At one point, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was the hottest coaching prodigy on the planet.
The son of revered NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin — who held that position with the Vikings — and play-caller for coach Pete Carroll's offensive juggernauts at Southern California in 2005-06, Kiffin landed his first head coaching job with the Oakland Raiders in 2007.
At 31, the graduate of Bloomington Jefferson High School was the youngest NFL head coach of the modern era (since 1946), a distinction Kiffin still holds despite being fired after posting a 5-15 record in his first 20 games.
None of that mattered when a struggling Kiffin, then the coach at USC, huddled with Alabama coach Nick Saban before the 2013 season and presented him with a list of 32 questions he wanted answered in efforts to turn around the Trojans' program.
"I wanted to get some thoughts," Kiffin said, reflecting on the summer session at Saban's lake house. "We sat there for three or four hours, and he answered all the questions. I learned about a lot."
The answers did not trigger a turnaround for the Trojans. Kiffin was fired in October, after a 3-2 start. But the exchange made Kiffin long for more time with Saban, an opportunity that surfaced the next season and morphed into his two-year run as Alabama's offensive play-caller and quarterbacks coach.
Kiffin will try Monday to help No. 2 Alabama (13-1) earn the school's fourth national title in the past seven seasons in a battle with No. 1 Clemson (14-0) in Glendale, Ariz.
Win or lose, Kiffin said he wants to return to Alabama for a third season to continue learning from Saban before taking over his next program.
"I'd love to be back. We'll have a new set of challenges with a third year under a new quarterback," Kiffin said.
Make no mistake: Kiffin, 40, wants to run his own program and improve a 35-21 coaching mark in college (Tennessee, USC) that followed his 5-15 stint with the Raiders.
"When and if that time comes, I know that I'm much better prepared … because I've had the chance to be with Coach Saban," said Kiffin, who said he tried "too much" at previous stops to mimic Carroll. "You've eventually got to figure out yourself and figure out what I take from each of these different guys. In this profession, you always continue to grow."