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College football's odd couple splits up before title game in Tampa

Lane Kiffin, who accepted the FAU head coaching job, will be replaced as Alabama offensive coordinator by Steve Sarkisian.
Lane Kiffin, who accepted the FAU head coaching job, will be replaced as Alabama offensive coordinator by Steve Sarkisian.
Published Jan. 3, 2017

The unlikely coaching marriage between Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin worked spectacularly, right up until it didn't.

That's the easiest way to explain the divorce Alabama announced Monday: Kiffin will immediately leave his position as offensive coordinator to focus on his role as Florida Atlantic's head coach — one week before the Crimson Tide plays for a national championship at Raymond James Stadium.

The relationship between the sport's biggest control freak and one of its biggest freewheelers worked through three SEC titles, one national championship and a win over Washington in Saturday's College Football Playoff semifinal.

Then it didn't.

Kiffin told ESPN's Paul Finebaum that he had trouble balancing his job at 'Bama with his head coaching revival in Boca Raton, but there was plenty of drama beyond that. Saban clearly didn't like how Kiffin overthought his play calls in the Peach Bowl instead of pounding the Tide's dominant backs. Kiffin clearly didn't like Saban's tirades.

Neither side needed the other anymore, which is why the marriage ended with a mutual decision to part ways, despite a fifth national title in eight seasons at stake.

It's a divorce that could only happen at 'Bama. What other program would even think about shaking up its staff during a 14-0 season, with a matchup against Clemson's top-10 scoring defense looming?

The Tide will simply replace one former USC head coach with another, Steve Sarkisian. With Kiffin gone, 'Bama still has four other Division I-A head coaches on its staff.

Sarkisian already knows the personnel. He has been on the support staff since September, and 'Bama had already announced that Sarkisian would take over once Kiffin left for FAU.

"Obviously, we are in a unique situation where we have our next offensive coordinator on staff," Saban said in a statement. "We have full confidence that Sark will step in right away and make this a smooth transition."

It's also a divorce that could only happen to Kiffin, who never shed his reputation for controversy after flaming out as a head coach at Tennessee, USC and the Oakland Raiders.

It's not as if Kiffin is the first Alabama assistant to balance multiple jobs through a title run. Jim McElwain did it in 2011 as the Tide's offensive coordinator and next head coach at Colorado State. Kirby Smart did it last winter and used multiple phones to keep things straight as the 'Bama defensive coordinator and incoming coach at Georgia.

Both brought new national championship rings to their next jobs. But neither was a lightning rod like Kiffin. Leaving the No. 1 team in the country after a 17-point semifinal win seems like a fitting farewell for a man who was famously fired just off an airport tarmac.

The question now becomes how 'Bama moves on as it tries to complete the first 15-0 season in college football history.

Sarkisian's knowledge of the game isn't a question. He was 46-35 in head coaching jobs at Washington and USC before alcohol problems led to his dismissal from the Trojans.

"He's a talented guy," quarterback Jalen Hurts said before the Peach Bowl. "He has a great track record, and I think he'll do a great job here."

Kiffin agreed. That's why he tried to talk Sarkisian into coming to 'Bama in the first place.

"I think it's going to be a really easy transition …" Kiffin said last week in Atlanta. "I think in some ways, he'll do a much better job than I do with Coach (Saban)."

We'll find out sooner than expected, after a coaching marriage of convenience between two of the sport's biggest names finally ran its course.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.