success under Pete Carroll as USC's offensive coordinator, but after three rough head coaching stints, Kiffin comes to Alabama humbled but eager to learn.
"Obviously when you're hired here, you're going back into football and recruiting and spring ball and everything," Kiffin said. "Having a little time off there after getting fired at USC, it kind of re-excites you to get back.
"Obviously, I loved being a head coach—there's lots of great things about that—but when you step back, when you go into a role of being an assistant coach, your focus is so much back on football and player development and working with the players and the other coaches. When you're a head coach, you're pulled in so many different directions. That's been exciting, too, to get back to that."
Kiffin and Saban had previously been viewed as sort of opposites in the coaching world. The hotshot, young coach against an old-school, methodical one. So a potential marriage was sometimes joked about as a hypothetical, but hardly anyone saw it become a reality.
The Saban-Kiffin dynamic was an early storyline when Kiffin was first hired, but now it seems like an afterthought.
Kiffin is embracing the Saban way.
"You know, to me, there would be no other option to come in and not try to learn everything that you can from Nick Saban," he said. "So, yeah, I'm sitting here every day learning stuff from him."
And then he cracked a joke about a recent example: "We already met this morning so he made sure I didn't say anything that would get on the ticker."
If Kiffin in Tuscaloosa works out, it could pay plenty of dividends for an Alabama offense loaded at the skill positions and looking to develop a quarterback to distribute the ball to those weapons, something Kiffin has had success with in the past.
But it could pay personal dividends for Kiffin as well. After building up a reputation as a renegade coach bouncing around football, he can come in and learn from one of the best coaches in the game.
"As you make mistakes, the No. 1 thing you better do from them is learn from them and not just make excuses for them," Kiffin said. "I've made more than anybody probably. To be able to go through what I've gone through and still be fortunate before the age of 40 to be here, to be offensive coordinator with Coach Saban at Alabama, you take some time to reflect on that."