Kiffin was the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, getting the Raiders job at age 31 in 2007. It, uh, didn’t go well.
In fact, Kiffin’s early coaching career is notable for the burning wreckage of programs left in his wake. His exits from Oakland, Tennessee, and USC were all spectacular theater, leaving behind rivers of bad blood.
Things came to a head when Kiffin was pulled from the team plane to be fired on the airport tarmac, then left behind without a ride. Somehow, Kiffin came off poorly in this scenario. I think it says everything about a guy’s popularity that he could be ignobly fired on an airport runway and still be widely viewed as the bad guy.
The thing is, what were his actual sins? He lied about his AP vote? He had a mutually destructive relationship with Al Davis? He talked shit about Urban Meyer? OK, maybe his passing familiarity with the truth was an issue, but every football coach is a liar to some degree.
Really, my biggest issues with Kiffin was how he kept failing upwards. In that 2007-2013 period, he won 10 games all of one time. He won a division title once, but never the conference. Heck, he never even won a bowl game.
And like the poor steward he was, he left the places worse than he found them. Yet he kept getting second chances, even earning a slot on Alabama’s staff and Nick Saban’s Rehabilitation for Formerly Untouchable Coaches.
He did his penance, won a national title, and then got to start his head coaching career over at FAU. OK, Saban didn’t let him coach in the national championship game, but for the first time, it seemed like Kiffin was finally cast in a sympathetic light.
Kiffin won two conference titles at FAU before moving on to Ole Miss. For the first time in his career, he left a program behind with a minimal amount of hurt feelings and dramatic fallout.
He’s recast himself now as an advocate for player’s rights, being one of the coaches who does not rail against the new NIL world, but instead, embracing it. Now, I’m sure you could make the case that’s because he’s always wanted to pay players above the board, but the thing is, he is not a roadblock to change.
The new college football world is going to leave people behind, and Kiffin is determined to not be one of them. It seems he has learned from Saban that you can either fight the tides or you can surf them to shore. Just as Saban has exploited every new rule change to ruthlessly crush his opponents, Kiffin is now branding himself as one of the Good Guys.
This is seen most explicitly in his rebrand as the Portal King.
Think they meant to send this to you @LincolnRiley pic.twitter.com/n3lmpVKFSP— Lane Kiffin (@Lane_Kiffin) March 22, 2022
I mean, you can still see the old Kiffin there. He’s taking a jab and not caring who he ticks off. The thing is, he’s now winning admirers for, well, basically being the same jerk he’s always been.
Will this translate into success? It worked at FAU, for sure. Last year, the Rebels went 6-2 in SEC play for sole possession of second place in the West. They lose a lot of pieces from that team, particularly the dynamic play of QB Matt Corral.
But the Portal King lived up to his nickname. He snagged 17 players through the portal, including a new starting quarterback from USC, Jaxson Dart, one of the biggest prizes of the portal season.
It’s difficult to state just how completely he overhauled the roster with the Portal. Ole Miss signed six four-star recruits on Signing Day, Kiffin signed nine of them in the Portal. And while its difficult to compare the two types of incoming players, I will say, on average, a high school commit has more long term potential but the transfer who has already performed at the D-1 level is more likely to contribute right away.
It’s giving up the higher ceiling by raising the floor.
Of course, it works the other way, too. Ole Miss had twelve players enter the Portal and commit to other schools. That open door is letting players in right as he pushes others out the door, as almost all of his outgoing players ended up at smaller programs.
Ten years ago, programs like Ole Miss could keep up with the big boys by raiding the JUCO ranks. Kansas St, especially, made itself a national power by recruiting the JUCOs hard. But is anyone following that model these days?
Compare the top JUCO recruits from 2012 to 2022. In 2012, 16 JUCO players earned four stars, and they signed with some of the biggest programs in the nation: USC, Bama, Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Florida, Florida St.
Ten years later, just five earned four stars. Two signed with Auburn, one with Penn St, and another with Mississippi St. Still Power 5 schools, but not quite the same caliber of program as before.
It’s too early to tell for sure, but it looks like the Transfer Portal is gutting JUCO recruiting. Why go after a “problem kid” when you can grab a guy who has already performed at the FBS level? Last Chance U is looking more like No Chance.
Who benefits from this change? Do the players? Sure, we now have basically unregulated free agency in college football, which is great for the very best players who missed out on a Bama offer the first time. They now get a second bite at the apple.
But that is not most players. Most players are finding it difficult to find a new home. Yes, some players get to step up, but a lot of others are getting unceremoniously pushed out the door. Heck, both things are happening at Ole Miss.
This doesn’t make Kiffin a villain, but perhaps he isn’t quite the advocate for players’ rights some of CFB Twitter would like him to be. It all depends on your point of view, and whether you are coming in or out that open door.
Kiffin, like Saban, didn’t make these rules. He’s just using them to the maximum benefit for his program. Which is great, so long as he keeps the talent coming in. The thing about being the Portal King is that you can never actually stop.
It worked in 2021. Can he keep that plan working?