#ItMightMeanTooMuch: Why Lane Kiffin's arrival in Oxford tells a perfect SEC story
Lane Kiffin was an SEC head coach for as many games this decade as you were.
Zero. Zilch. Nada.
However, 10 years after he left Tennessee in one of the most bizarre exits we’ve seen in college football — picture how 2019 Twitter would react to a coach calling recruits on a university-issued cell phone to follow him to his next job after being there for 1 season — Kiffin made his oh-so-public return to the SEC.
Everything about The Lane Train rolling into Oxford was peak-SEC.
I’ve often thought about how I’d explain Kiffin’s story to someone who didn’t consume a single piece of college football content the past 10 years. I’ll give it my best shot.
Kiffin is like your crazy uncle who shows up to every family function, raises some eyebrows with his behavior and then every time he leaves, he runs over the mailbox backing out of the driveway. But even though you know he’s far from perfect, you still love your uncle. After all, he’s family. And after all, Kiffin is still one of the sport’s best offensive minds.
For all the bizarre exits Kiffin has had in his career — the sudden Tennessee-to-USC departure, getting left on the tarmac after getting fired at USC, getting shown the door at Alabama just before the 2016 National Championship Game — his welcome to Ole Miss was just as noteworthy.
Of course there were roughly a thousand people awaiting Kiffin’s plane on a Sunday night. And of course he stepped off the plane like a politician surrounded by his supporters:
We got @Lane_Kiffin out here kissing babies @RedCupRebellion pic.twitter.com/EOAI3FSTi6
— Ryan Hummer (@RyanHummer11) December 8, 2019
Kiffin, despite all the drama that followed him, doesn’t feel like a hot-button debate for Ole Miss fans. Is there some fear that he’ll revert to his “Joey Freshwater” persona that got him in trouble at Alabama? Probably, but a 3-year buffer between then and Kiffin’s time at FAU certainly mitigated some of the risk. At least as it relates to the court of public opinion.
Players felt that Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter listened too much to the court of public opinion when Matt Luke was fired exactly 1 week before Kiffin’s arrival. In a Clarion-Ledger story that came out after Luke’s firing, an Ole Miss player was quoted as saying that roughly “half the team” was prepared to transfer.
In stepped Kiffin, and out went the talk of a team divided. And while the fan base didn’t necessarily seem divided evenly on Luke — there were still some who wanted to see him get another year to keep the staff in place — it feels close to unanimous that Kiffin was a home-run hire.
By “feel,” I’m basing that on the thousands of people who showed up to The Pavilion in the middle of a Monday to watch someone take over a 4-win team:
#RebelNation loud and proud pic.twitter.com/BrcHBB0Fpn
— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) December 9, 2019
I can’t stress that enough. That’s a 4-win team. Shoot, that’s a team that hasn’t been to the postseason in 4 years.
This is why the SEC is different. You think Kiffin gets that kind of reception at Virginia? You think Iowa State fans create what looks like a Friday night pep rally? You think Michigan State fans drop everything to see an introductory press conference like that?
I sure as heck don’t. And look, I get it. There are a handful of non-SEC programs who could have that kind of reception after such a lousy stretch (see “Nebraska: Frost, Scott”). Some people would say “well, they showed up like that because they’re desperate.” Or “they had nothing better to do in Oxford.”
I can confirm from personal experience that there are definitely other things to do in Oxford than show up at a basketball stadium for an introductory press conference. That argument falls flat. Also, who cares if Ole Miss fans are desperate? There are tons of desperate fanbases who wouldn’t have given Kiffin that kind of welcome.
And credit to Ole Miss for incentivizing locals to play hooky for a couple hours:
Ole Miss serving half-priced beer to fans for Lane Kiffin’s introductory press conference is incredible. https://t.co/ovIskZpsqy
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) December 9, 2019
Now that’s SEC.
When we talk about “splashy” hires, that’s about as splashy as it gets. No, that wasn’t a Landshark Tony joke.
Because of who Kiffin has been for the last 10 years, he was a household name for college football fans. His exits were more memorable than anything he’s done as a head coach.
He knows that. He knows that we all know that, too.
“A lot different than another tarmac experience that I had.”@Lane_Kiffin is back 😂😂 pic.twitter.com/fSuPoKnNH6
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) December 9, 2019
OK, no matter who you root for, we can all agree — Kiffin back in the SEC is going to be all sorts of fun.
Don’t get me wrong. The Boca Raton version of Kiffin was fun, too. He could joke on Twitter about point-shaving and troll Nick Saban by tweeting photoshopped images of him wearing ripped jeans. Few coaches have been able to rebuild their reputations the way Kiffin has. Few coaches can fail twice at big-time programs — albeit for different reasons — only to be the obvious, home-run hire at an SEC school 6 years later.
We could be heading down a similar path with Hugh Freeze, who was part of a recruiting scandal and an escort service scandal. If he keeps winning at Liberty, though, you can bet the SEC fans clamoring for Freeze to take over their respective teams will only get louder.
The SEC chews coaches up and spits them out, but it’ll also make room at the table for someone who wins. Ultimately, that’s what fans in the SEC care about. As long as Kiffin gets Ole Miss to relevancy in the SEC West, it’s going to be extremely difficult for him to lose public favor.
It’s funny because it seemed like ever since Kiffin left Alabama for the head gig FAU — and got ushered out the door by Saban — the debate has been when and what will bring him back to the SEC. And what would it look like? It wouldn’t have felt right if Kiffin was greeted with anything less than what he got from the Ole Miss faithful earlier this week.
Just before he stepped off the plane in Oxford and to meet the masses, reality sunk in.
“It was like one of those movies where you look out and the aliens are closing in on you,” Kiffin said to ESPN on Sunday night. “But I love it. There’s nothing like the SEC, not even close.”
Amen to that.