Kiffin, in this memory he’s sharing, is Southern Cal’s 28-year-old assistant under coach Pete Carroll, and he’s viewing his childhood dream from the bus window on a fall day 19 years ago.
Kiffin sees an idyllic setting and a college football mecca.
A coach could plant roots and build a career in a place like this, Kiffin thought.
“This,” Kiffin remembers telling then-USC assistant Steve Sarkisian, “is awesome, man. Look at the houses. Look at how calm everything is. And the tradition.”
Sarkisian, Kiffin says, didn’t share this affinity.
“This,” Sarkisian responded, as Kiffin tells it, “looks miserable.”
Sarkisian prefers big-city life, Kiffin explains. But Monte Kiffin’s well-traveled son, born in Lincoln, Nebraska, says he grew up wanting a scene like the one he saw from that bus window.
Kiffin, 47, is entering his third season as Ole Miss’ coach. He tells me this story while we sit inside his office after I ask whether settling in with the Rebels for the long haul appeals to him.
Kiffin forged a reputation for being a job-hopper by spurning Tennessee after one season to replace Carroll at USC. Ole Miss marks Kiffin’s fifth head coaching job, either in college or the NFL. Combine Kiffin’s past with his success at Ole Miss, and his name will remain ubiquitous in college football’s annual coaching carousel.
How much interest did Kiffin field last fall, when marquee jobs opened at USC, LSU, Florida and Miami? This is a rare topic where he shifts into coach-speak.
“When you win, those conversations happen,” Kiffin answers. “It’s a product of your program and your players. Those things happen. It’s just part of winning.”
And yet, here Kiffin remains, Year 3 in a program where he raised the bar to a level few expected this early in his tenure. The Rebels’ 10 victories last season matched a program record. And while they lost a lot of firepower, including star quarterback Matt Corral, Ole Miss reloaded with talented transfers.
Kiffin has never lasted four full seasons at any of his previous stops, either because he left for another job or his employer fired him.
When I point this out, he offers no pledge of allegiance – coaches’ vows of loyalty are worthless, anyway – but says Ole Miss isn’t so different from his original coaching dream.
“This is what I always pictured – a job like this,” Kiffin says. “A great football place, a place you can go there, stay for a long time, and don’t jump around. That’s what I’d always pictured that I wanted.”
Fresh off a Sugar Bowl appearance, the Rebels hope this is indeed what Kiffin desires.
“Can we keep him for the next 20 years? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not, but I think we feel like we have a good thing with him,” Ole Miss athletics director Keith Carter says, “and, honestly, I think he feels like he’s got a good thing here.”
In Kiffin’s second act as an SEC coach, he’s displayed growth, maturity and an ever-brilliant mind for offense. He’s proven he can win in college football’s most rugged division.
Ole Miss has enjoyed flashes of excellence throughout its history, but sustained success has proved beyond the program’s reach since John Vaught was coach, years before Kiffin was born.
With Kiffin here, Ole Miss has an opportunity to achieve prolonged prominence.
“That,” Kiffin said, “would be really cool to do.”
How Southern Cal interrupted Lane Kiffin’s original dream
Kiffin appreciates the irony of saying he dreamed of becoming a longtime coach in College Football U.S.A. He turned away from such an opportunity at Tennessee.
His dream growing up, Kiffin explains, got interrupted by a carrot that emerged after six seasons on Carroll’s staff. Grabbing the reins of the USC dynasty Carroll built with Kiffin at his side became a siren’s call.
The bright lights of Los Angeles didn’t pull him away, Kiffin says, but rather the chance to pick up where Carroll left off.
By September of Kiffin’s fourth season at USC, that dream was extinguished. USC fired Kiffin in 2013 after a 3-2 start to the season. The seeds to the firing were sown years previously. During the summer before Kiffin’s first season, the NCAA heavily sanctioned USC for rules violations that occurred during Carroll’s tenure, pertaining to impermissible benefits for Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.
“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,” Kiffin said. “Or, if that one specific dream job wouldn’t have happened, I would have stayed at Tennessee and had a great run there.”
[ THE NIGHT LANE KIFFIN LEFT TENNESSEE:An infamous YouTube video, press conference chaos and a mattress fire ]
Kiffin’s Tennessee exodus made him a pariah in Knoxville. Some Vols fans have since forgiven him, some remain intrigued by him, but last season’s game between Ole Miss and Tennessee became a reminder that some wounds never heal.
Lane Kiffin and the infamous yellow golf ball from Tennessee
Kiffin opens his top right-hand desk drawer and pulls out a weathered, yellow golf ball.
He rolls it across the desk to me.
“There it is,” Kiffin says, after I inquire about this golf ball’s whereabouts.
A Strata Super Range ball.
The infamous golf ball that flew from the Neyland Stadium stands on Oct. 16, directed at Kiffin, and wound up at the feet of the former Tennessee coach.
Kiffin pocketed the golf ball that night. It reappeared months later, when he swapped a baseball for the Strata while throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to open a three-game baseball series between Ole Miss and Tennessee. Now, the golf ball lives in a drawer, a token from a wild night.
Angered by the officiating, riled up by Kiffin and perhaps influenced by fermented elixirs, Vols fans peppered the field with debris late in the fourth quarter, halting the action for nearly 20 minutes.
The game marked Kiffin’s third trip back to Neyland Stadium since he bolted for USC in January 2010, an exit that spawned campus demonstrations highlighted by a mattress burning. Kiffin’s two previous returns came as an Alabama assistant.
This, he admits, “was different.”
Kiffin felt the energy in the stadium during pregame warmups, and he sensed the crowd bubbling up to the point of boiling over as the game progressed.
“In ‘Gladiator,’ literally when the guy gives the thumbs up (and the gladiator survives), and then he gives the thumbs down to kill the guy, that’s what I felt like,” Kiffin said, “like it was a gladiator where the coliseum had one common theme about winning this game, hating this person, hating this (opponent). It just got electric, and we couldn’t hear.”
Kiffin and his Rebels survived, to the tune of a 31-26 victory.
Fans threw more debris at Kiffin as he left the field. He held up his index finger to signal No. 1, tossed his visor into the crowd, and cherished the moment.
“I really did enjoy it,” he said.
Lane Kiffin’s tweets are a sideshow masking a cerebral coach
College football’s most interesting coach also ranks among its most polarizing.
In the span of seven months, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon dubbed Kiffin “a clown,” while Wilbon’s ESPN colleague Paul Finebaum considered Kiffin among a shortlist of candidates who could one day replace Alabama legend Nick Saban.
Pat Haden, Kiffin’s former boss at USC, once described this phenomenon as “the Kiffin factor” – the coach’s tendency to attract never-ending headlines, good, bad or otherwise.
This is a spotlight Carter coveted for Ole Miss when he hired Kiffin.
“He keeps us on our toes, but it’s fun,” Carter said. “It’s really fun. The turnaround in our program is because of a lot of things, but the No. 1 reason is him.”
Kiffin’s personality doesn’t conform to the standard coaching box, and he’s not confined to coloring inside the lines. He’s an agitator, but he’s no stooge. There’s more to Kiffin than the emojis and one-liners he’s fond of tweeting.
Kiffin’s dry wit is matched by an aggressive offensive ideology that busts through norms. To wit: Ole Miss led the nation in fourth-down attempts last season, and Kiffin relishes a conversation about the analytics guiding those coaching decisions.
Kiffin quickly embraced last year’s NCAA rule shift that allowed immediate eligibility for all first-time transfers. Half of Ole Miss’ starters this season may be transfers. Ever on the lookout for a good marketing campaign, Kiffin promotes himself as the “Portal King.”
The tweets are the sideshow. At Kiffin’s core resides a cerebral, if quirky, coach.
As Ole Miss defensive line coach Randall Joyner recently put it to a recruit: Kiffin doesn’t think outside the box. He creates a new box.
As to the idea of replacing Saban, Kiffin describes that as an ill-advised move.
“What could you possibly do right if you don’t win the national championship every year?” Kiffin said. “‘You’re going to follow Nick Saban at Alabama?’ No, that would not be a good decision for anyone.”
Monte Kiffin used to tell his son that the wisest career path is following lackluster coaches, not legends, at good programs.
And yet …
“I didn’t listen to him very well,” Kiffin said. “I followed two Hall of Fame coaches in Phillip Fulmer and Pete Carroll. … Not smart. So, you see how USC ended. (Replacing Saban) would be the dumbest follow ever.”
Kiffin’s track record suggests he’s due for a change, but he isn’t bound by trends, nor was he bound by an old dream that would have rooted him at Tennessee.
Predicting Kiffin’s next move is as much of a fool’s errand as replacing Saban might be.
Kiffin’s best move may be no move at all.
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.