The Kiffin Factor: After Unorthodox Road, the Lane Train Embarks at Ole Miss

Lane Kiffin's career arc has been unlike anything else. Now, he's back in the SEC for an opportunity he knows he may not come again if he doesn't deliver.
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OXFORD, Miss. — Maybe it’ll be a college football trivia question one day. How many head coaching jobs did Lane Kiffin have before age 45? Kiffin must count them himself. He extends his open fist and then begins flipping up his fingers. Up goes his thumb. “One,” he says. Then the next, “two.” His middle finger rises, “three.” His ring finger, “four.”

A pinkie finger remains tucked inside his palm until he glances around his newest office, a spacious room filled with natural light and speckled with Ole Miss red and blue. He smiles. “Five,” Kiffin says, standing behind his desk before plopping into a comfortable leather chair. “I don’t even realize how many head coaching jobs I’ve had. Five head jobs at 44. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

If someone told 20-year-old Lane Kiffin that he’d be a head football coach at five different places—one in the NFL and two more at college football bluebloods—by this age, he would have thought it a wonderful thing. He would have assumed a natural progression, a normal career arc, he says, like that of Urban Meyer (Bowling Green-> Utah-> Florida-> Ohio State). Only that’s not the case at all. Like the man himself—so publicly audacious—Kiffin’s progression is different than most coaches': the Oakland Raiders-> Tennessee-> USC-> FAU-> Ole Miss.

The NFL to the SEC to the Pac-12 to Conference USA and back to the SEC. What other coach in the history of college football has a path that can compare to that route? The answer: no one. “Probably true,” Kiffin says. “I guess my life’s backwards.”

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Lane Kiffin Ole Miss

First-year Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin and his newly hired staff is introduced during the first half of a recent basketball game in Oxford.

Hanging from the ceiling of Ole Miss’ 4-year-old, $96 million basketball arena, the Jumbotron is flashing images of a black locomotive cutting through a forest of trees, white smoke emanating from its stack and a howling whistle reverberating off the walls of this place. The crowd, originally here for a basketball game, knows what this means. Thousands rise to their feet to welcome the Lane Train into the building.

Kiffin steps out from a dark tunnel and onto a brightly lit court, his entire staff following behind him and the crowd erupting all around them. He hasn’t won a single football game here, but this wild fan base has embraced him like he’s delivered a title. Hundreds greeted him at the airport upon his arrival, and thousands more were there for his introduction on campus. T-shirts circulating around Oxford tell passersby not to wait, but to hop on the Lane Train now. “All aboard!” says one.

This is what Ole Miss AD Keith Carter envisioned when he hired the polarizing coach about six weeks ago. Sure, there is baggage with Kiffin, and some would say there is risk, too, but in Carter’s mind, they don’t outweigh the perks—his offensive ingeniousness and splashy persona. “I wanted to find a coach that would galvanize the fan base and bring excitement and energy,” he says, “and certainly the Kiffin Factor would do that.”

The Kiffin Factor is a term coined by former USC athletic director Pat Haden, the man who hired Kiffin in 2010 and then unceremoniously fired him on an airport tarmac in 2013. “The Kiffin Factor is this: No matter what is being done, it’s going to get magnified times 1,000, good or bad,” explains Kiffin himself.

Kiffin provides an example of the Kiffin Factor. Years ago, during an interview much like this one, an ESPN reporter shared with the coach the inner workings of the company. “Their boss said, ‘Hey, any time you can write an article and tag Lane Kiffin in it, even when he’s not even relevant to the story, do it,’” Kiffin says. “I’ve seen so many articles over the years that I’m really not even relevant and my name is in there. I guess it’s just for the Google part where it says ‘Lane Kiffin.’ The ones that will get me … they’ll do something about 10 coaches and I’m one of the 10 and I’m not even the big part of the story, but the headlines will say, ‘Lane Kiffin and nine other coaches say this …’”

Kiffin admits that he is partially to blame for the Kiffin Factor. After all, there is a lengthy history to prove it. Many of his previous head coaching stints ended in a fiery blaze, often times because of what many would refer to as callow on and off-the-field antics. With the Raiders, he had his kicker attempt a 76-yard field goal and then was fired two days later by owner Al Davis, who described the coach as “a professional liar.” While coaching at Tennessee, Kiffin accused then–Florida coach Urban Meyer of cheating, trash-talked Nick Saban and told one recruit that he’d spend his life pumping gas for a living if he signed with South Carolina.

His decision to leave Knoxville for USC after one season sparked a riot serious enough that Kiffin and staff needed a police escort to leave the Volunteers' football operations building. He was left at that tarmac at LAX, and his stint as Alabama’s offensive coordinator ended between a College Football Playoff semifinal and the national championship game. In fact, during Alabama’s postseason run that season in 2016, Kiffin says he spoke by phone to then–LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, agreeing to become offensive coordinator in Baton Rouge under two conditions: (1) if the program hired then-interim coach Ed Orgeron as the full-time leader and (2) if Kiffin didn’t land a head coaching job that offseason (he did—at FAU).

Of all these things, Kiffin isn’t regretful—“I’m not big on living life with regrets,” he says—but, yes, he would “redo” some decisions if given the opportunity. Still, he feels like he’s paid penance for the sins of his youth. As the son of a longtime, respected NFL defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, Lane claims he landed all those marquee head jobs in his 30s because of his last name, and the previous six years—an assistant at Alabama and head coach in Conference USA—have felt like “payback,” he says, from the football gods. “I’m in this position because of this Kiffin Factor. I told myself at Alabama that I’m going to have to do more to get a head job. I’m going to have to do more to get an SEC job. I thought that at Alabama we were unbelievable. Had three SEC Offensive Player of the Years in three years, a Heisman winner, a Biletnikoff winner. I always thought if someone else did that they’d have a head job after one or two years. It took me three years.

“Then you go to FAU,” he continues. “Almost anyone else who goes to a program that’s won three games three years in a row and then won 11 games in their first year, you get a pick of every head job that’s open in America. But I knew because of what I did it would take longer.”

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Lane Kiffin Ole Miss

Lane Kiffin has twice passed on a chance to be Orgeron’s offensive coordinator. The first came 15 years ago when the coach landed the head job at Ole Miss. Kiffin, his young wife pregnant with their first child, thought seriously about relocating his family from the seaside metropolis of Los Angeles to the tiny country town of Oxford. His wife, Layla, had other ideas. “She Googled ‘Oxford,’ and looked at some houses on the internet that night,” Lane says. “I’m guessing the politically correct way in saying this is … she was in tears. It’s definitely not Los Angeles. So we stayed and didn’t come.”

Kiffin and Layla divorced in 2016. Four years later, Lane jumped at this opportunity. He won over Keith Carter first during a phone interview and next during a three-hour meeting at a Boca Raton hotel. As is the case with many significant hires any SEC school makes, the league office is involved. Before conducting serious interviews, Carter sent to commissioner Greg Sankey a list of candidates, including Kiffin. “It’s courteous to do that,” Carter says. “In our league, we have to vet coaches through the league. I talked to Greg, and he was supportive. He had a relationship with Lane from when he’d been in the league with Alabama. He was saying, ‘If that ends up being your guy, I’m all in.’”

And so here’s Kiffin back in the SEC, a league that reprimanded him while Tennessee’s coach and a conference his offense dominated for three years in Tuscaloosa. He’ll play yearly games against his former boss Saban and good friend Orgeron in the toughest division in football. He’s sent both coaches lengthy text messages recently—one to Saban thanking him for helping him return to the SEC as a head coach and  one congratulating Orgeron on winning the national title. He doesn’t expect a reply from Saban. The coach does not text, Kiffin says, “but he does read them. Pretty sure he got it.”

There is another coach he’ll compete with annually: Mike Leach. About a month after Ole Miss hired Kiffin, Mississippi State fired Joe Moorhead and landed the former Washington State coach. Two of the most eccentric personalities and creative offensive minds in football reside about 90 miles from one another in North Mississippi, now central figures in one of the more toxic rivalries in sports: the Egg Bowl.

Don’t expect fireworks between these two, says Carter. Kiffin and Leach are old friends from their days as Pac-12 head coaches. They share many similarities, right down to the way they use social media and where they vacation (Kiffin in Boca Raton and Leach in Key West). On Twitter, they are colorful while also somewhat unhinged, each stumbling into trouble. In 2018, Leach posted a politically divisive video of Barack Obama that he eventually learned was a hoax. Last year, Conference USA fined Kiffin $5,000 for a tweet he posted suggesting that the referees in an FAU game were blind.

None of this has hurt their follower count. Nearly 800,000 people combined follow them, a number that is five times larger than the population of Mississippi’s biggest city, Jackson. “Maybe Leach and I are the only coaches that do this probably, but I feel like I can be a normal person on Twitter,” Kiffin says. “When you’re a head coach and this stuff, it’s like a child actor. They kind of miss parts of … they don’t get to be normal. I feel like as a head coach, you can’t be a normal person like everybody else. I kind of felt like on Twitter I was actually normal, and people would be like, ‘Stop! You can’t be normal!' Why? Why can’t I make a joke? Why can’t I retweet something that my buddies do?”

Carter is fully on board with Kiffin’s Twitter personality. They’ve discussed keeping his profile within certain parameters and boundaries, but the athletic director also wants him to have freedom to use social media in his own way. “Some of that is who he is,” Carter says. “It is his personality. You have to let him have a little bit of leash there and be who he is. That’s what makes him great.”

As for the Egg Bowl, Kiffin has already devised a side bet for himself and Leach involving their vacation homes. He’s proposing they share a jet from North Mississippi, stopping at Boca Raton to drop off Kiffin and then Key West for Leach. “Whoever wins the game,” Kiffin smiles, “has to be the one who pays for the plane.”

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Ole Miss football Lane Kiffin

New Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin has decorated his desk with dozens of rings from championships and bowl games he's acquired over the years. Before anything else, these are meant for recruiting. In fact, he says he hasn't ever worn any of the rings. "Who wants to wear a big ring around?" he asks. "The least thing I want to do is draw more attention to myself. I try to stay out of the spotlight."

Monte Kiffin will turn 80 years old next month. His days as a two-way lineman for Nebraska are coming back to haunt him in the form of an aching back. He walks hunched over and slowly, his feet shuffling about—unless he’s in the presence of his son. Around Lane, Monte straightens up his posture and speeds up his pace. “Like this,” Monte says as he jostles down the hall of Ole Miss’s football facility.

Why does he do this? Because Lane pokes fun at his pop if he doesn’t. “He’s 80 yeah, but he’s not 100,” Lane says. Monte is a defensive analyst for the Rebels, his third coaching stint under his son. He has coached football for the last 50 years, most widely known for his creation of the “Tampa 2” pass coverage defense while coordinator with the Buccaneers.

He produced two football-coaching sons, one on defense—Chris Kiffin, an assistant for the Super Bowl–bound San Francisco 49ers—and one on offense. Lane has always drifted toward that side of the ball, ever since his days as a high school quarterback. Lane has always been brash, too. At 16, while operating as the QB in a Wing T offense, he used to audible at the line of scrimmage without his coach’s permission. His high school coach often vented to Monte. “He was taking the Wing T and moving a guy out of it and checking to a pass,” Monte laughs.

Kiffin’s offensive acumen is well known. His Alabama offenses ranked first, second and fifth in the SEC from 2014-16 as he helped the Crimson Tide evolve from a traditional unit to a spread scheme. He’s back in the league now, and that means a return to a passionate place. The last time the Kiffins were in the conference, Monte and Lane had barricaded themselves inside the Tennessee football operations building as mattresses and other objects burned outside in a fan-led riot over Lane’s departure to USC.

After three years in the sprawling Miami metro area, Monte is now reminded daily about life in a tiny SEC football town. He’s recognized at the local Subway, for instance, and when he’s not recognized at places, his last name often creates chaos. The reaction after he hands over his debit card is usually the same. “Kiffin!” they say. “Are you related to Lane?!”

The SEC is just different, Lane says, right down to the behavior from coaches at conference meetings. During his time at USC, Kiffin used to hang out publicly with other Pac-12 coaches like Steve Sarkisian and Mike Leach. “In the SEC, it’s like you’re supposed to hate every other head coach,” Kiffin says. “Pac-12, we get done with meetings, and I remember sitting out there with six coaches and we’re out there by the pool hanging out in the afternoon, wives are sitting together. That doesn’t happen in the SEC just because—I think it’s dumb—of that mindset. ‘Oh, our fans are going to be mad if we’re hanging out with the coach from wherever.’”

His time as head coach at USC taught him plenty, but Kiffin says he learned the most as an assistant for seven years under Pete Carroll and three with Saban, something he describes as getting two degrees in football, one from Harvard and one from Yale. When he’s faced with a decision, he often asks himself what both Carroll and Saban would do. Many times, the answers to those questions are not the same. “You can’t get two more different coaches,” he says. They do share a similarity, Kiffin points out: They each failed early in their careers. Saban won more than seven games once in five years at Michigan State and lasted just two years in the NFL. Carroll was fired by both the Jets and Patriots.

Can Kiffin rebound from failures like his mentors? His early-career troubles were a matter of a young, cocky coach landing jobs too big for him. “When your fifth child comes, you’re a lot more prepared than you were for your first,” Kiffin says. He knows too that this one might be his final chance. Kiffin expressed that to AD Keith Carter during the job interview. “He talked about if he doesn’t get this one right,” Carter says, “maybe it’s the last time to do it at this level.”

So here it is, a—let’s count—first, second, third, fourth … fifth (!) shot. The Lane Train is chugging back up the mountain on a circuitous journey that no coach in the history of college football can match, an unusual career arc that is rounding into a complete circle, something Kiffin aptly explains in 10 words. “Start at the top, go down and come back around.”