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Comparing Lane Kiffin’s rebuilding challenge with those of Ole Miss’ past

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Ole Miss has plenty of experiences in rebuilding, so how does the latest version stack up against previous attempts?

Josh McCoy-Ole Miss Athletics

We are nearing the first game of the Lane Kiffin Project Rebuild Experience, which is, to quote our new head coach, “What an exciting time.” Before we begin the competitive portion of this journey, it’s important that we give this rebuild context and compare it to Ole Miss’ rich rebuild history.

Since 1992, when the SEC went to two divisions, the one constant at Ole Miss has been the need to rebuild the football program about every four years.

Yes, about every F O U R Y E A R S.

Starting with the collapse of the Billy Brewer era in 1993 (5-6) and a caretaker season from Joe Lee Dunn* in 1994 (4-7), the birth of the first rebuild in modern SEC history for Ole Miss occurred when Tommy Tuberville was hired in December of ‘94.


That means in the last 26 years, Ole Miss has been a part of six different rebuilding jobs (year hired/fired/left in a rolling pine box):

  • Tommy Tuberville (1994-1998)
  • Ed Orgeron (2004-2007)
  • Houston Nutt (2007-2011)
  • Hugh Freeze (2011-2017)
  • Matt Luke (2017-2019)
  • Lane Kiffin (2019-????)

Before we get into the different circumstances of each rebuild and comparing these projects, it’s important to note that coaches and athletic directors generally define progress in a rebuild as follows:

  • Year 1 - Lose big
  • Year 2 - Lose small
  • Year 3 - Win small
  • Year 4 - Win big

Those aren’t carved in stone, but the idea being that by Years 2 and 3, there should be signs things are getting better, even if it’s just “Hey, not good but not terrible!” If things are not in that direction by Year 3 or 4, COACHING SEARCH SZN AHOY.

With that general outline in mind, let’s compare our multitude of rebuilding projects.

Tommy Tuberville Rebuild

The current candidate for United States senator from Alabama, as well as a proclaimer that, folks, Sharia Law is in all the cities, arrived in Oxford to take on maybe the toughest rebuild since SMU received the death penalty in the late ‘80s.

Thanks to Billy Brewer (RIP Dog) and the bag men not getting their shit together after receiving probation in 1986 and later being apprehended by the NCAA police for the same things again in the early ‘90s, Ole Miss was in NCAA supermax prison when Tuberville was hired.

Behold, the details of Ole Miss’ sentence:

  • Four years of probation
  • Loss of 24 scholarships over two years
  • TV ban for one year (the last school to receive a TV ban!)
  • Two-year bowl ban
  • Reduction in croots’ official visits for two years

Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

In 1995, Tuberville’s first year, he had 55 scholarship players. Stadium capacity was just north of 42,000., and there was no indoor facility. Coach’s offices were in that dumpy building next to the Turner Center and the trailers that used to be behind it.

If it rained on practice afternoons, they had walkthroughs in the Turner Center or in the concourse of Vaught-Hemingway. He faced the full brunt of two decades of neglect from the good ol’ boys in charge of Ole Miss since the 1970s, along with crippling NCAA sanctions.

However, in Tuberville’s time at Ole Miss, the SEC West wasn’t the monster it is today. Alabama, Auburn, and LSU had some good teams, but none were the machines of destruction we’ve seen over the last 10-15 years, and the, ahem, secondary teams were generally average.

It was still a ridiculous uphill climb for Tuberville’s teams, which followed the aforementioned rebuild blueprint pretty closely:

  • Year 1 - 5-6
  • Year 2 - 6-5
  • Year 3 - 8-4 (included a bowl win)
  • Year 4 - 6-5 (bowl invitation)

Year 4 saw a setback due to a first-year starter in Romaro Miller and, because he broke his collarbone the week before the Egg Bowl, any shot at 7-4 wasn’t happening.

I care not for Tuberville, but I will forever die on the hill of had he come back for Year 5, Ole Miss wins the SEC West in 1999 instead of going 7-4 in first year of the slow program death under David Cutcliffe.

Ed Orgeron Rebuild

When the bill came due for David Cutcliffe’s inadequate recruiting and no future NFL quarterback to cover that tab, Orgeron was tasked with rebuilding a program that finished 4-7 in 2004 and was headed in the wrong direction.

While not dealing NCAA sanctions or outdated facilities, the maestro of full tackle-to-the-ground practices during weather delays of actual games lacked talent to compete in the monster the SEC West had become. His biggest issue was that Cutcliffe left him no SEC-caliber starting quarterback, which was a problem he was unable to fix in time to save his job.

To his credit, Orgeron did give us the only good car commercial ever made:

Given his lack of experience at everything but defensive line hollerin’, crooting, and swilling Red Bull, it was always going to be difficult for Orgeron. He didn’t walk into a disaster, but it scored very high of the NOT GREAT, BOB meter.

However, his inexperience and inability to adjust when it was clear his program management and coaching style weren’t working resulted in his doom. As for the blueprint:

  • Year 1 - 3-8
  • Year 2 - 4-8
  • Year 3 - 3-9

Ten total wins and three SEC wins in 24 attempts is a great way to not see Year 4.

BONUS RANT: Love hearing about Ole Miss firing an eventual national championship-winning coach. Ole Miss didn’t fire an eventual national championship-winning head coach. They fired a combative, stubborn, neighbor-fighting maniac whose players hated him because he was an incompetent asshole, who later realized he should do the opposite of everything he did at Ole Miss. LSU and USC fans should be thanking Ole Miss for getting the training run out of the way.

Houston Nutt Rebuild

The man who taught us that “fun” is spelled W-I-N took over a program that was mentally beaten down but not without talent, thanks to Orgeron’s great 2006 recruiting class. Based on my number crunching and this convenient link that would’ve saved me some time had I thought of it earlier, 16 players on the 2008 roster (Nutt’s first season) went on to play in the NFL.

That means Nutt didn’t have the challenge of improving the talent level like Tuberville and Orgeron, but he only needed to provide competent-ish coaching and positive reinforcement to let the talent cook, which meant he was in a position to skip the lose big/lose small steps of a rebuild.

For two years, he did just that, posting back-to-back Cotton Bowl appearances (and wins!) for the first time in 50, FIFTY, I do declare again, 50 years! Orgeron also left him the gift of a functioning SEC quarterback in Jevan Snead (RIP), who was the first quarterback of that ilk since Eli Manning.

However, once the Orgeron-provided talent started to run out, we saw how invested Nutt was in sustaining the rebuild, which was not very much! Jeremiah Masoli transferring to Ole Miss in 2010 delayed the program cratering by a season, which did come to pass in 2011.

For the record, Houston Nutt’s attempt to follow the blueprint:

  • Year 1 - 9-4
  • Year 2 - 9-4
  • Year 3 - 4-8
  • Year 4 - 2-10

The cashing checks laziness it takes to win six games in the last two seasons after winning 18 in the first two is inspirational. Speaking of inspirational, Nutt’s the “Get Us One” speech.

Hugh Freeze Rebuild

Our addicted-to-searching-his-name-on-Twitter former head coach faced a challenge similar to Ed Orgeron’s in terms of talent deficiencies, especially at quarterback, but he also had to fix a team that opted out of 2011 before that was a thing. Practice, games, and going to class were considered optional to a significant portion of the team he inherited.

On top of that, the SEC West was on steady cycles of horse steroids blended with HGH and, for fun, added Texas A&M to the lineup in Freeze’s first year. So, you know, just a few things to worry about.

Unlike Orgeron, Freeze solved his quarterback problem in Year 1 when he convinced Bo Wallace to sign with Ole Miss. On yet another hill I will die, Dr. Bo coming to Oxford is the main reason the Freeze era took off on such a sharp trajectory.

He helped Freeze skip the lose big/lose small steps and get right into win small. If he doesn’t sign, there’s likely no bowl win in Year 1, the younger Nkemdiche, Treadwell, and Tunsil don’t sign, and the Freeze era moves at more of a crawl.

Instead, his era did not follow the traditional path:

  • Year 1 - 7-6
  • Year 2 - 8-5
  • Year 3 - 9-4
  • Year 4 - 10-3
  • Year 5 - 5-7

And by non-traditional, I mean massage parlors in the Tampa area that, while embarrassing, also saved him the embarrassment of going 4-8 in Year 6 and getting fired then.

Matt Luke Rebuild

For this exercise, I’m not counting the 2017 season as part of a rebuild since that was technically an alleged caretaker year, with no expectations other than let’s not be trash. Once Luke was hired to the full-time gig in December of 2017, the clock started.

Compared to the other rebuilds, Luke’s situation was unique in that he got a test drive. Going from caretaker to head coach, he had first-hand knowledge of the talent deficiencies, particularly on defense, which eliminated any sort of learning-about-your-team curve.

He also had a quarterback in Shea Patterson and, as we found out, a second quarterback in Jordan Ta’amu. While the offense had efficiency issues at times (many times), it was a nightmare on defense and nothing short of perfect offense was going to save the day and Matt Luke.

After two uninspiring years, Project Matt Luke was shut down.

  • Year 1 - 5-7
  • Year 2 - 4-8

Long may his squinting at the scoreboard run in Athens.

Lane Kiffin Rebuild

Although not facing a talent deficit as steep as some of his predecessors, Kiffin still inherits a roster that would need, at least, to play at peak performance levels and get multiple breaks to POSSIBLY finish .500 on the 2020 season. Throw in an SEC-only schedule and a PANDEMIC, which cancelled spring practice and hampered crooting efforts, and you can say things are...

[engage voiceover talent for every commercial ever]

...unprecedented during these uncertain times.

Kiffin also faces the question of what does he have at quarterback because we lack enough of a sample size to know if Matt Corral or anyone else on the roster is a capable of producing in the SEC. Kiffin is, as the poets would say, dealing with a lot of shit.

Who knows how things will go this season (if we make it through the season), which, combined with everything mentioned above, is probably enough to give Kiffin a test drive year. Whatever happens, the fact that it’s even happening is...