Lane Kiffin is all grown up, or at least, it certainly seems that way. Kiffin is still playful and clever in his social media posts and in public settings, but while there will always be a goofy and light side to Kiffin, the substance of the coach has grown considerably, and people notice it.
By Matt Zemek
Kiffin finally took the path he needed to take for the growth of his career, and sure enough, he has benefited from a short stay in college football’s salt mines.
Kiffin was handed everything on a silver platter at a very early age. He was given the Oakland Raiders’ head coaching job before he turned 32, before he had been a head coach at the collegiate level. Kiffin then got the Tennessee Volunteers’ head coaching job a few short years later, even though his Raider test drive ended miserably. Kiffin then went to USC and flopped. He kept failing upward, getting one premium head coaching job after another, without following the path most coaches need to take on the road to the heights of their profession.
Studying the game under Nick Saban’s watchful eye at Alabama was one of the smarter moves Kiffin made. He didn’t have the responsibilities of a head coach and could absorb the details of program management from a master. He was able to get a taste – one decade after his learning tour under Peter Carroll at USC – of how to handle the daily duties of the big chief. That was a forward step for him.
But one thing remained: He needed to coach outside the spotlight. He needed to get real-world experience at leading a program.
He needed to coach at a school such as Florida Atlantic.
It could have been Western Kentucky or Appalachian State or Louisiana Tech. The main point was that Kiffin needed to learn how to be a head coach. Tennessee and USC are not training grounds, since winning instantly and decisively is expected in each of those places. FAU, in an under-the-radar Group of Five conference, finally represented the kind of job Kiffin should have taken 15 years earlier. His career might not have been sidetracked to the extent it was. He might have grown into the role of a head coach far more quickly and smoothly.
At the very least, however, Kiffin finally did some learning on the job at FAU. When he took the Ole Miss job, there was still some natural skepticism about his ability to ultimately get things right, but people in the industry at least appreciated that Kiffin had finally humbled himself and was coming into an SEC job after having paid some dues.
Now that Kiffin has clearly succeeded at Ole Miss, people aren’t surprised. They see the work Kiffin has put into the job. They see the changes in attitude. They see the increased preparation and the decrease in off-field antics which sabotaged him at both Tennessee and USC. This doesn’t mean Kiffin isn’t playful or lacks a sense of humor; it means that Kiffin is a whole person now, someone who – through trial and error, through a hard knocks school in which he has had to learn the hard way – has integrated a love of competition with a student’s eye for preparation and its details.
The fact that Ole Miss succeeded last year – earning a Sugar Bowl berth and vaulting quarterback Matt Corral into the Heisman Trophy conversation – is not that much of a surprise. Lane Kiffin clearly evolved into a well-rounded coach who didn’t cut corners anymore and applied his years of learning in the profession. What is more surprising is that as a result of Kiffin’s attention to detail, Ole Miss won games with its defense as much as with its offense, if not more so.
Sure, the 52-51 win over Arkansas was an offense-driven win, but other crucial Ole Miss victories from 2021 were claimed mostly by the defense: over Tennessee in Knoxville, over Texas A&M, over LSU, over Liberty, and over Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.
Whereas Tennessee had the best non-Alabama, non-Georgia offense in the 2021 SEC, averaging 39 points per game, Ole Miss averaged under 34, and that includes early-season blowouts of non-SEC teams: Louisville, Austin Peay, and Tulane. Ole Miss averaged over 52 points in those three games. In their other 10 games from the past season, the Rebels averaged a modest 28 points.
Translated: This was not a team which won primarily with its offense. Ole Miss’s defense allowed more than 26 points just three times.
This is a Lane Kiffin-coached team? That’s the true surprise: not that the Rebels won a lot, but that they led with their defense, a group which allowed under 25 points per game in 2021, a superb achievement. This is the growth Lane Kiffin made: not only in his attention to detail, but in his internal understanding that while a freewheeling offense can convey its share of advantages, being physical and resourceful on defense is so much more important.
Now, as Ole Miss turns the page to 2022, Matt Corral is gone. The defense will have to be great again… and because of last year’s success story, the idea that the Rebels can win with defense is not unreasonable.
Yes, the quarterback battle between Luke Altmyer and USC transfer Jaxson Dart will be compelling and important. That is certainly a subplot to watch in the Rebels’ progression through August camp. However, while the quarterback competition will gain a lot of attention, the real key for the Rebels is to retain the defensive edge they established in 2021. The new Lane Kiffin, now understanding of the full job description of a head coach, has proved to everyone – himself included – that all details matter and nothing deserves to be ignored or excluded.
With this sharper, better Kiffin in charge, Ole Miss can realistically pursue high-level success on an annual basis.