It’s official. Ole Miss has hired Lane Kiffin to lead its football program.
After three years under a ceiling of mediocrity, new athletic director Keith Carter made the difficult decision to pull the plug on Matt Luke and start anew. As Rebel nation drifted further away from the program, and support fell stagnant, Carter did what he had to do; create excitement, and reignite passion. Kiffin does just that.
(Before I continue, let me take a moment to break the third wall... I have been openly anti-Kiffin amongst my friends, coworkers, and general community for almost a decade. Both of my parents are alumni of USC, I grew up a Trojan fan and have followed his career since the early 2000s. My hesitation and, at times, outward aversion for Kiffin came primarily as a result of external input and a sour taste, alongside bias and sensationalism. When his name began to circle for the job this past week, I put in the time to measure how his system, his philosophies, and his results would fit specifically with Ole Miss. I watched hours of film, studied the numbers, and considered the future of the program with a clean slate. Ultimately, I was wrong. Lane Kiffin is a good coach, and the right hire.)
Let’s start with one important conversation: a football coach is not always the man in the public image. The stigma around Kiffin is that he is an overrated coach who keeps failing up, bamboozling athletic directors and hierarchies nation-wide into positions he is not qualified for. He is seen by many as the butt of all jokes, and being fired on the tarmac did not help the cause. In some ways, his youth was a learning experience, and there is no denying that. However, if you peel back the curtain, there is more than what meets the eye.
Kiffin, the son of longtime NFL and collegiate defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, has known nothing but football. Growing up with the game, Kiffin played quarterback at Fresno State, but never saw the starting role. He chose to forego his senior season to become a Student Assistant coach under offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who later saw ten years as the head coach at California Berkeley, sniffed the NFL, and currently serves as the coach of a competitive Fresno State program. Not a bad person from which to learn the basics.
From that point forward, Kiffin’s career has been a hectic and unique journey, with three consistent themes at the forefront; mentorship, creativity and results.
Shortly after making a bowl game with Colorado State as a graduate assistant and serving as a quality coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pete Carroll called upon the 26-year-old to become his tight ends coach at Southern California.
Carroll, now heralded as one of the best coaches in college football history (and a Super Bowl champion), took Kiffin under his wing, and quickly gave him the responsibility of wide receivers coach a season later. While under his jurisdiction in both 2002 and 2003, No. 4 and No. 1 Southern California finished both years with two 1,000 yard receivers, and threw for over 7,000 yards combined. His receivers made plays.
Ole Miss did not finish with a single 1,000 yard receiver in 2019.
Kiffin was promoted to passing game coordinator in 2004, and co-offensive coordinator in 2005. Under Steve Sarkisian and Kiffin, the 2005 Southern California offense (considered by many as the best offense in college football history), led by Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and quarterback Matt Leinart, averaged 49 points and 579 yards per game.
To put the astounding numbers in relation to a 2019 game that has changed dramatically over the course of time, top-offense Oklahoma and Lincoln Riley averaged 15 less yards per game this season.
Against Arkansas, a fellow SEC West team, the Trojans scored 28 points on eight plays in under two minutes of possession in the first quarter, and went on to win 70-17.
Beyond out-gaining a modern spread-system, the 2005 Southern California team became the first in NCAA history to have a 3,000 yard passer, two 1,000 yard rushes, and 1,000 yard receiver. A year later, Kiffin made John David Booty into a 3,000 yard passer of his own.
Kiffin will now take the reigns of an offense with speedster quarterback John Rhys Plumlee (and potentially cannon-armed Matt Corral), freakishly athletic running back Jerrion Ealy and downfield rusher Snoop Conner, and a receiving core led by Elijah Moore, Braylon Sanders, Dontario Drummond and Jonathan Mingo. Look out.
As the apprentice of Carroll, Kiffin helped guide the Trojans to a 23-3 record, but had the help of tremendous athletes that he recruited.
One of the biggest knocks for firing Matt Luke was the momentum he had gained on the recruiting trail, as Ole Miss held a top-25 class for 2020, despite the consecutive losing records. Today, it sits at No. 37 after a flurry of de-commitments over the last week.
Not to worry, getting top talent to play for his program is what Kiffin does best. In addition to his offensive coordinator duties, Kiffin spent three years in charge of recruiting for Southern California. Each year, the Trojans had the top-ranked class in college football.
Doubters might say that pitching the best team of the 2000s is an easy sell, but the story of Kiffin does not stop there.
After his offensive success in Los Angeles, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis hired the then 31-year-old to be the youngest head coach in the modern NFL era. Though he was unable to turn around a bottom-dwelling team and was fired shortly into his second season, Kiffin received valuable experience on the highest level.
The most relevant storyline to his upcoming position at Ole Miss, from his time on the bright side of the Bay, came with his talent evaluation and willingness to stick to his truth.
Ignoring all direction from scouts and Davis, Kiffin adamantly expressed his opposition to drafting JaMarcus Russell with the first pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Ownership ignored Kiffin’s reservations and selected the former LSU quarterback anyway. Russell is now considered one of, if not the, biggest bust in NFL history.
Kiffin, who is not afraid to voice his opinion and challenge the status quo, will join Carter, a fresh-minded athletic director willing to make bold decisions, to execute a vision of national relevance and wins.
That vision shined quickly at his next stop, Tennessee.
Kiffin took a 5-7 team in 2008 and won seven games in 2009. If he can take a team led by Jonathan Crompton (exactly, who?) to a bowl game and increase the offensive output by more than 50 percent, imagine what he can do with the rising sophomore offense in Oxford, where Plumlee and Corral are better equipped to win games.
His time in Knoxville was short-lived, and he infuriated the fanbase by returning to Southern California after just one season to replace Carroll (who left for the Seahawks) at head coach. The man knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to step on any toes to get there, an attitude that has gone by the wayside of late at Ole Miss. No more chicken shit.
Inheriting a program in limbo over an NCAA investigation, Kiffin ran his signature pro-style offense to 18 win in his first two seasons.
Something all too familiar to Ole Miss, the downfall of sanctions hit heavy and a loss of scholarships and a postseason ban diminished recruiting and ravished momentum in 2012. The Trojans went 6-6 in the regular season, much like Luke and the Rebels in 2017.
Southern California chose to move on after Kiffin lost his first two conference games in 2013, but can you blame them? This is a similar scenario to the one that played out in Oxford and ultimately led to Kiffin’s hiring. New beginnings after hardship.
Soon after his abrupt dismissal, Kiffin returned to the SEC and became the offensive coordinator at Alabama. In his first season with the Tide, in the best division in football (of which Ole Miss is a part, obviously), he was a finalist for the Broyles award, given to college football’s top assistant coach. Clearly he was doing something right.
Notably, (after working previously with the best coach of the 2000s) he worked alongside the best coach of this decade to reshape an offense that was being left behind as the game evolved around it, without wavering from his fairly balanced pro-style system.
The wrinkle, however, came with speed. After averaging 64 snaps per game before Kiffin took over, it averaged 73 a year later. In 2014, one-loss (to Ole Miss) Alabama scored 36.9 points per game and Kiffin morphed Blake Sims, a former backup running back, into the quarterback for a national championship run. Though it didn’t win, the program’s dominance didn’t skip a beat with a new identity at offensive coordinator.
More impressively, when talent like Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon moved on, one-loss (to Ole Miss again) Alabama and 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry won the national championship with Jake Coker under center.
Certainly, considering the current Rebel backfield to be equivalent to Henry would be a significant reach, but for a team that rode the run game to a national title game, Alabama’s 15-game rushing yardage total in 2015 fell short of Ole Miss’ 12-game rushing yardage total in 2019. And certainly, if you consider Plumee and Corral as one quarterback, its product is better than Coker.
Now, to draw comparison between the two rosters would be foolish, but the ideation that Kiffin will have equal, if not more weapons at his disposal next season is not as far-fetched as it may seem.
As is all too familiar, Alabama’s reign of terror would continue in 2016, while Kiffin continued to evolve his offense, all the while receiving guidance and instruction from Saban.
It can not be stressed enough... Kiffin coached under Tedford, Sunny Lubick, Tom Coughlin, Carroll, and Saban. He has been molded by the best, made mistakes on the highest level, and evolved along the way.
His legacy in Tuscaloosa is not insignificant.
It's worth taking an updated look at Lane Kiffin's impact on Alabama's offense pic.twitter.com/0nnMGmlHwv— Saturday Down South (@SDS) January 3, 2017
He is ready to win at the top, and that growth and preparation has been exemplified while he led Florida Atlantic University to new heights, after he took the head coaching job in 2017.
From 2010 to 2016, FAU won a total of 23 games, and had three winning seasons in its program history. Since Kiffin took over in 2017, the Owls have won 25 games. During the three-year run, the team has averaged 35 points per game, a number that would have won nine games at Ole Miss in 2019.
The way in which his offense runs is more notable, which saw current Buffalo Bill rookie Devin Singletary break all sorts of team records and lead the nation in rushing touchdowns.
Here, the slot receiver takes the handoff on a sweep, following the running back and dual-receiver set into the end zone. At Ole Miss, the lead blocker could be Conner, the ballcarrier could be Ealy, and the quarterback could be Plumlee, who has the option to keep it himself.
Lane Kiffin has a fun offense to watch at FAU. Here's a jet sweep variation that is a staple in their O.— Brady Grayvold (@CoachGrayvold) February 5, 2018
Jet Sweep with the RB leading on the edge. Slot WR does a GREAT job of not blocking the DB in the back. Don't complicate a mistake by making another mistake!#All22Daily pic.twitter.com/1VxOLfM6lR
In this instance, a fake double reverse goes for chunk yardage.
On the next play, Kiffin ran a true double reverse, but added a deeper wrinkle with a throw-back that went for six.
With the athleticism on Ole Miss’ 2020 roster, the options are endless. If both quarterbacks stay in Oxford, Kiffin could run a two-quarterback system, and go buck-wild. Even if Corral chooses to move on, Plumlee could line-up anywhere on the field, motion could create chaos before the snap, and getting the best athletes on the field at the same time is a realistic scenario, which it was not with Luke. His offense is explosive, and it works.
On the field, Ole Miss is in good hands. Outside of the gridiron, it should be excited.
Kiffin doesn’t take crap from anyone, and isn’t afraid to have a little bit of fun.
During one booster meeting at Tennessee, Kiffin spoke openly about an experience where Urban Meyer called a recruit while he was on campus in Knoxville, which goes against recruiting protocol.
”I love the fact that Urban Meyer had to cheat and still didn’t get him,” Kiffin said.
The off-field antics do not stop there, and are worth a google, but his honesty and chippiness is a refreshing outlook for a program previously run by a phony bible-thumper, and a coach who was often quiet when the moment called for voice.
And his twitter game is strong.
He continues to poke fun at his former, and now current, conference foes, with whom he beat at Alabama:
Odds Lane Kiffin gets fined for this tweet ... pic.twitter.com/zo31jLJe0M— Odds Shark (@OddsShark) October 20, 2019
And he isn’t afraid to laugh at himself:
All in all, Carter made the right hire for a program needing a culture change.
Kiffin comes to Ole Miss with an offense that will use the rising sophomore class in unique and original ways, prior success in the SEC West, and experience under the best in the business. His ceiling is the top, but for a program with an understanding of realistic expectations, consistent bowl appearances is the minimum, and Kiffin should get there right away.
In a time where a hurting fanbase needs something new and exciting to grasp onto, the light is emerging from the tunnel. The Lane Train is coming. Get on board.