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Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss Are a Match Made in College Football Heaven

Kiffin was long known as coaching’s poster boy for failing up. In recent years, he’s found legitimate on-field success. What should fans expect now that the Lane Train has returned to the SEC?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This time, it feels like Lane Kiffin has earned it. The new head coach of Ole Miss was greeted in Oxford with a wildly dramatic hype video, a welcome party at the regional airport, and a basketball stadium filled with fans who had gathered on a weekday afternoon just to drink half-priced beer and listen to him speak. Kiffin has never lost a press conference—OK, maybe that one—and Ole Miss has definitely never lost a party.

This sort of rockstar treatment has followed Kiffin almost everywhere he’s gone, regardless of whether his prior performance merited the excitement. At age 29, Kiffin took over as the offensive coordinator for a USC team that had just claimed back-to-back national championships. (The Trojans didn’t win one in either of his two years in the position.) At 31, he was hired by the Oakland Raiders, becoming the youngest head coach in the NFL’s modern era. (He went 5-15 and was fired four games into his second season.) At 33, he was hired as Tennessee’s head coach, with the hopes of bringing the Volunteers back to glory. (He went 7-6 in 2009.) At 34, he abruptly left Tennessee to replace Pete Carroll at USC, with the hopes of bringing that program back to glory. (The Trojans finished 10-2 in 2011, but Kiffin was fired midway through his fourth season in 2013.)

Kiffin’s tenures were always preceded by great fanfare, and were generally followed by disappointment. He was the poster boy for failing up, the prime example of how the coaching profession bills itself as a meritocracy but lets in new blood only if someone is a blood relative of a well-established coach. (Lane, of course, is the son of famed NFL defensive coach Monte Kiffin.)

In the latter half of his career, however, Lane has settled down and built a legitimately impressive coaching résumé while displaying the maturity and stability he lacked when he was younger. After being canned by USC, Kiffin accepted a job at Alabama, where Nick Saban has assembled something of a second-chance center for fired coaches. In Kiffin’s second season as the offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa, Bama won the national title; in his third, it made the national championship game again, but Kiffin left before that contest to take over as the head coach at Florida Atlantic, a school that had gone 3-9 in each of the previous three seasons and hadn’t finished with a winning record in eight years. In Kiffin’s debut FAU campaign in 2017, the Owls captured their first-ever Conference USA crown. In his third, they won the league title yet again.

If all you knew about Kiffin was that he’d served as a successful offensive coordinator at Alabama and then won two conference titles in three years at a previously moribund small school, you’d think that he was a genuinely accomplished up-and-comer. In Kiffin’s first act, he took one of the strangest career paths in the sport, landing in positions he didn’t deserve to be in. In his second, his trajectory has been markedly more conventional. Now he makes sense as an SEC head coach.

Yet since nothing can be that conventional when it comes to Kiffin, his path has led him to Ole Miss, which has gone through a more ridiculous run of coaches than any other program in the sport. The first coach Ole Miss hired this century was Ed Orgeron, who infamously ripped his shirt off in his first team meeting and challenged any of his players to fight him. (Orgeron, incidentally, almost hired Kiffin as his offensive coordinator at Ole Miss in 2004, and later worked under Kiffin at Tennessee and USC. They’ve both changed a lot since!) Orgeron was followed by Houston Nutt, who became the focal point of a recruiting controversy and whose assistants were found to have fixed players’ ACT scores to make them eligible to play. Nutt was supplanted by Hugh Freeze, who was fired for repeatedly calling escort services from his university-issued cellphone while on recruiting visits. (Nutt’s lawyers alerted the university about this when he was suing Ole Miss for defamation.) After Freeze’s ouster, Ole Miss promoted Matt Luke to interim coach and then the full-time gig, from which he was fired two weeks ago after the Rebels lost a game to their archrival largely because a player pretended to be a peeing dog after scoring a critical touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Ole Miss is now counting on Lane Kiffin to steady a situation that seems perpetually out of control. It’s a match made in college football heaven.

In the first decade of his head-coaching career, Lane Kiffin acted like a person who had never been told “no.” He cooked up some of the dumbest ideas any coach has ever had. You know Deflategate? Yeah, Kiffin’s team actually did that, and got caught, although the blame fell to a rogue equipment manager. Kiffin had players switch uniforms during games, which isn’t technically illegal, but is defined as “unethical” in the NCAA rulebook. He had a kicker attempt a 76-yard field goal and got fired two days later.

When he wasn’t hatching harebrained schemes, Kiffin was saying stuff that would get him into hot water. He tried to snitch on Urban Meyer for committing a recruiting violation, which backfired when the thing he described turned out not to be an NCAA violation. (It extra-backfired when Kiffin was found to have committed a handful of NCAA violations himself.) He told Alshon Jeffery he’d spend the rest of his life pumping gas for a living if he went to South Carolina instead of Tennessee; he trash-talked Saban; he banned a reporter from USC’s facility for accurately reporting injury news.

The old Kiffin went through a bad breakup at every stop along his journey. He was fired for cause by the Raiders, with owner Al Davis calling him “a professional liar” and giving a press conference in which he rattled off 45 minutes’ worth of grievances against the coach. (One was that Kiffin repeatedly whined about management’s decision to select JaMarcus Russell with the no. 1 pick in 2007. So Kiffin was right sometimes!) At Tennessee, Kiffin made the unusual decision to talk to the press before leaving—it went poorly—and when he tried to depart the athletic facility, students burned mattresses in the streets, staging a mini riot that forced Kiffin to barricade himself inside the building until the police escorted him out at 4 a.m., when it was finally safe to leave. Kiffin was fired from USC just off an airport tarmac after a loss to Arizona State, and had to watch as the team bus pulled away without him on it. And he left Bama in between rounds of the College Football Playoff, when Saban perceived that Kiffin had already mentally moved on to coaching FAU.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Kiffin’s exit from FAU, then, is that it was completely amicable. Sure, there was the awkwardness of Ole Miss officially announcing Kiffin’s hire mere minutes after the Owls had won the C-USA title game, but that’s just how the coaching profession works. Kiffin didn’t take shots at any opposing coaches in his introductory press conference—in fact, he’s been saying tons of nice things about how Saban helped resurrect his career. If anything, the most ludicrous part about Kiffin’s entrance at Ole Miss was the way people treated him.

When The Ringer profiled Kiffin in 2017, he cracked jokes about his exits at Tennessee and USC and explained that he wouldn’t stop sending trolling tweets about his former employers. But he also spoke about his maturation as a coach and a person, and seemed appreciative of the chance he had to learn from his mistakes and grow. He even argued that his gags and tweets were pragmatic. A tweet might stir up some heat, but it would also “bring attention to this university so that I’m doing a good job for the people that hired me.” The old Lane said and did whatever he felt like; the new Lane does a cost-benefit analysis before uncorking zingers.

And Kiffin was right. Being famous helps. At FAU, he immediately turned things around by landing recruits who otherwise never would’ve considered the Owls. FAU signed the best recruiting class in its conference in two of the three years that Kiffin was in charge. He took over a program whose most notable football accomplishment was producing the hot guy from The Bachelorette and turned it into a national brand.

Of course, Kiffin was a massive fish in a guppy pond at FAU. Ole Miss’s pond, on the other hand, is stocked with sharks. (At best, Ole Miss is a landshark.) In C-USA, Kiffin was the most famous coach with the best recruiting pitch. In the SEC, he will have to compete not only with his former boss in Saban and his former employee in Coach O, but also with Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, Florida’s Dan Mullen, and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.

Early in his career, Kiffin seemed to believe that he could do whatever he wanted and succeed even if he screwed up. For a while, his job trajectory backed that up. Having to adopt a normal career arc seems to have taught Kiffin that there are consequences to the things he does. Kiffin will have to harness the power of being Lane Kiffin to win at Ole Miss, without making the mistakes that ruined all of his early-career stops. I suspect he’ll never stop making headlines—now, though, it’s part of the plan.