Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press
Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin are incredibly different people. Yet college football brought them together, continued a dynasty and split them in bizarre fashion.
The sport is better because of it. Professionally, so are Saban and Kiffin. In their three seasons together, Alabama posted a 40-4 record with a national title, three SEC championships and a Heisman winner while Kiffin modernized the offense as the coordinator. He left to coach Florida Atlantic after (during?) the 2016 season.
On the other hand, the personal relationship between the former colleagues is a strange mix of conflicting feelings.
There is no perfect word to describe it.
While frivolous, it’s unendingly curious. The public tone is a blend of distaste and appreciation. Now that Kiffin is coaching at Ole Miss in the SEC West―the same division as Saban and Alabama―yearly matchups add a new dynamic.
From an outside perspective, it’s fun! Saban will occasionally rant about something but is mostly measured, guarding himself and his team. Kiffin, conversely, is outspoken and open. That clash of personalities is rare in college football.
Who else could joke about Saban being “elderly” and elicit a response?
But “fun” is probably not entirely accurate.
From a literal sense, Kiffin himself has agreed that particular word isn’t part of the vocabulary at Alabama. When on The Colin Cowherd Show (h/t Mark Heim of AL.com) in April, Kiffin responded to a question about whether he had fun there.
“Yeah, like 14 times a year. Fourteen days a year when we had way better players than everyone else we lined up against. That was fun. That’s not a shot at Nick Saban. He’d say the same thing.”
Fair enough. Outside of this instance, however, Kiffin has taken plenty of troll-worthy shots at Saban―a different kind of fun.
In 2017, Saban famously used “rat poison” as a way to describe the positive media coverage of his then-undefeated team. Since then, Kiffin has featured “rat poison” in numerous social media posts, including a few involving Saban himself.
But is Kiffin poking Saban akin to one friend jabbing another? Mean-spirited? Little bit of both? Given that he’s thanked Saban in a very public, genuine way, it feels like relatively harmless jabs―more of Kiffin living up to his personality and knowing Saban will rarely respond.
Besides, the rehab of Kiffin’s reputation is a product of his time in Tuscaloosa. He has acknowledged as much.
Before his first year at FAU, Kiffin told reporters he’s better prepared to run a program after learning from Saban and grateful for the experience. When leaving FAU for Ole Miss, Kiffin said he wouldn’t be here without Saban.
Saban reiterated his appreciation for Kiffin’s impact and football knowledge this week, per Charlie Potter of 247Sports.
Again, though, the relationship is tenuous at best.
The more notable images are when Saban chewed out Kiffin on the sideline. It’s not uncommon for a head coach to be angry toward an assistant, yet these visual memories vividly contrast two very different people.
The enduring moment is how Kiffin’s time at Alabama ended.
Following the 2016 regular season, he accepted an offer to become FAU’s head coach. Kiffin stayed on as Alabama’s offensive coordinator into the College Football Playoff, but Saban ultimately removed him prior to the national championship.
“That dismissal fueled Kiffin’s desire to return to the SEC and a burning passion to exact revenge on Saban,” Aaron Suttles of The Athletic reported when Kiffin landed at Ole Miss.
From an outside view, it appears this narrative—as many, many others—has a truth somewhere in the middle. Saban probably doesn’t like Kiffin all that much but is appreciative of his contributions to the Crimson Tide’s accomplishments. Kiffin is grateful for the opportunity Saban gave him but simultaneously might want to hang 70 on his former boss.
And no, that revenge probably won’t happen this weekend.
According to DraftKings, Alabama is a 23.5-point favorite. Kiffin is likely to meet a fate similar to Saban’s other former assistants.
So far, that group―which includes current SEC coaches Kirby Smart (Georgia), Will Muschamp (South Carolina), Jeremy Pruitt (Tennessee) and Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M), among others around the country―is 0-20 against Saban.
However, this chapter of the Saban-Kiffin story has only just begun.
Kiffin will be working to return Ole Miss to a competitive state while everyone gets to enjoy a candid, humorous coach juxtaposed with the classic, workmanlike Saban. Whether it works out for Kiffin long-term is a different discussion, but college football is better for having him near Saban again.
Follow Bleacher Report CFB writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR