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No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel
In his first season as Mississippi's head coach, Lane Kiffin went 5-5 last year and capped it with an Outback Bowl win over Indiana. The Rebels have 18 returning starters this season, including quarterback Matt Corral.

OXFORD, Miss. — Florida Atlantic changed Lane Kiffin.

That’s what he says, anyway.

Used to be, the Mississippi coach says, he was ego-driven. Selfish. Motivated by bettering his résumé.

After coaching FAU for three seasons, he says his motivations are now more player-based.

Kiffin didn’t intend for that to happen. He took the FAU job in December 2016 because he wanted to be a head coach again. The Conference USA school offered the best opportunity.

The perspective he gained from FAU? That was an unexpected development, one he says influences him even now, entering his second season at Ole Miss.

“FAU was my first time being at not a major program, and those kids changed me,” Kiffin said during a June interview inside his office at Ole Miss.

Not everything changed.

Lane is still Lane.

He’s among the sport’s most polarizing figures. Good luck finding a college football fan who doesn’t feel some type of way about Kiffin, a fact he acknowledges and seems to welcome.

He’s a renegade. He’s an aggressive recruiter. He’s a bright offensive mind and a brilliant play-caller. He has built a rock-star persona that is more pervasive than you’d expect for a coach who has won 63% of his games through nine seasons as a college coach.

He deploys wit and candor and jabs at peers in a way most coaches avoid like salad at a buffet. He has attracted nearly a half-million Twitter followers, which is more than LSU’s Ed Orgeron and Florida’s Dan Mullen have combined.

But to focus on the tweets is to miss the forest for the trees.

Kiffin has made Ole Miss football relevant again.

That’s what his boss expected.

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin celebrates a Rebels touchdown during the Ole Miss spring game. The former USC, Tennessee and Florida Atlantic coach is trying to revive the Ole Miss program.

Why Ole Miss hired Kiffin

The Lane Kiffin experience is exactly what Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter wanted.

A former All-America Ole Miss basketball player, Carter became the Rebels’ AD in November 2019 after joining the athletics department as an administrator in 2009. His first act was firing football coach Matt Luke, who had gone 15-21 in three seasons while tasked with cleaning up the mess Hugh Freeze left.

“If coach Luke had been given more time, maybe we could have grown and built it, but it just didn’t feel like the fan base was going to give that time,” Carter said. “So, we had to make a change.”

To replace Luke, Carter wanted a proven coach with a track record of offensive success. And he craved someone who would give the program instant relevancy and cachet.

“I felt like where we were with our program, we had gotten slightly apathetic with what we were doing, and we needed someone again to come in and immediately have that credibility and that wow factor,” Carter said.

Insert Kiffin.

Some ADs wouldn’t be comfortable managing a football coach who attracts the level of attention that Kiffin does.

Carter welcomes it.

“We want to make sure that our coaches and our student-athletes are the people in the forefront and the spotlight,” Carter said, “and, clearly, Lane is going to be in the spotlight, so that’s a good thing.”

USC head coach Lane Kiffin speaks with cornerback Nickell Robey during pregame warmups before their 2010 game against Virginia. Kiffin spent six years as a USC assistant before a three-year stint as head coach from 2010-13.  Getting fired by USC, Kiffin's professed dream school, was “a hard firing to go through,” he said.

The maturation of Kiffin

Hiring Kiffin meant accepting baggage.

He has been fired twice as a head coach. The first time featured legendary NFL owner Al Davis describing Kiffin as a liar and a disgrace to the Raiders organization. In the second instance, Kiffin was fired at a Los Angeles airport amid his fourth season at Southern Cal.

In between, Kiffin bolted Tennessee after one season to become USC's coach.

Kiffin hasn’t always colored inside the lines. The NCAA's Committee on Infractions determined in 2011 that his staff committed a troubling amount of secondary recruiting violations during his lone season at Tennessee, although he avoided penalty.

Carter vetted Kiffin before hiring him and felt comfortable with his findings.

“Was there a little bit of risk? Maybe,” Carter said. “But, absolutely, we feel like that risk has paid off.”

Carter believes Kiffin, 46, has matured, although Kiffin doesn’t attribute his evolution to getting older.

“When you get older, you don’t necessarily change,” he said. “A lot of old people still are stuck in their ways.”

Rather, FAU facilitated the change.

Consider this Kiffin 3.0.

The first installment was the brash 30-something coach of the Raiders, Vols and Trojans. Getting fired by USC, Kiffin's professed dream school, was “a hard firing to go through.” That experience, he says, took his ego down a notch and caused him to fall off college football’s map for a few months.

Kiffin 2.0 resurfaced in the SEC as Nick Saban’s coordinator at Alabama, where he revolutionized the Crimson Tide’s offense.

The latest rendition of Kiffin features his encore as an SEC head coach after three seasons of refinement at FAU.

Kiffin never had to rough it early in his career. The son of longtime college and NFL coach Monte Kiffin, Lane joined an NFL staff by the time he was 24, as a quality control coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. A year later, he became an assistant coach at USC, a college football mecca.

Then, in 2017, Kiffin found himself coaching a team that won the Conference USA championship in front of a crowd of 14,258.

“Our first season, we won 11 games, won a (conference) championship, won a bowl game,” Kiffin said. “The seniors had never won more than three games in a year. And most of those guys weren’t going to the NFL, which was different than places I’d been at.

“I think that really changed me, seeing the players, seeing the excitement — it didn’t matter that there were only 8,000 people at a game or something — when they won. I think that was a big part of it, kind of the wholesomeness of the game.”

Kiffin went 26-13 in three seasons at FAU. Moreover, FAU benefited from a level of attention that only Kiffin could generate.

Kiffin gained a fresh outlook. Now, he says, he enjoys the moment. He revels more in the process than the outcome, whereas the reverse used to be true. He’s more cognizant of how he can help the players’ experience.

“What I see now is a guy that’s really focused — a guy that’s focused in the office, on the field, away from the field, in his personal life,” Carter said. “I see a guy that sees this as a real opportunity and is appreciative of this opportunity to get back to this level, being in the SEC.”

In this Jan. 12, 2010 photograph, Lane Kiffin waits to announce his resignation as head football coach of Tennessee. He left the Volunteers after only one season to become head coach of USC.

Ah, Tennessee

Nowhere is Kiffin more of a lightning rod than in Knoxville.

Tennessee students burned T-shirts and a mattress in January 2010 amid demonstrations on campus after Kiffin jilted the Vols in favor of USC. He had led Tennessee to a 7-6 record in his lone season.

For some Vols fans, time healed wounds, and Kiffin is the one who got away. Kiffin helped apply the salve. He regularly compliments Tennessee fans and touts the program’s bona fides. Even now, he dubs Tennessee “a top-10 job in America” because “it’s so easy to recruit to Tennessee.”

For other Vols fans, Kiffin remains a turncoat, a pariah who will return to Neyland Stadium on Oct. 16, when Ole Miss will play the Vols. He has been back before, in 2014 and 2016, as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. That 2014 visit had security wondering whether Kiffin should wear a bulletproof vest, he told ESPN’s Marty Smith in 2018.

Kiffin held USC in high esteem. He had started his family there while an assistant under Pete Carroll. He thought he could replicate the blueprint of the dynasty Carroll had built.

“It’s not like I was at Tennessee going, 'OK, there’s 20 better jobs, and when one opens, I’m going,'” Kiffin said. "If you’re at Tennessee, outside of USC, because of how special it was to me, I don’t know where you would go.”

Kiffin concluded that, if the USC job had not opened that January, he’d still be at Tennessee.

Truthfully, it’s impossible to say.

But Kiffin’s early exit from one SEC school brings up the question: What’s going to keep him at Ole Miss long-term?

“That huge buyout they keep putting in (my contract),” Kiffin deadpanned. “That’s the Lane Kiffin answer. No other coach would say that.”

Later, he adds that buyouts aren’t really deal-breakers. If a school wants you badly enough, it will cover the exit fee.

But there are reasons to embrace Ole Miss beyond a buyout clause.

Alabama lost two regular season games during his three-year stint as coordinator. Both were against the Rebels. Those outcomes remained atop Kiffin's mind when he considered the Ole Miss job.

“It wasn’t like a program that you’ve got to do some miracle that’s never been done before,” he said.

The Rebels' wins over Alabama came as part of 19 victories from 2014-15, the program’s best two-year period since the 1960s. The good times ended in 2017 with an NCAA investigation into sweeping recruiting violations and Freeze’s resignation after he made phone calls to an escort service. 

Elevating Ole Miss will require strong recruiting and administrative support, Kiffin said. To the latter point, he believes the administration is committed to football facility improvements, and he applauded the financial commitment Ole Miss flexed to retain offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby.

A $40 million renovation to the team’s indoor practice and training facility is on tap. That will precede a planned stadium project that will feature significant renovation to the west side of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The stadium project could carry a price tag of about $200 million, and Carter aims for it to be completed in time for the 2026 season.

The football renovations are part of a master plan for athletics facilities improvements that could total $300 to $350 million.

“This is a transformational-type campaign for us,” Carter said.

Ole Miss linebacker Lakia Henry, left, and defensive back A.J. Finley celebrate during the first half of last November's game against Mississippi State. Both defenders are expected to play big roles for the Rebels this season.

Ole Miss sets sights

Lane is on the brain in Oxford. He’s also in your glass.

The first drink on the cocktail menu at Bouré, a popular restaurant on the square, is the Lane Train. It features bourbon, Cointreau, lemon juice and bitters, with a dash of Rebel pride. A woman who ordered the cocktail on an evening in June insisted it's very good.

“You talk to the fans, and they’re excited,” Carter said. “They feel like we’ve got something here that we can really build on.”

Carter doesn’t shy away from setting lofty expectations for Ole Miss football. He wants to reach the point where a down year means seven or eight victories.

He considers last year's 5-5 record in Kiffin’s debut a good start. The Rebels capped the season by beating Indiana in the Outback Bowl. Meanwhile, Kiffin’s 2021 signing class ranked sixth, the program’s best placement since 2016, in the SEC in the 247Sports composite.

Eighteen offensive and defensive starters return, highlighted by quarterback Matt Corral, a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Defensive improvement is paramount after the Rebels led the SEC in total offense last season but ranked last in total defense.

“Everyone is completely bought in right now,” senior center Ben Brown said. “Guys are excited to be here, excited to play for this brand of Ole Miss football — tough and physical and scoring a lot of points.

“We’re building a lot of momentum right now with our team, and with the recruiting front. Players want to play at Ole Miss right now.”

Brown offered that assessment while seated inside a team meeting room.

Towering off to the side of the room stood a life-sized Kiffin bobblehead, with its arms extended in a touchdown signal. Kiffin fever penetrates every corner of Mississippi.

Our preseason Top 25

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.