PHOENIX -- The last time Lane Kiffin was in this city, he got fired.
Or at least something close to it. That was nearly 28 months ago when Kiffin was fired as USC's coach by athletic director Pat Haden following a 62-41 loss to Arizona State on Sept. 28, 2013.
“I didn’t think about that until the bus ride to the hotel,” Alabama’s offensive coordinator told reporters Saturday at media day ahead of the College Football Playoff National Championship. “On the bus ride, we took a right turn. On the day of [my firing], I jogged. It was about 100 degrees. I remember that turn. Wow, I’m back in the same place.”
This time, Kiffin is in Phoenix as a right-hand man to Nick Saban, who is seeking a fourth national championship at Alabama Monday against Clemson. For the first time on Saturday, Kiffin described in detail how one of the oddest firings in history went down.
Kiffin was fired following that ASU loss in the early morning hours after touching down at a private airport near LAX. The episode was famously reported as Haden axing Kiffin right there on the tarmac near the team plane.
“I was a good 20 yards off the tarmac,” Kiffin said.
It was actually a private room near the team bus where Haden broke the news. Kiffin tried to talk his boss into being able to coach the rest of the season after a 3-2 start. Haden didn’t budge.
“I had no idea at all,” Kiffin said. “It totally caught me off guard. I got off the plane. I put my bag on the bus. I was going to sleep at the facility. Someone came and said, ‘Pat wants to see you.’ I left my briefcase on the bus.”
The next time he saw that briefcase, a staffer had delivered it to his house. Kiffin was driven home that night by a team security person.
During his three-plus seasons at USC, Kiffin won 28 games, including going 10-2 in 2011. That year, the Trojans won the Pac-12 South but weren’t allowed to play in the conference’s championship game because of NCAA penalties.
During that season USC won at Oregon with 51 scholarship players. Ironically, that win went a long way toward allowing Alabama back in the BCS race. After that game, Kiffin sat on an equipment trunk outside the USC locker room and said, “Nick owes me a thank you card.”
“When the sanctions were handed down, it was basically the death penalty,” Kiffin said Saturday. “Going 10-2 made everybody feel like sanctions don’t matter. History tells you that doesn’t happen.
“You felt like you were on an uneven playing field and being judged. Because once the ball was kicked, nobody remembered how many players you had.”
Kiffin said the firing was the lowest point in his career -- “by far.” There is still a cordial relationship with Haden.
“The thing that was kind of bad about the ASU game: I was in the locker room, [and] I said to Pat, ‘At least we found our quarterback’ He kind of shook his head,” Kiffin recalled. “Little did I know he’d already fired me.”
Following that 2013 season, Saban hired Kiffin as his offensive coordinator. The partnership has been a hit with Alabama in the playoff for the second straight season.
“[USC] seems so long ago. I do think things make you stronger,” said Kiffin.
Could Haden have waited until that Sunday morning instead of leaving his coach basically stranded at an airport?
“I don’t know that,” Kiffin said. “The decision was made, somebody said, during the first half of the game … I didn’t know I was already fired. Good question, what would have happened if we [had] come back and won the game?”