PHOENIX — The desert isn’t known for being particularly kind, and over the years it’s been doubly harsh to University of Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
The last time he was here, as Southern California’s head coach in 2013, not only did his team lose to Arizona State 62-41, but Kiffin was subsequently fired upon returning to Los Angeles.
The visit before that was for a hearing with the NCAA that didn’t go particularly well for the Trojans.
Perhaps the third time will be the charm, and Kiffin will finally have some fun in the Phoenix area.
“Fun? We don’t use that word around here,” he said.
Kiffin was only preaching Nick Saban’s message with that statement just two days before Alabama faces Clemson in the National Championship Game (7:30 p.m. CT, ESPN). The coaches have made it clear to the players that this isn’t the same as a bowl game but rather a business trip to procure Alabama’s 16th national title and Saban’s fifth.
“We’re here for the game, and nothing else matters,” Kiffin said. “We’re here to win.”
Meanwhile, across the room, Saban was answering questions about Kiffin.
“Lane has done a good job with us, and I think the big thing that every coach that comes into our sort of organization sort of grows and develops into is, there’s a certain way that we do things, and it really doesn’t matter how you’ve done them before.
“This is how we do them. We want your input, and we want your ideas, and you can implement certain things in what you do relative to the personnel that we have, which we all make those decisions as a staff, but we also have sort of a process of how we do things, and everybody has got to buy into that.
“I think that him having been a head coach, that was something that he’s done a really good job of over time, of sort of doing things the way we want and understanding the importance of that in this organization.”
But with each Kiffin answer, the tweets were flying, and before long there were almost as many reporters surrounding him as those standing before Saban’s designated interview station.
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was working the room in part to promote his next job as Georgia’s head coach, but it was Kiffin whom ESPN/SEC Network made a point to talk to on air and promote online.
On a day in which just about the only real news was Clemson All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson giving himself about a 60 percent chance of playing due to a sprained knee, Kiffin ended up stealing the spotlight.
For those who don’t know, Alabama’s assistant coaches and coordinators are considered off-limits to reporters with two exceptions: the coordinators participate in a short press conference at the start of training camp and its bowl/playoff media day requirements.
Consequently, with the Cotton Bowl also having a media day and Alabama recently hosting one on-campus, Kiffin has been more available these past couple of weeks than the rest of the entire year.
Moreover, with Alabama having played no closer than Texas during the past two seasons, this was the first time since USC that Kiffin was available to a lot of West Coast reporters.
Kiffin poked a little fun at it, joking that he was “A good 20 yards off the tarmac” when he was fired at the airport, and he admitted that he told USC athletic director Pat Haden “At least we found our quarterback,” without realizing he was being fired.
Kiffin also remains close to former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian and said his friend texted him some plays at halftime of the 38-0 victory over Michigan State (but didn’t disclose if he used any).
Regarding former Oregon and Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly visiting the Crimson Tide this past week, Kiffin said, “It was good to spend some time with him, to bring him in and get some different ideas.”
Kiffin had served as an Alabama analyst for bowl practices in 2013 before becoming the offensive coordinator. It’s the same job that Saban offered him after first arriving in 2007, but after thinking it over for a couple of days, Kiffin decided to stay at USC.
Now he’s finally back in Pac-12 territory, while Clemson is a formidable opponent that will require a completely different approach from Michigan State in the semifinals. For that, Kiffin said he scripted the first 22 plays but kept a close eye on how comfortable Jake Coker looked in the pocket.
With the Spartans determined to stop Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, the senior quarterback ended up completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions.
“A lot of times we’d read one guy; however he played [that would] determine what my move would be,” Coker said. “It’s a lot of simplified things that Coach Kiffin made, and he did a real good job of helping us out.
“He’s a football genius.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter, @WritingWalsh.