Fifth time’s a charm? Lane Kiffin seeks to energize, elevate Ole Miss and himself in return to SEC

Lane Kiffin has already had “the talk” with Elijah Moore. You know, that one where the new Ole Miss coach meets with kid who may have set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to Kiffin’s hiring?

You may recall Moore is the Rebels wide receiver who imitated a dog urinating in the end zone at the end of last year’s Egg Bowl.

The resulting penalty pushed Ole Miss back 15 yards. That resulted in a missed extra point that allowed Mississippi State to survive 21-20. Nine days later, Kiffin replaced Matt Luke as Ole Miss coach despite many thinking — prior to the Egg Bowl — that Luke was set to retain his job entering the 2020 season. Many think the transition wasn’t a coincidence when Moore went doggy rogue.

“I just mentioned to him once,” Kiffin said of Moore. “It is what it is. We all make mistakes. Got to learn from them. The game could have gone a million different ways not just that one missed kick.”

And like that, “the talk” was over. Moore had a sympathetic ear from a guy who knows something about self-inflicted missteps.

Voluntary workouts at Ole Miss began Monday with just about everything regarding football in the state of Mississippi having changed. Kiffin has a lot to do with that after deciding to return to the Power Five and SEC by taking at Ole Miss. In an obvious corresponding move, Mississippi State fired Joe Moorhead and hired Mike Leach.

Come to think of it, maybe Kiffin should have thanked Moore before counseling him.

“Kind of crazy to think one penalty and that [hiring] might not have been the case,” Kiffin said.

Former Rebels offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez lived the changeover first hand as Moore drew the flag.

“It’s funny because, when it happened, I was in the press box,” Rich Rod said. “I can’t remember which coach said it: ‘That just got us [fired].'”

No matter how he gets to a new job, Kiffin typically arrives in style. A well-circulated video shows him being bum-rushed in Oxford, Mississippi, as he exited the school plane.

“We land and it was a movie because it was dark and all you saw was bodies and lights and cameras,” Kiffin said. “They just kept moving closer and closer. It was like a horror movie where you’re trapped and creatures keep coming closer. Zombies or something.”

One of the zombies handed his infant child to Kiffin before saying, “Hey, get you a burner phone, all right?!”

“The SEC,” Leach said later, “is a different kind of animal.”

Kiffin, now 45 and still looking like a kid, is 24 years younger than his former boss, Nick Saban. Still, with what seems like a career ahead of him, he’s back in the SEC now 11 years removed from that one-and-done season at Tennessee and four years after departing Alabama before the College Football Playoff National Championship.

He’s also the owner of three national championship rings. That’s your answer if you’re still asking how Kiffin — now at his third SEC program and leading his fifth team (including the NFL’s Raiders) — keeps gets getting chances.

Conflict and controversy may suit him, but Ole Miss won’t be boring. While his mouth runs, for the most part, his offenses thrive. Ask USC’s career passing leader (Matt Barkley) or the SEC Offensive Player of the Year (Jalen Hurts, as a true freshman). Ask Ole Miss’ leading receivers; Moore should become a breakout star in 2020.

“To me, there’s college football, then there’s the SEC plus a few teams — Clemson and Ohio State,” Kiffin said. “It’s not like I took this job to go to the Power Five. It was because it was in the SEC, a place that had won.”

Kiffin arrives in Oxford with a better career winning percentage than both Ed Orgeron and Hugh Freeze before him. Both coached at Ole Miss. Orgeron was the 2019 national coach of the year at LSU. Freeze was the second coach in 44 years to win 10 at Ole Miss in 2015.

But both failed in different ways in Oxford.

“It’s not like going to one of these places that never won or hasn’t won for 25 years,” Kiffin said of taking the Ole Miss job. “Five years ago, they were in the Sugar Bowl.”

Yeah, but that Sugar Bowl was accomplished through improper means, according to the NCAA, on the watch of Freeze, who resigned three years ago still reminding folks he wasn’t named in the notice of allegations. Ole Miss got a two-year bowl ban. Was it worth it?

Look what it got the Rebs: Their new coach was offensive coordinator for Alabama in 2014-15 and lost a combined two games with the Crimson Tide.

“They were both to Ole Miss,” Kiffin reminded. “I saw that first hand.”

When contacted for this story, Kiffin was back at his Manhattan Beach, California, home with his three children during the coronavirus pandemic. He has decided to keep his Boca Raton, Florida, home on the ocean that he purchased while at FAU.

Life was/is good.

“Living in Boca, house on the water, boat in the backyard — to me, everything was perfect,” Kiffin said, “except those 12-13 days a years where you’re just not on the biggest stage.”

Kiffin needed that comeback at FAU. It meant he could be humbled. It reminded folks he could be a head coach. Kiffin won two Conference USA titles in three years.

“I think it probably had to happen because there were too many — fairly or unfairly — questions about me being a head coach,” he said. ‘OK, you were a good coordinator, but could you be a head coach?’ “

When Moore’s leg was raised, a door was opened at Ole Miss. Kiffin admitted he had missed the big stage.

“Especially when I would watch a championship,” Kiffin said. “Especially when there was Coach Saban and Kirby [Smart]. You’re just like, ‘It’s a different level.'”

You shouldn’t have to be told it didn’t end well at Alabama. Saban basically banished Kiffin to FAU early, a week before the 2017 national title game. That contest ended with Clemson scoring the game-winning touchdown with a second to play. Steve Sarkisian slid over to become offensive coordinator.

“I would have liked for it to be the perfect ending,” Kiffin said. “What’s hard about the last game is it’s a one-play game. … I love Steve Sarkisian, but no matter who it is, you’d like to think you would have made a difference on one play just because Jalen [Hurts] is used to you. You were his play caller. You were the adjustment. You were his eyes. You were doing everything for him on the sidelines. He’s a true freshman. All the sudden, you’re gone.”

Kiffin arrives at a time when the SEC West has never been more competitive. Coaches in the division have won seven of the last 11 national championships. That’s not counting Kiffin and Leach, who bring a flair not only to the state but to the league.

The tailgate at the next Egg Bowl — their first — just might spontaneously combust in a nuclear explosion of bourbon, bowties and sun dresses.

“Take another conference and see how many coaches have won one national championship?” Kiffin said. “As opposed to just in the SEC West. Other conferences would have zero. Pac-12 would have to be zero, right?”

Yes, Lane, that would zero in the Pac-12 where you also coached for four years at USC.

“In that conference, you get to know the coaches better,” he said. “It’s very different in that conference. Everybody is friendly. You have dinner with everybody, hang out by the pool.

“I always thought at the SEC head coaches’ meetings were like everyone can’t be friends with you in front of people. You can’t sit together because your fan base will get mad.”

Conflict and controversy suit Kiffin, and Ole Miss is in love with him. For now, that’s enough.

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