The Lane Kiffin era at Ole Miss officially began inside The Pavilion on Monday afternoon.
The scene looked more like a tailgate crossed with a pep rally as roughly 3,000 gathered in the stands, sipped on half-priced beer and roared when Kiffin, chancellor Glenn Boyce and athletics director Keith Carter walked on stage. The band played and the party wore on as a fan base that’s been frustrated to the point of apathy for the last four years felt like it had something it could unite behind again.
“We have to earn the right to win,” Kiffin told the crowd, his family to his right and Carter and Boyce to his left. “It is time to get to work. We need the fans, alumni and players all united, to get on the same page and work towards winning championship.”
Carter was serenaded with chants. He’s had one hell of a week, after all. Less than a month into his tenure as permanent athletics director, Carter changed the way Ole Miss has done business for the last 40 years in the matter of a week. He took a risk, a calculated gamble with the hopes of injecting energy in a program that sorely needed it. In the process, he stood up to some powerful and influential figures that were hesitant to break away from the way things have always been done in Oxford. You know, the way that’s made Ole Miss a perennial bottom feeder in the gauntlet that is the SEC West. The idea of Kiffin’s hiring and the process that landed him is what makes this a significant moment in the school’s history. Mississippi ties weren’t considered. The search wasn’t highjacked away from the man qualified to make the hire. A recent stereotype of botched hires and national searches ending down the hallway was shirked.
“When I stood before you last week, I talked about finding a coach that would bring energy, passion and a track record of success,” Carter said. “We talked about finding someone who would galvanize and unite Rebel Nation. As I got started with the search, I talked to a number of candidates looking or someone to check all of those boxes.. But one name stood out.”
This hire made a splash. Ole Miss became a national story over the weekend. Kiffin was interviewed on national television during ESPN’s College Football Playoff show. Will it work? Who knows. Will it be entertaining? Hell yeah it will.
In his press conference after the ceremony, Kiffin seemed both self-aware and self-deprecating. He cracked jokes about his buyout size and previous tarmac experiences. He spoke about what he’s learned in a rollercoaster ride of a career that’s seen him land an NFL head coaching job at 31 years old and fired from USC on a tarmac seven years later as his career hit rock bottom. His story and redemption tour have been well-documented. Kiffin has repeatedly said his time at Alabama changed his view on coaching.
“When you go through obstacles that seem like really bad things, like the firing at USC,” Kiffin said. “It seems like the end of the world when it happens. Am I ever going to get a head coaching job again? All that stuff that you go through, I look at it differently now. If that stuff hadn’t happened, I would never have gone to work for Coach Saban. That obstacle helped me develop.”
In a lot of ways, Kiffin and Ole Miss needed one another. The Rebels needed to take a risk to inject energy and unify a program. Kiffin wanted another crack at major college football. Make no mistake about it, this is a risk. Kiffin’s past of abrupt exits and burned bridges is reason for caution. Billionaire Raiders owner Al Davis spent 45 minutes calling him a liar in a press conference announcing his firing in 2008. He left in the dark of the night after one year at Tennessee and USC fired him at an airport. These are the same experiences he points to when he talks about how he’s changed and how much he has learned.
But he’s also one of the brightest offensive minds in the sport and a dynamic recruiter. He won a national title on staff under Saban and two under Pete Carroll. Most recently, he won two conference titles in three years at a program that was 6-27 in the thee years before his arrival.
“I remember losing here when I was at a Alabama,” Kiffin said. “We lost two games in three years and they were both to Ole Miss. It has been done here. It can be done here.”
Whether Kiffin can build a consistent winner remains to be seen. But in a handful of days, his hiring has unified a fan base and made a splash, which was the exact reason Carter elected fire Matt Luke and hire Kiffin. Empty bleachers and declining ticket sales spoke louder than a 4-8 season in a vacuum. Carter said on SportsTalk Mississippi on Monday that he felt Ole Miss needed a shot in the arm. The Lane Train has provided just that. For however long it remains on the tracks, it will make for an entertaining and compelling watch.