Why Lane Kiffin chose to stay at Ole Miss and didn’t take the Auburn job
OXFORD, Miss. — Lane Kiffin’s coffee looks like someone shoveled dirt in a pot and set it to boil. Mysterious clumps float on top. It’s best not wondering what has sunk to the bottom. “It’s some digestive thing that’s supposed to make you lose weight,” Kiffin says, gesturing to the Styrofoam cup atop his desk, unsure if it’s meant to reduce bloat, increase metabolism or both.
Kiffin is committed to living a healthy lifestyle these days, so over the course of an hour-long conversation about everything from his vision for Ole Miss football to how Auburn tried to lure him away last fall to the impact the transfer portal and NIL have had on the sport, he sips the brownish concoction until it’s gone.
“I tried hard this week,” he says. “I was in California on spring break and didn’t work out that much. So I went this morning to hot yoga for the” — he closes his eyes, counting in his head — “ninth time.”
Nine times since Monday, and it’s only Friday afternoon. “Two-a-days,” he says, as if he too is a player in the middle of spring practice. The first class is at 6:15 a.m. It’s 105 degrees and as humid as a sauna inside thanks to a steam machine Kiffin bought the studio out of his own pocket. “A lot of coaches obviously have addictive personalities,” he admits, “so when they do get into something, they go full speed.”
The weight loss is nice, but it’s the mental health boost that Kiffin craves. The workout is so demanding, he says, that he has to shut off his brain to get through it. Thoughts of career paths and roster management and the upcoming season are set aside. There’s only the sound of the instructor’s voice and Kiffin’s own labored breathing.
“How you are on your mat, like your presence, your ability to deal with things and push through, is going to be equivalent to how the rest of your day is going to be,” he says. He fancies himself an outside-the-box thinker, but he realizes this is all a bit much. “Most coaches wouldn’t admit they buy into yogi teachings.”
No, they certainly would not. But then again, most coaches wouldn’t still be here. They would have left when presented with an opportunity to go from a program that has never competed for a national championship during the modern era to one that has competed regularly on the sport’s biggest stage.
Kiffin, who at 47 has already been part of two dynasties and had several stops in between, signed a massive six-year contract extension to stay at Ole Miss. He bought the steam machine soon after turning Auburn down, figuring, “All right, I’m going to be here longer, so let’s get this thing fixed.”
It may look strange and maybe even a little unbelievable from the outside, but Kiffin trusts that Oxford has everything he needs both personally and professionally. He believes he has the tools to build a program that can capitalize on the way college football has changed, the science of assembling a roster becoming more reminiscent of the NFL.
Maybe it would be easier to win elsewhere, maybe even at Auburn with its tradition and vast resources. But he’s fine sweating it out at Ole Miss and doing things differently.
KIFFIN IS BLUNT in his assessment of the Auburn job. Ten years ago, he admits, “I don’t know that decision would’ve gone the same way.”
Back then, he says, he would have seen the opportunity in simplified terms. He would have run the numbers, found that the Tigers’ four head coaches before Bryan Harsin all had teams ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll, and that would have been enough for him to sign on the dotted line.
All four of those coaches were also fired with multiple years left on their deals, but Kiffin says he wasn’t overly influenced by the high rate of turnover. Nor was he swayed by Auburn’s reputation for meddlesome boosters. He believes he could have navigated those murky waters if he had to.
Why not leave Ole Miss? What exactly changed in his thinking and caused him to stay?
Kiffin says he’s in a different place mentally, more mature.
Granted, he still enjoys trolling people on Twitter, but he’s already lived a lifetime in the sport and wisdom was bound to sink in along the way. An offensive wunderkind on Pete Carroll’s USC staffs in the 2000’s, Kiffin’s first head coaching job was in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders, which ended after 1½ seasons with owner Al Davis firing him and then holding a bizarre news conference explaining his decision in excruciating detail. Kiffin then went to Tennessee where he pissed off pretty much the entire SEC, left after one season to replace Carroll at USC, and was let go midway through his third season.
In the 10 years since being fired on a Los Angeles tarmac, he picked up the pieces by joining Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, overhauling the offense and learning how the greatest coach of all time created and maintained a dynasty. They were an oddly fascinating couple, and they had a messy split, but Kiffin’s three years in Tuscaloosa led to him becoming a head coach again at Florida Atlantic, which in turn led to him finding his way back to the SEC at Ole Miss.
It’s been a long road to get back here, to a place where he has options. So instead of looking at one thing and making a decision about whether to go to Auburn, he looked at the situation in totality. He considered those firings and those boosters. Of course he did. But he also had to consider his personal situation. Was he really ready to start over again? Did he really want to tell his daughter, a senior in high school with plans on going to Ole Miss next year, that he was moving again?
And another part of the equation changed: the sport itself. With NIL and the transfer portal at his disposal, did Kiffin really believe Auburn was that much better positioned to win than Ole Miss? Maybe not. He had confidence in the program before, but, he says, “I have more confidence than I would’ve prior to this system.”
Again, he runs the numbers. Careful not to offend anyone, he says the record shows that Ole Miss doesn’t have a history of fielding top-five high school recruiting classes.
“Really,” he says, “it’s only happened once. So because of the portal and the one-time transfer, that helps your ability outside of those programs that you would put in that group that signs top-five classes every year.”
See: Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, etc. Blue bloods.
“Outside of them, this helps because this allows you to have a good year, lose players [to the NFL] and not go like whoosh,” he says, mimicking a nosedive, “because you can plug in players [from the portal].”
To be clear, Kiffin doesn’t love the current structure of NIL and the portal, and how intertwined they’ve become. He calls it like it is: semi-professional sports, albeit with almost no oversight, no salary cap and no contracts to keep players in place. The only limit is your imagination and the strength of your school’s NIL funding.
“The current system, even though I have issues with parts of it and wish it was set up better,” Kiffin says, “I like the current system, especially the one-time transfer, for Ole Miss.”
By going all in on the portal, Kiffin has tried to turn a traditionally developmental program — one that’s capable of competing at a high level in short bursts — into one that minimizes down cycles and strives to get rid of them completely. Instead of waiting on three- and four-star high school recruits to develop, hoping they pan out, Kiffin can go out and sign established players from Power 5 schools.
This offseason, Ole Miss brought in linebackers from Louisville and UCF, an offensive lineman from Washington, a tight end from Memphis, a defensive lineman from NC State and a cornerback from Georgia Tech. Kiffin already had a 2,900-yard passer returning in Jaxson Dart — who transferred from USC a year ago — and still he went into the portal and signed former All Big 12 selection Spencer Sanders from Oklahoma State and former five-star prospect Walker Howard from LSU.
Kiffin used to preach to players about having a “pro mindset” so they would prepare like pros. But now it’s taken on a different meaning, including how they think about roster management.
A few days ago, Kiffin says, he was talking to his coaches about this very thing.
“These coaches sell parents on — especially in the south — come here, it’s family, we’re gonna treat you like family,” he says. “I’m like, ‘No, they’re not.’ If it was family, then why do coaches bring kids in and say, ‘Hey, we want to help you transfer, it’d be better for you to transfer.’? You don’t do that to your family. So the whole family thing, I said, ‘We have to teach some reality that there’s a business side.'”
The quarterback situation is a perfect example, Kiffin says. Because if they can go out and make a position group better, they can’t hesitate. Maybe it appears redundant to have Dart, Sanders and Howard sharing space. All three can’t play at once. But it’s also insurance at the most important position in football.
Kiffin tells players that competition ultimately makes everyone better, and, “Just like the pros, we can’t not sign players based off your feelings.”
“That’s not my job to make you happy,” he says. “My job is to make the best roster for our fans, for our [athletic director], for our chancellor that hired me.”
Jordan Watkins, a former transfer receiver from Louisville, feels for the high school players who are fighting for an opportunity. But, he says, “I would probably prefer the college guy too because of the competitive factor and they’ve been in a college system before.”
If Kiffin was at a place that traditionally recruited high schoolers at a higher level, such as Auburn or Alabama, he might think differently. It’s a challenge to build a roster this way; there’s no such thing as continuity when some players are on campus for only one semester. Watkins says it takes time for a team of transfers to gel. They have to break old habits and form new ones.
But Kiffin enjoys the problem-solving it requires. He has to think ahead: If he signs a transfer at a certain position, how will it impact the rest of the depth chart? Will younger players, sensing their reps are about to be cut, pack up and leave? It’s a high-wire act, balancing immediate needs with long-term stability.
Kiffin doesn’t claim to have the answer when it comes to how many high school recruits he should sign versus transfers. It’s a moving target, he says, but one he’s interested in trying to figure out.
He gestures to a sign outside his office. It has the Oakland A’s logo on it and “MONEYBALL” underneath, a nod to the groundbreaking way former baseball general manager Billy Beane exploited inefficiencies in scouting and changed the sport forever.
Kiffin doesn’t compare himself to Beane, although Beane had a chance to leave for a bigger market and never did. Kiffin’s point is that he and his staff strive to be ahead of the curve.
Another sign nearby puts it differently: “Change the way people think. We don’t think outside the box, we create a new one.”
IT’S NOT SOMETHING he picked up from his neighborhood yogi, granted, but Kiffin wants to talk about a self-help concept he found in the book “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday. To sum it up, Kiffin says, “Things happen that appear to be bad in your life and then really they’re not, and the obstacle was the way to improve.”
Case in point: Auburn came calling and Kiffin says Ole Miss fans saw it as a “distraction” and “probably wish it never happened.” Fine. That’s understandable considering the way the season ended with four straight losses, including to in-state rival Mississippi State. But step back and look at the timeline.
On Oct. 31, Auburn fires Harsin and Kiffin is immediately linked to the opening. Kiffin has already made it known that he believes Ole Miss’ collective is lagging behind those of the rest of the conference, and any coach considering a job should take into account a collective’s funding. Not doing so would be like a general manager in the NFL ignoring a prospective team’s cap space, he says.
The very next day, while Kiffin’s name is appearing on every Auburn candidate board online and in print, Ole Miss’ Grove Collective reports “unprecedented membership traffic.” Their website crashes. Thousands of people join and donate.
A few weeks later, on Nov. 23, the collective announces it has topped $10 million in funding.
That night, before the Mississippi State game, Kiffin tells his team he’s staying.
“So you can look at it and say, all right, there’s something we wish wouldn’t have happened and the whole Auburn thing was a distraction,” Kiffin says. “But you can also look at it and say, if that didn’t happen, what would the collective be? And not just in what we signed in the last portal and recruiting class, but the future? Or, more importantly, keeping our own players.”
Yes, Ole Miss retained Kiffin by giving him a raise to roughly $9 million per year. But its collective also raised the money needed to retain its best players. Tampering, Kiffin says, is happening “nationwide” with players being lured elsewhere with promises of a better situation (read: $).
So add one more date to the post-Auburn vacancy timeline: Dec. 1. Four days before the postseason transfer window opened and eight days after the Grove Collective’s $10 million announcement, running back Quinshon Judkins announces that he’s signed a deal with the collective to “continue my football career here at Ole Miss.” The SEC Freshman of the Year who set the school single-season record for rushing yards (1,567) and rushing touchdowns (16), Judkins was called “a lot” by other schools trying to get him to leave, Kiffin says.
“If you don’t have a good collective, you’re going to lose your own players and then you’re really in trouble,” Kiffin says. “I don’t care, you can pick an all-star coaching staff, if they don’t have a collective, they’re not going to win. So when you find a guy that wasn’t a five-star recruit — Quinshon — and you lose that, you can forget about it. How are you ever going to sign really good players? Because they’re going to say, ‘Wait, your own guy that was there and had all this success, he’s not even going to stay. Why am I going to go there? Why transfer and then when I get there all the good players are going to leave?'”
Or, in the case of the head coach, why stay when you’re worried you can’t retain your best players?
Time will tell whether Ole Miss’ collectives can continue this level of fundraising. Sustainability is a question on the mind of a lot of coaches and athletic directors these days. But for now, Kiffin feels good about the situation. He feels good about where he is and what they’re building for the future.
Ten years ago, he drove home from the airport unemployed. He thought he’d get another head coaching job quickly. Surely, people would remember that he inherited a program on probation, down 30 scholarships. And unlike Miami, which suffered similar penalties and struggled to reach .500, the Trojans were 28-15.
Kiffin understood he might not get a big-time Power 5 job, more likely something along the lines of Conference USA. “Not at all,” he recalls. “I’m not getting any calls.” It was a painful reminder, he says, “because we think differently of ourselves.”
So he went to Alabama and FAU. He didn’t lose faith. But he did gain perspective.
“I always had confidence in myself that I’d be back, but I don’t know that I would have said I’d have an SEC job and having another SEC school talk to me,” Kiffin says. “I don’t know that I would have said that. And I really don’t think there’s any way I would have bet I’d be in Oxford, Mississippi.”
He laughs. It’s actually become part of his sales pitch to players from the West Coast. He knows the idea they have in mind when they picture Ole Miss because he had the same idea himself. So he tells them, just come and visit, and then judge for yourself.
“I went from L.A. to Boca,” he says. “I never would have put Lane Kiffin in Mississippi.”
But this place, he says, is so much better than he thought.
“And I certainly wouldn’t have told you I’d ever been the head coach of the state of Mississippi and choosing to stay.”