"The only logical reason Nick Saban hired Lane Kiffin"
Verne Lundquist’s voice filled the cavernous underground chamber as the video played on the theater screen.
“Chris Davis! No flags! Touchdown Auburn! An answered prayer!”
“End replay,” Nick Saban said. Saban turned away from the frozen image of jubilant Auburn players.
“Show comments,” Saban said.
Poorly worded and grammatically incorrect statements flashed across dozens of monitors mounted along the walls. The phrases merged into a dizzying blur of misspellings and vulgarity.
“I hate you Sabin. Your a loser.”
“I named my kid after you & we loze to Awbrn. You suck.”
“Your a moron. Were gonna get your trees next!! yousuck#”
“Is it time, Nick?” said a monotone but gentle female voice, like Siri’s but much hotter.
“Yes PROCESS, it is time,” Saban said. “Initiate Crimson Protocol.”
“As you wish,” the voice replied.
A moment later, 750 miles away, Brady Hoke reached over to his nightstand and tapped his buzzing phone.
Who could be calling at this hour? Probably another prank call from Urban. Guy’s an ass.
“Crimson Protocol has been initiated,” the female voice said.
Hoke paused for a moment.
“I understand,” he said and tapped a button to end the call.
“Call agent,” Hoke commanded. The phone flashed a number and dialed.
“Brady?” asked a man’s tired voice.
“Yeah. Sorry to bother you this late. I need you to get in touch with Doug Nussmeier’s agent. We’re hiring Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Do whatever you have to do to get the deal done.”
Hoke ended the call. He closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath.
“And so it begins,” he said.
Bill Battle hesitated before knocking on the door to Saban’s office. He would have to handle this delicately. A half-dozen NFL teams would have openings. If he overstepped, Saban might leave just for the hell of it.
Battle knocked. “Enter,” Saban said.
Battle walked into the office and stood. He never sat down in Saban’s office until he was invited.
Saban sat at his desk. His eyes were fixed on his laptop screen.
Jesus, it’s Christmas Eve, and he’s watching game film of Florida Atlantic.
“Coach, we need to talk about Lane Kiffin,” Battle suggested tentatively.
“What about him?” asked Saban impatiently.
“First, I certainly want you to know I support whatever decision you make. It’s just ... just … “
Battle gathered his courage. The words spilled out in a rush.
“Coach, he’s been fired twice. I don’t think anyone he’s ever worked for would rehire him. He’s the only thing Al Davis has been right about since drafting Marcus Allen. He’s a magnet for NCAA investigators. We’ve known each other a long time. This just does not seem like you.”
Saban slowly turned toward Battle.
“Bill, I think it’s time you knew something about me.”
Saban seemed to press, something, under his desk. Behind him, the floor-to-ceiling glass trophy case slid aside, revealing what looked like a cramped closet.
“Come with me,” Saban said.
Battle followed Saban. The trophy case slid back into place.
Battle felt movement. They were in an elevator.
“Coach, what is this?” Battle asked, disbelieving.
“All will be clear soon,” Saban said.
They descended: 10 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute.
My God, how deep are we going?
When the doors parted, the scene overwhelmed Battle.
Monitors were everywhere. Fans hummed softly as they cooled hundreds of servers. On the screens flashed down-and-distance calculations, scouting reports, practice schedules, workout routines, game plans, drive charts — an endless stream of football data.
“What is this?” Battle asked, breathless.
“This is my life’s work,” Saban said. “It is my invention. My child. It is my Precision Recruitment Organization Coordination Efficiency and Strategy Supercomputer, or PROCESS.”
“Hello Bill,” the female voice said.
“It talks?” Battle said, disbelieving.
“Oh yes,” Saban said. “Through nanobots implanted in my brain, I am in constant communication with PROCESS. This is the secret to my success, Bill. PROCESS calculates every eventuality during a game. It has acquired terabytes of football data. It knows every coach, every player, every tendency, every possible outcome. It knows all of our players' physiques, has calculated their emotional intelligence, and tells me how to train them and motivate them for maximum results. It knows all. I am PROCESS, Bill. PROCESS is me. It’s why I never lose.”
“But,” Battle stammered, “but you have lost. We lost to Auburn. Surely, you would have known. The field goal return. You would have known.”
“Yes,” Saban said, his eyes menacing. “I always know. But from time to time, I test the fan bases that serve me, to make sure of their loyalty. You have failed, Bill. The so-called TideNation has failed. The 85 percent have failed. I can no longer stomach their vitriol, Bill, and now they must suffer.”
“What will you do?” Battle asked, panic in his voice.
“Crimson Protocol, Bill,” Saban replied smoothly. “The Big 10 is part of it. I arranged it. PROCESS controls Hoke, Meyer, all of them. I gave the order. That’s why Brady hired Nussmeier, Bill. To create an opening, an opening for the one man whose double-talk, petulance and jackass smirk are guaranteed to bring any football program to its knees. Lane Kiffin.”
“No! No!” Battle yelled, and he ran for the open elevator.
The door shut. He was trapped.
“Yes, Bill,” Saban said, his voice rising. “I’ll win enough games next season to keep fans happy and then retire. Fans will want someone on the staff to take over. In my last press conference, I’ll tell the world how Lane Kiffin was my best recruiter. How his play-calling was crucial. Then, Bill, you will name Lane Kiffin as my successor.”
“I’ll never!” Battle shouted, backing away from Saban.
“You will,” Saban said coldly. “And then the Bama fan base will know the price of defying me, of sending me their inane tweets and their nonsensical emails. They shall know as Kiffin slowly alienates players. They shall know as he commits one media blunder after another. They shall know when the NCAA Letter of Inquiry arrives. They shall know as the win total drops from 12, then to 10, and then eight, and then six, sending Alabama back into a cycle of coaching changes and .500 records. Mediocrity is your fate, Bill. Mediocrity at the hands of Lane Kiffin.”
“Noooo!” cried Battle, and he rushed toward Saban.
Strands of fine wires rose from the floor. They trapped Battle like a fly in a spiderweb.
“He is contained,” said the female voice.
Saban approached the struggling Battle.
“It’s too late, Bill,” Saban said. “From the moment you walked into this room, you have been breathing nanobots that now connect you to PROCESS. At my command, they will control you. PROCESS will control you.”
“Initiate,” Saban said.
Battle’s eyes glazed over.
“Kiffin is a home run hire,” Battle said in a dreamy voice. “We’ll need to find Layla somewhere nice to live, maybe have avocado kelp wraps shipped in every day from LA so she feels comfortable.”
In a secluded mountain cabin, the Man waited for the call.
Had it worked?
His phone buzzed. He tapped it.
“Report,” he said curtly.
“Our message board plants worked perfectly,” a voice said. “I think the misplaced hashtag may have driven him over the edge. He has initiated Crimson Protocol as you predicted. They will hire Kiffin. In three years, their program will be a laughingstock. Their recruits will be ours.”
“Excellent,” the Man said. “You have done well. You will be rewarded.”
The Man switched off his phone. He gazed out the window as the sun dipped behind the far ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains. The edges of his mouth curved ever so slightly.