When Jeff Tedford pauses to reflect on Lane Kiffin, it doesn't elicit the popular narrative of a spoiled coach's son who continues to fail upwards. Nope, Tedford remembers late nights in dimly-lit offices in Fresno, Calif., watching film with a student assistant.
Kiffin may never escape his football-famous last name, but back then, in the mid-to-late 1990s, he was an early 20-something searching for his way. He'd been a backup quarterback at Fresno State for three seasons before grabbing hold of a student assistant position, a decision that shaped his life and forged his career in coaching.
Tedford mentored Kiffin, first as his offensive coordinator from 1994-97, and then as his boss for a season when Kiffin made the decision to quit football and become a student assistant.
The early-morning video sessions with those probing questions made an impression on Tedford. Still do.
"It wasn't a job for him, it was something he really had a passion for," said Tedford, now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator. "He's got a great football mind. Growing up in football, I think he was always intrigued and looked at the game kind of with an analytical mind almost all the time. So once he became a student assistant he was just real eager to put time in and understand the whys and the why-nots of doing things. He was just a sponge, and a real student of the game as a young guy."
Tedford, who is considered a quarterback guru, nurtured and developed an impressive list of first-round NFL quarterbacks, including Super Bowl winners Aaron Rodgers and Trent Dilfer. He also sent David Carr, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller to the league as first-rounders.
He said Kiffin always asked questions, the right questions.
"Anytime I gave him the opportunity to sit in he was there, and he was eager to do it, to sit around with me to midnight watching tape and game-planning and things like that," Tedford said.
Kiffin's offensive pedigree is beyond reproach. On top of the years spent with Tedford, he also spent a season with renowned offensive play caller Bobby Petrino while working as a quality control coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2000.
But even now, 31 days after the University of Alabama hired Kiffin to replace Doug Nussmeier as offensive coordinator, it's still somewhat viewed as a puzzling move. The Crimson Tide, which fielded two of the best offenses in program history in 2012 and '13, could have had its pick of the litter, so to speak. Candidates near and far would have likely flooded the Mal Moore Building with interest.
But UA coach Nick Saban already had his top candidate in mind before Nussmeier's office was finished being packed. Kiffin was the only coach interviewed, and the decision to tab him as Alabama's new offensive coordinator is already paying dividends, at least early in the marriage.
Despite the reality that Alabama's offense averaged nearly 40 points a game over the past two seasons, the perception remains that of a plodding, even if dominating, offensive attack. Kiffin is already at work trying to change that perception.
"One thing Coach Saban was telling me about was Coach Kiffin is one of the brightest offensive minds in America," Madison Academy coach Eric Cohu said.
Cohu coaches two of the top prospects in the state, and the nation, in Class of 2015 athlete Kerryon Johnson and 2016 running back Malik Miller. Both currently hold scholarship offers from Alabama.
"I think Coach Kiffin has a lot of experience in the NFL game and the college game," Cohu said. "He can blend the pro-style and the spread and really that's one thing that Coach Saban reiterated was how innovative of an offensive guy he is. I think that's creating excitement for, certainly, high school players, who are definitely looking at the next level."
Alabama's offense isn't likely to change radically. If something isn't broke, you don't toss it on the scrapheap.
But there are changes, subtle or salient, coming, if only for perception's sake.
Despite AJ McCarron's nearly unparalleled success as the Alabama quarterback, he was too often described as a game manager, while a power running game and dominant running backs shared most of the credit.
Don't expect the rushing attack to being any less proficient, just look for the passing game to get a bit more shine.
"I think it's very important that you have the kind of offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach that you can sort of recruit to, someone that young people want to play in that style of offense," Saban said.
Oddly enough, in the wake of Kiffin's hiring, Alabama lost two quarterbacks. Walk-on freshman Luke Del Rio transferred to Oregon State and five-star 2015 verbal pledge Ricky Town rescinded his commitment and switched it to Southern Cal. Neither move was directly linked to Kiffin, who is known for his work with quarterbacks.
He helped turn Tennessee's Jonathan Crompton from an afterthought into a fifth round draft pick. That reputation is what has Alabama players and recruits excited.
"Coach Kiffin, man, he's the guy. I think y'all know what he can do," true freshman UA quarterback David Cornwell said. "You look at his pedigree as a coach, the quarterbacks he's had. (He's) known as an awesome offensive mind on the NFL side of it, his explosiveness.
"I know he'll bring a different kind of feel to Alabama. From what I hear, it could be a whole different offense. Not plays-wise, but how he's going to call plays. I know he sets them up well. I watched some of his film when he was at Tennessee, how he'd set plays up, how he'd attack 'Bama when he was playing against them, which is very tough to do."
Kiffin is also changing minds along the way. His reputation as a cocky, brash, young coach followed him to Tuscaloosa, but high school coaches, players and parents around the state and across the South are finding a person much different than the one they thought they knew on TV.
Central High School is just a few blocks from Bryant-Denny Stadium. Falcons head coach Dennis Conner presumed he had Kiffin all pegged. After the first of three meetings, Conner admitted he was dead wrong.
"Man, he's one of the nicest coaches, down-to-earth coaches, I've ever met in my 26 years ," Conner said. "That's the God's honest truth. It's no snub. I had a different opinion of him before. I did. Then I realized he was a truly a down-to-earth fellow. And it took about two minutes into our conversation."
Kiffin went to Central to recruit four-star offensive guard Lester Cotton, who thereafter committed to the Crimson Tide.
"Once he was here, he wasn't trying to leave so quick. He came in and took a seat and we talked about 30 to 45 minutes. He met our principal, our assistant principal. It was a total shocker to me because I thought he was different. I mean, great personality, funny and just seemed to be an all-around great person."
Cohu echoed similar sentiments about Kiffin's personality, his way of putting those in his presence at ease, making them laugh, building relationships.
Saban obviously knew that. He lauded Kiffin for his performance, just one month in, in helping Alabama round out its top-ranked 2014 class. Now together they will set out to find the next budding superstar at quarterback and wide receiver as Alabama's reloads its offense.
"I think that was actually an asset for us, that Lane was an asset for us in helping get some of the offensive players that we were able to attract," Saban said. "(He) does a very good job of presenting to the players how they're going to be used in the offense. They have a very clear picture of what their future might be. I think it was a real positive asset for us in the short time that he was involved recruiting."
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