Why the unlikely marriage of Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin worked

Saban praises Kiffin's growth and experience (0:36)

In an interview from 2014, Alabama coach Nick Saban details Lane Kiffin's growth over the years and says Kiffin is a perfect fit for the Crimson Tide. (0:36)

After three years, Lane Kiffin's time at Alabama still doesn't seem real.

Even now that it's over and Kiffin is moving on to become the head coach at Florida Atlantic, it's hard to fully grasp how what began as an innocuous brainstorming visit during bowl prep late in 2013 became an actual working relationship. Nick Saban surprised everyone by plucking Kiffin off the trash heap and installing him as offensive coordinator a month later, and the Alabama coach has been rewarded by his outside-the-box thinking ever since.

It truly was football's version of the odd couple.

On the one hand there was Saban, who is buttoned-up, careful with his words and old school. Then there was Kiffin, who is unafraid to push the envelope, on or off the field.

In their first game coaching alongside one another, there was almost as much attention paid to Kiffin as the game itself. West Virginia took a backseat to Kiffin Cam.

And the lens never turned away.

It was impressive to see how Kiffin took Alabama's offense into the 21st century, spreading the field, running tempo and scoring points at a record pace. But it was even more fun to watch Kiffin and Saban interact. Kiffin would do something like, say, call a jet sweep inside the red zone with a huge lead late in a game and Saban's head would explode. Against Chattanooga, such a play resulted in a fumble and one of those now-infamous "ass-chewings" courtesy of Saban.

The Chattanooga dust-up made headlines, and it was hardly the only tense moment between coach and coordinator. Saban and Kiffin have different ways of doing things.

But there's no denying their combination yielded results: one national championship (and counting), three SEC titles, three trips to the College Football Playoff, a Heisman Trophy winner, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses in school history. Oh, and it was all done with three different first-year starting quarterbacks, including a true freshman this season.

For all the drama that surrounded him with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and USC, Kiffin reminded everyone he could coach.

But three years and 42 games at Alabama was enough.

Whereas the Saban-Kiffin relationship was fruitful, it didn't take long to see that it had an expiration date. As this season wore on, sources inside the program made it clear it was time to part ways. Tension was building, and Kiffin was eager to become a head coach again.

Besides, what did he have left to prove?

During preseason practice this year, Kiffin reflected on his experience under Saban in Tuscaloosa.

"I think it's kind of like the players who come here," he said. "Freshman, sophomore, junior. Continue to learn, continue to grow under Coach."

It may have been a Freudian slip, but the comparison he made at the time was telling. After all, everyone knows that after three years you can turn pro.

And that's exactly what he did by moving on to FAU.

Kiffin wasn't exactly a success in his previous head-coaching stops, but maybe this time will be different. Maybe his apprenticeship under Saban will be the difference.

Theirs was a colorful relationship, no doubt, but it worked out well for both sides. Kiffin went through a successful career rehabilitation, and Saban got an improved offense and a whole bunch of wins.

Best of all, the two were able to part ways at the exact right moment.

When Kiffin first arrived at Alabama, there were questions about how well the fit would work and how long he would last. Three years and a bunch of hardware later, it's safe to say that he surpassed expectations on both fronts.