Exclusive Q&A: What Lane Kiffin says about Ole Miss future ... and the golf ball from Tennessee
OXFORD, Miss. — Lane Kiffin's coaching career has been an eventful ride with multiple highs and lows. And he's only 47. This ride is far from finished.
One element remains missing: A long-term tenure.
As Kiffin enters his third season at Ole Miss after the Rebels' peak performance of 2021, settling in here for the long haul is an option Kiffin must consider.
During a wide-ranging interview with the USA TODAY Network, Kiffin discussed his Ole Miss future, last year's memorable win at Tennessee (including where he keeps that infamous yellow golf ball), and whether he'd be interested in replacing Nick Saban at Alabama.
Here is a portion of that interview, with questions and answers edited for brevity and clarity.
Does the idea of staying somewhere for a while and sustaining success hold any appeal for you?
This may be surprising, based on what happened. You have a plan for your life, as you grow up, like, ‘This is what I picture.’ And then sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it happens totally opposite.
I remember being on a bus where you land to play Notre Dame, and you drive into South Bend, and I was sitting next to Steve Sarkisian. We were assistants at USC to Pete Carroll. And Sarkisian is a big-city guy.
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I was like, ‘This is awesome, man. Look at the houses. Look at how calm everything is. And the tradition.’ He’s like, ‘What? This looks miserable.’ He’s a city guy.
This is what I always pictured – a job like this. A great football place, a place you can go, stay for a long time, and don’t jump around. That’s what I’d always pictured that I wanted to do. I’m not saying I was going to be Bobby Bowden, but you get a head job young, that’s not a small place where you’re going to move up, but you get one and then that’s where you stay, and you’re there 20 years, or whatever.
Obviously, it didn’t work out. I did not, at all, plan it like this one bit. So, when you ask, would you like to stay at a place? Yeah, I definitely would’ve. That’s actually what I wanted, and I thought the Tennessee one was going to be that place when I took it, because you’re still young, you really haven’t bounced around that much comparable to most coaches, because I had six years in a row at USC as an assistant, which is kind of unusual in this profession.
I was like, OK, this is that type of place – Tennessee. Here’s the really cool town, the people, a football place, the big yard, the young kids. The dream was mine.
Then, I said it right away, that dream job came. Everyone has a different job. That was my dream, as far as being at USC – not the living in L.A. part. But, even though my growing up dream was to find this place like Tennessee, it’s like, OK, USC was the dream job because I had been there. Had I not ever been to USC, I wouldn’t have went.
I had seen it done and how to do it and thought, ‘Hey, we could go there and do the same thing again.’ I’m not saying we would have had the same record as coach (Pete) Carroll, but I’m saying, I do totally believe if it weren’t for the sanctions of 30 scholarship reductions and a two-year bowl ban, which made you lose recruits, obviously, and play short-handed, we would have had a great run there. Or, if that one specific dream job wouldn’t have happened, I would have stayed at Tennessee and had a great run there.
Going back to the scene you described as you rode on the bus into South Bend, some would say Oxford could be that mesh of idyllic town and college football. Have you seen the appeal of Mississippi?
Long-term tradition and Heisman winners, that would be different. When that little dream was painted, that was part of it – being at Notre Dame, the Notre Dame feeling of going there and the history there was part of that conversation Sark and I were having. But, yes, the town part, that feel, yes, is definitely here.
Now, everything has to start somewhere. Not that there hasn’t been great runs here, but there really has not been for a long, long time. Since John Vaught, coach Billy Brewer, a long-term run here hasn’t been done. So, yes, that would be really cool to do.
People may read this and be shocked at the idea of Lane Kiffin as a small-town guy at heart. You went to L.A. You still have a home in Boca Raton, Florida. But, that’s the truth?
That is what I grew up thinking I wanted. College, beginning of coaching, going all the different places to games, and seeing places like when we were at USC and we played at Auburn. Auburn was No. 1 in the country – we won 23-0; they had all those great running backs – and I was like, ‘Whoa. This is crazy, this type of ball. It’s not a big city, but smaller town, but crazy ball.’
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I went to the Swamp for Tennessee at Florida with Layla. We were engaged, and her dad played there, so they took me to a game, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ Nothing like USC.
As cool as USC is for a lot of reasons, the game-day experience is nothing like being in the Swamp or Neyland Stadium or the Grove. So, yes, that’s what I had pictured.
Now, as it went along and living in L.A., and then living in Boca, yeah, you change a little bit. I’m not saying I’m a ‘small-town person’ now and I can’t stand the city. I’m not saying that. That’s just what I’d pictured my career being, because that’s really kind of more where those legendary, long-term jobs where for the most part, where they were phenomenal football type of places.
Last year, a lot of big-name jobs came open. USC, Florida, LSU, on down the line. I think I nominated you for at least two of them, but nobody listens to me. Were you interested? Where they interested? Anybody come calling?
I’m going to do what I normally don’t do at all and give you a normal coach line, coach-speak. (Laughs.)
Which, usually I don’t do.
When you win, those conversations happen. It’s a product of your program and your players. Those things happen. It’s just part of winning. It happened, I’m sure, with a lot of the coaches whose teams performed really well. Then they resigned contracts where they were. A lot of times, that’s because there’s conversations with other places. That’s just kind of par for the course, without too many details.
Very, very frustrating answer, I know.
In the last year, one big-name media personality, ESPN's Michael Wilbon, called you a clown. On the other end of the spectrum, Paul Finebaum has considered you on a shortlist of replacement candidates for Nick Saban, after he retires. There’s varying opinions of everybody, but the variance of opinions surrounding you is broader than for most people. Why do you think that is?
When people say, ‘Does it bother you what people say?’ I’m human, so maybe a little. But I’ve always said, people around the building who have worked for you, what they say about you matters to me. Media that has gotten to know you, that covers you, that gets to know you as a person, when they say things over time, yeah, that’s bothered me. I don’t think you’ll find hardly any of that. Look over time, and players, assistant coaches – which is kind of funny after what just happened last month (with Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban) – and media that covered me that knew me, I don’t think you’ll find very many people there that say a lot of bad things. And that matters more to me, because they’re the ones that know you.
The person saying ‘clown,’ I’ve never met him in my entire life. Have not met him, and actually, probably if I walked by him with people, I wouldn’t have recognized him unless someone pointed him out. So, that doesn’t bother me at all, and I actually think that’s funny. It’s why you see me making funny responses on Twitter. That’s actually comical, to me, to make a judgment on somebody that you don’t even know that way. And, I understand, that’s part of the job that they do. But, to go that far, it was almost like it was personal.
So, you compare that – ‘You’re a clown’ – from a person who has never met you, never covered you, never been around you and doesn’t really, in his profession, communicate with people that have coached with you much – that’s not what he is; he’s a national, do-all-sports job – where, Finebaum, that says what you said, who has gotten to know you, who talks nonstop to people that are around you, that matters more to me. So, I think that’s kind of fitting.
That’s what I would want. I would rather not have people who have never met me and not covered me saying, ‘Man, this guy is god. This guy is the greatest coach ever. He’s unbelievable.’ And then here’s the people that cover me, here’s the people that worked for me, and they’re like, ‘Man, I don’t like this guy. He’s a bad guy, bad person.’ That would matter a lot more to me.
Pat Haden came up with a term when I was at USC. He called it ‘the Kiffin factor.’ He’s like, ‘I just know whatever you say is going to get played, going to get written about.’ And I think it’s come 10 times further now, and I see it sometimes, where I’m like, ‘I wasn’t even relevant to that article.’ My name will be at the top of the article, ‘Kiffin this …’ and then you really read the article, and like, it wasn’t even relevant, what I said, to the point of the article. Or, it should have been maybe like down there at the bottom, one sentence.
I think that’s just been magnified, especially coming back to the SEC, what he called ‘the Kiffin factor.’ It might be good, it might be bad, but whatever gets said, it’s going to be spending, a lot of time, both ways. He used to say, it’s probably going to make the ticker.
There’s a really good and bad to that. The really good is, your program is relevant, especially if you’re a program that has been down when you get hired there, like the last two, where, hey, you need some national attention. People say, ‘What do you mean? You just want to be in the news?’ No, that’s part of recruiting. That’s part of a national fan base when you’re relevant. That’s the really good part of it.
Now, once you’re at a program or when your program gets to where it’s one of those elite, top-10 programs, then it’s not near as important, because you’re already there.
It doesn’t matter what Nick Saban says for recruits to read. You say, ‘Well, Nick Saban doesn’t have Twitter, or Saban doesn’t do this or that.’ Well, he doesn’t need to. When you’re that far up at that place, you don’t have to do that to help.
Like, the dog, Juice, on Twitter. (Points to his dog on the couch.)
Our players joke, he’s got more followers than they do on Twitter, but when you’re here, that’s just another marketing thing. I’m not saying we got the dog for that reason, but it’s become that. My daughter got the dog. It had nothing to do with recruiting. It’s become that, and someone here runs his Twitter.
You don’t run Juice’s Twitter?
I do not. I wish I did, because they’re funnier than me, the person that does.
But, the point is, what people don’t get is, OK, now when a recruit comes or a recruit’s parents, it used to always be, one of the first things they’d always say, whether you’d ever met them or not, ‘We love your Twitter. You’re the best follow. We feel like we know you.’ Well, we still get that. Now, it’s even with him. ‘Where’s Juice? We love watching his Twitter. It’s so funny.’
That’s marketing. That’s recruiting. It’s not being phony. It just is what it is.
How did the 'Portal King' come about – the name itself, and why are you using the portal as much as you are?
I didn’t do the name. Somebody sent me the Tiger King picture with the jacket and my face, and I thought that was really funny. So, that was not my idea.
I looked at the portal itself as really a great thing – really great for us – because Ole Miss is not known for being top five in recruiting every year, so you’re going to have more holes than Alabama, where your whole roster is all these five-stars.
We lost a lot of really good players. We had a lot of holes to fill, so the portal was a really good option that, here, we’re going to use the portal a lot, but especially in a year like that. It allows you to get some older players where we’re filling gaps of recruiting classes when we weren’t here from before.
I analyze every program, which, unfortunately, I’ve been at a lot of them now. When we get here, I thought, 'This is what needs to be done.' And they’re different models. I don’t do cookie cutter. I just don’t think you should do that. If you’re a CEO of a business, you don’t run every business the same way, when one business is in L.A., one is in Boca, one is in Tennessee. You should be structured exactly for what it is.
When I came in here, I’m like, OK, we’ve been down. Ole Miss had a great run here with coach Hugh Freeze, and now it’s been a while, so kids forget. Recruits forget. Recruits, they got about a two- or three-year window of remembering things, and it doesn’t matter once you get out of that what you’ve done.
Obviously, on the field, is the best way. Second-best is all this other stuff. Be cool. Not me, but be a cool program you want to go to. Have swag. Have cool uniforms. Have a unique offense. Have a smoke machine on the sideline. That’s done on purpose. Create a place that people want to come.
I was at USC when Oregon was rolling, and they became the cool place to go. Obviously, there’s other reasons with the Nike money and stuff, but it was the unique offense, the cool uniforms. So, that was a model here, in a different way, that I said, ‘Hey, we need to do here.’
We had a coach, defensive line coach Randall Joyner, talking to a recruit the other day, and he was like, ‘My favorite thing about Coach is, he doesn’t think outside the box. He creates a new box.'
Is it sustainable to keep using the portal like this, year after year?
It’s not ideal. If you are able to sign 25 phenomenal players from high school, be a top-three to top-five class ever year, then you just fill holes. It’s like if you were able to draft phenomenal in the NFL. Everything is looked at with analytics here, and everything now is looked at with the professional model. And it’s all so similar.
You got managing caps. You got draft vs. free agency. If you draft really well, the teams that do, then you don’t need free agency as much. If you don’t, then you need free agency more.
I do think it is sustainable, but it’s not ideal to have to do, because you have culture problems. That’s what no one is thinking about. Everyone just looks on paper. ‘This is your team on paper. This guy was good here. ... Just plug them in.’
“Well, you’ve got a culture aspect. If culture didn’t matter and chemistry didn’t matter, then the NBA playoffs wouldn’t be what they are. Brooklyn would be in the championship. That’s the part that’s tough and I don’t think people talk about with the portal, So, ideally, that’s not what you would do, just like ideally you build through the draft really well and plug in free agency.
They released that 25-man cap of your initial counters for this year and next year. That actually relieves some of the issue about, ‘Is portal sustainable,’ because you could still sign portal guys, and sign a lot of high school guys.
Where is the yellow golf ball?
Right there. (Opens top drawer of desk.)
There it is. (He rolls the ball across the desk to me.)
That’s not on purpose that it’s there, not like I bring it out every day to look at it.
A Strata Super Range ball. Whose idea was it to throw this out for the first pitch before the Tennessee-Ole Miss baseball series?
There were a lot of people, when they said, ‘Hey, you’re throwing out the first pitch. You’ve got to do the golf ball.’ And I was kind of like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t want to take away from the baseball. Is that going to give Tennessee baseball motivation? Like, bulletin board material right before the first pitch?’
So, I talked to coach Mike Bianco. They were all on board.
We talked last summer about what that return to Neyland Stadium was going to be like, and you sort of downplayed it. But someone threw a golf ball at you. It obviously was a big game. In hindsight, can you appreciate that?
During the week, I didn’t really think much of it. When I walked out there – not when we pulled up to the stadium, because I’ve seen the stadium a million times – when I walked out there, it was a different feeling. When I walked out for warmups, it was different. And I’d been there at Alabama.
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This was different, and it got worse. I’ve said it before, the 'Gladiator' thing, the movie, like it really was, 'Whoa, this is getting worse. They’re turning.' They wanted to win. They don’t like you. And it went to, like, they hate you and do not care about anything else but winning.
And when Matt Corral was hurt and they cheered – I mean, like, loud, when he got hurt – and he was laying down, and when he got up, they booed. That’s when you know it turned from already Tennessee bad. Which, there’s good. If you’re there, you love it. It’s passion. You can call it passion. If you’re anywhere else, you call it horrible sportsmanship.
That’s when it turned, like in 'Gladiator,' literally when the guy gives the thumbs up and then he gives the thumbs to kill the guy. That’s what I felt like, like it was a gladiator where the coliseum had one common theme about winning this game, hating this person, hating this team now at this time.
It just got electric, and we couldn’t hear. I had been in the stadium before, at Alabama. I had been in the stadium there vs. Georgia, all those big games when I was there.
It was different. It was, like, loud, loud. Braylon Sanders was literally closer to me than you, and I was trying to yell something to him, and he was just looking at me. He couldn’t hear a thing. It was very unique.
Did you enjoy it?
I really did. I really did enjoy it. It was such a competitive environment, and obviously to win, to overcome how it was. That’s a home-field advantage. It always has been there, especially at night. I say, there and LSU, night games there, those places are electric. The fans are wired differently because they’ve been drinking for 12 hours, not four hours. It was. It was really cool.
Earlier, we were talking about the culture of college football in smaller, college towns. Tuscaloosa is pretty small. Nick Saban will eventually retire. Does that hold any appeal for you?
My dad always would tell me, ‘You want to take good programs, but follow really bad coaches as their last head coach, good programs that are down.’ Not necessarily a horrible coach, but for whatever reason, whether it was the end of them, whatever, it was just down, so then when you come in, everybody is excited. They’re embracing you. They’re not comparing you to the last one, like, ‘Well, we did this before. We did this before.’
Well, I didn’t listen to him very well. I followed two Hall of Fame coaches in Phillip Fulmer and Pete Carroll. Not smart. So, you see how USC ended.
Following Saban would be the dumbest follow ever. What could you possibly do right if you don’t win the national championship every year? ‘You’re going to follow Nick Saban at Alabama?’ No, that would not be a good decision for anyone.
So, it’s Ole Miss for you then?
And this fall, your name will be attached to probably three or four different jobs when they come open. Is that just the reality of being Lane Kiffin and being successful here?
Well, it depends on what your record is that year. (Laughs.) We can be attached to every job, or they can want to fire us from the one that we have. That is the world of sports, but that is football, and that is SEC football, and that is SEC football nowadays. It is faster than ever.
So, why is that golf ball in the top drawer of your desk, if it’s not to look at it?
I don’t even actually know why. There’s actually two others, and I’m not even sure why these two are here, either. I’m not even a golfer, so that’s not by purpose.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.