Welcome to The Lane Show, where lower expectations (for once) might be exactly what he and Ole Miss need
At age 45, Lane Kiffin has been around the world and back.
His résumé is that of a coach 20 years his senior. By the time he turned 40, Kiffin had already been a Power 5 head coach at 2 traditional powerhouses, and he (infamously) landed an NFL head coaching job. All 3 jobs were met with sky-high expectations, and all 3 ended with a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth.
The 2 positions that Kiffin had since obviously had different endings. His exit at Florida Atlantic was a bit more conventional than how he left his post as Alabama offensive coordinator. But the common denominator was that Kiffin entered with somewhat tempered expectations — we’re talking external expectations — and he exceeded them (anyone questioning Kiffin’s work at Alabama is probably forgetting that he helped Alabama earn 3 Playoff berths and win 3 SEC titles with 3 quarterbacks).
Dare I say, that might just be exactly what The Lane Show needs to have a long, successful run at Ole Miss.
Kiffin has never entered a situation like this as a Power 5 head coach. That is, this is the first time he took over at a place without yearly championship-level expectations. Ole Miss, of course, has never been to Atlanta for an SEC Championship. Kiffin wasn’t even born when the program last won an SEC Championship in 1963. At this stage of his career/life, it’s not crazy to think that Kiffin and Ole Miss are a perfect match.
There’s no longer the lure of that big-time job tempting Kiffin like there was at Tennessee, and if he’s given time by fans who should have at least some level of patience, this could work.
Consider that a way of saying, no, don’t expect Kiffin to compete for a division title anytime soon. That’s not what he was brought to Ole Miss to do. The program with the SEC’s longest postseason drought should be well aware of that. With all due respect to Matt Luke, Kiffin is finally at Power 5 program where he doesn’t have to replace a legend like Pete Carroll or Phillip Fulmer. Replacing “the guy” is rarely taken in stride, especially for someone with Kiffin’s bravado.
By the time Kiffin left FAU, he was “the guy” (good luck to Willie Taggart). FAU, which has been playing football since 2001, has 3 seasons of 11 wins — and 2 of those belong to Kiffin. He took over a program that hadn’t been to a bowl game in 8 years, which is twice as long as it’s been at Ole Miss.
Obviously, there were no LSUs or Alabamas in Conference-USA. Kiffin learned from his Tennessee mistake of taking aim at 2-time national champion Urban Meyer before he ever coached a game in the SEC.
Now Kiffin’s version of “going after a rival coach” is telling Mike Leach how to wear his mask on Twitter.
Needless to say, times have changed.
Kiffin’s jabs don’t seem nearly as cutthroat because, well, they’re not. That’s not to say he’s not serious about turning Ole Miss into a winner, but there’s something to be said for being aware of the history of a program before declarations are made. Joe Moorhead admittedly learned that the hard way at Mississippi State when he made his infamous comment about players “learning their ring sizes” upon arrival in Starkville.
OK, well, there was this comment. But in Kiffin’s defense, this was in response to the made-up NCAA Football 2014 video game character, Coach Duggs:
— Lane Kiffin (@Lane_Kiffin) June 3, 2020
(Notice he didn’t say “2020.”)
There’s something about a comment like that which comes off as playful. It doesn’t come off as an entitled from an up-and-comer who hasn’t really accomplished anything. At least that’s how I took it.
This is the type of entertainment that Kiffin is going to provide while he tries to raise the bar at Ole Miss:
Free website pic.twitter.com/QZq2ykpSQr
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) January 10, 2020
If we’ve learned anything from his first few months on the job, Kiffin is going to be much more of the FAU version of himself than the Tennessee or USC versions. Good. The former worked better than the latter. Did it only happen because Kiffin had basement-level expectations as the 80th highest-paid coach in America? Maybe.
Last year, 9 SEC coaches (and 31 in FBS) made more than the $3.9 million that Kiffin will earn in Year 1 in Oxford. He was a splashy hire, sure, but Kiffin doesn’t appear to be motivated by money or rising through the coaching ranks like he once was. Just showing himself and the world that he can be a good coach has been at the root of his decisions post-USC.
How do we know that? Easy. Kiffin could have easily made more as a coordinator the past 3 years instead of taking a Group of 5 job that maxed out at $1.4 million annually. And when he decided to leave, he didn’t hold out for some $5 million a year contract even though he was as splashy a hire as there was with perhaps the exception of his new in-state counterpart Leach … who will now make $5 million annually.
As cliché as this sounds, this does really feel like Kiffin is completely motivated to build up a Power 5 program and not be associated with undelivered promises. The 2020 version of Kiffin checks his ego at the door and embraces analytics to make big in-game decisions:
Ole Miss fans gets ready to embrace analytics in the Lane Kiffin era. Kiffin will use a company that’ll provide weekly reports that’ll help him make in game decisions based on data.
No more conservative football. Kiffin told reporters today: “get ready to rip me.” pic.twitter.com/mze51CGw8F
— Sudu Upadhyay (@SuduUpadhyay) December 10, 2019
Those are the type of things a coach can do when he knows every decision isn’t going to make or break a conference title. If a decision is unpopular and it fails, Kiffin will still live to fight another day. Consider that all the more reason to be aggressive, which seems like an easy thing to rally behind.
So what does all of this add up to for the immediate future at Ole Miss?
As much of a gauntlet as that division is, Ole Miss is set up well to improve from 4 wins a year ago. For my money, there wasn’t a better, more entertaining 4-win team in America last year. Losing 5 games by 1 score skewed that final record in the wrong direction. That offense, which was the least-experienced unit in America entering last year, is now No. 23 in percentage of returning production. Between John Rhys Plumlee, Elijah Moore and Jerrion Ealy, there are plenty of weapons for Kiffin to work with.
Ole Miss will be more balanced this year. Kiffin’s offenses always fit that description.
The issues are on defense. A veteran group that improved immensely under 2019 defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre has major questions to answer, especially in a division that returns a bevy of proven offensive skill players and now has the aforementioned Leach. I’d fully expect Ole Miss’ defense to limit the upside of this program in the near future, but even that won’t fully fall on Kiffin.
Kiffin has the ability to make Ole Miss annually relevant, and not in a way that’s destined to land the program NCAA sanctions. Maybe that means eventually becoming an 8-9 win team that can provide a house of horrors for visiting national title contenders. In a given year when all the pieces click, perhaps that includes staying in the division title race into November. All of that is to be determined.
In the meantime, enjoy The Lane Show. It seems like this will be its most enjoyable episode yet.
Photo credit: Ole Miss Football on Twitter