Why Lane Kiffin is one of Ole Miss football's biggest assets in the race for NIL superiority
OXFORD — If the NCAA and the Ole Miss compliance department would allow it, Walker Jones suspects Lane Kiffin would be prowling the sidelines on Saturdays wearing The Grove Collective branded merchandise.
Jones, a former Rebels linebacker, serves as the executive director for the name, image and likeness collective, overseeing an organization designed to distribute NIL support, education and – most importantly – funding to the 71 Rebels currently under contract. In doing so, The Grove Collective helps keep Ole Miss competitive on the field, spearheading efforts in the ever-accelerating NIL arms race.
Many coaches across the country have balked at what the NIL landscape has become. Not Kiffin. In fact, Jones said, Kiffin was made for this.
"People forget he was a head coach in the NFL," Jones said Monday. "He grew up watching his dad coach many years in the NFL. So he's got that NFL mindset, kind of free agency, roster management, how to rebuild your roster from year to year. That's really what his mindset is. I think the traditional recruiting model probably wasn't always Lane's strength. I think this new world of how recruiting is now impacted by NIL plays to his strengths. It's not traditional anymore."
Indeed, the way Kiffin assembled the Rebels' (8-2, 4-2 SEC) roster that heads to Fayetteville for a clash with Arkansas (5-5, 2-4) this Saturday (6:30 p.m., SEC Network) has been anything but traditional. Seventeen Division I transfers landed in Oxford last offseason. Ten of them are under contract with The Grove Collective.
That traditionalism now finds itself in the shadow of brand consciousness and marketing sense. Marketers and agents hawk their services to college students who weren't previously permitted to hire them. Recruiting sites use social media values to attach a dollar sign to a player's NIL worth.
As Jones points out, few college football coaches know how to build a brand better than Kiffin, whose Twitter account is full of memes, jokes and the occasional Taylor Swift hot take.
"(He's) a guy that has figured out a way to build a brand, kind of off the field so to speak," Jones said. "Look, he turned his dog into the unofficial mascot."
The Grove Collective has since signed Juice Kiffin, who has more than 50,000 followers between Instagram and Twitter, to a contract.
"I'm like, man, I'm doing everything I can to build our brand, I'll sign the dog," Jones said with a chuckle.
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Kiffin also engages in other social media activity that is uncommon among his peers.
His account often retweets recruits when they receive an Ole Miss scholarship offer or make a trip to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, exposing them to his 586,800 followers – many of them Rebels fans eager to engage. In modern college football, engagement can equate to profit.
Last week, Kiffin's Instagram profile posted a collaborative video with quarterback Jaxson Dart, using a relatively new feature that put Dart's profile on Kiffin's followers' feeds.
"Sometimes there's a lot of thought, sometimes there's not very much thought to my social media, as you can kind of figure out," Kiffin said this week. "It just kind of depends. But obviously we always want to help the players in NIL situations and enhancing their brand so they can maximize what they can get."
Jones described the general status of The Grove Collective's efforts as "ahead of schedule." The collective, which operates on a tiered subscription model, offers exclusive content and opportunities to interact in exchange for a monthly or yearly fee.
It is hovering around 3,500 subscribers, Jones said, and is pushing to hit 5,000 by December, according to The Grove Collective website.
The experience for Jones has been strikingly similar to getting a startup off the ground. He explained that The Grove Collective harbors roughly half the membership that the Ole Miss Athletic Foundation does. Its workforce is much smaller, though. The collective has two full-time employees; Jones is looking to add a third soon. For now, everyone involved has to do a little bit of everything to ensure all requirements are met.
The Grove Collective's message is plastered all over social media, and is a common sight on screen at Ole Miss athletic events. The official Ole Miss Athletics Twitter account posted an advertisement for the collective Tuesday night, urging fans to contribute.
Jones said he's encountered a community and administration that have been receptive to his efforts. Crucially, he's got a head football coach that adds value, too.
"I think it's probably one of our biggest advantages, if not our biggest," Jones said.
David Eckert covers Ole Miss for the Clarion Ledger. Email him at email@example.com or reach him on Twitter @davideckert98.