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Lane Kiffin is a different coach, and person, than he was during his time with Tennessee, USC and Oakland. The 47-year-old has had the chance to grow, reflect and learn about himself, the sport, and the players he coaches over the last two+ decades.
Throughout that process, Kiffin has seen college football change drastically along with him.
Less than a year after he left Florida Atlantic to take the job at Ole Miss, the NCAA implemented its rules on Name, Image and Likeness. Student-athletes who were previously shackled to amateurism by a purposely equivocal term are finally able to profit while still in school.
Although NIL is a great thing, it has created a larger issue. Schools, through their collectives, are weaponizing funds in efforts to acquire top talent through financial promises.
That has led to increased tampering with college football.
In fact, part of the NIL struggle is roster retention. It costs a lot of money just to keep current players on the current roster.
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day pleaded local Columbus businesses for eight-figure NIL money just to keep the players he already has on campus. He is not alone in that struggle.
Lane Kiffin had NIL concerns of his own.
As soon as Auburn fired head coach Bryan Harsin on Halloween, Kiffin’s name was linked to the opening. He recently spoke about his decision to stay at Ole Miss instead of leaving for a fellow SEC West program in a larger, in-depth conversation with Alex Scarborough of ESPN.
Kiffin admitted that it was not easy, per say, to turn down the Tigers. They have a deeper history of success, the facilities are slightly better and their NIL funds were greater— at the time.
And although Kiffin has made his concerns with the current NIL model very clear in the past, he understands the role that it plays in today’s sport. It’s crucial.
Kiffin had expressed frustration with the NIL support at Ole Miss before Auburn came calling. But as soon as there was chatter about him leaving, Rebels fans quickly flooded The Grove Collective with donations and the fund skyrocketed to reach the $10 million mark.
In turn, the collective was able to sign SEC Freshman of the Year Quinshon Judkins – a former three-star recruit — and keep him from entering the transfer portal. The young, 1,567-yard rusher was contacted by multiple programs in an effort to get him to leave Ole Miss.
With help from the Grove Collective, Judkins chose to stay. Kiffin spoke to how important that was in the modern era.
If you don’t have a good collective, you’re going to lose your own players and then you’re really in trouble. 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?’— Lane Kiffin, via ESPN
It also goes deeper than retention.
College football is a professional amateur sport.
Ole Miss and Kiffin use the phrase ‘Pro Mindset’ in its day-to-day operations. That is different than a lot of other SEC programs, which often preach “family.”
Kiffin doesn’t go that route, even though he treats his players like family.
His relationship with Matt Corral was very different than how most coaches and quarterbacks interact.
His family recently included Jaxson Dart and Michael Trigg in their Easter Sunday celebration.
At the same time, though, Kiffin wants to be realistic.
These coaches sell parents on — especially in the south — come here, it’s family, we’re gonna treat you like family. 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.’— Lane Kiffin, via ESPN
Ole Miss has hit the transfer portal hard over the last two seasons, with an NFL approach at the forefront. Name, Image and Likeness funds have helped that come to fruition.
The Rebels added 17 transfers and 18 recruits in 2022. They added 16 transfer and 15 recruits in 2023, including two highly-coveted quarterbacks in Walker Howard and Spencer Sanders.
It was a bit of a bold move, considering that Jaxson Dart started at the position last season after transferring from USC. Kiffin and his staff were not worried. The roster got better and that is the goal, especially as competition helps to drive growth and talent.
Just like the pros, we can’t not sign players based off your feelings […]
That’s not my job to make you happy. My job is to make the best roster for our fans, for our [athletic director], for our chancellor that hired me.— Lane Kiffin, via ESPN
At the end of the day, although Kiffin loves his players as his own, the goal is to win. And to win, both in college football and in life, feelings don’t always factor into the equation. It’s a hard lesson that some of the players at Ole Miss have had to learn, but Kiffin and his staff take that ‘Pro Mindset’ to heart, and it only helps the student-athletes who hope to one day play in the NFL in the long run.