Lane Kiffin isn’t the hero that college football wanted, and certainly not the hero we thought we were going to get, but he just might be the hero that college football needs. The 47-year-old Ole Miss coach watched last week’s SEC drama with a kind of shocked delight (man of the people) and in an interview published by sports illustrated, he took a very different path than many of his peers in relation to the ever-changing state of collegiate athletics. Instead of complaining about injustice or corruption and hurling thinly veiled accusations at his opponents, he takes it all with open arms and a full acceptance of reality – which increasingly seems to be the only way to survive in sport.
While very few collegiate coaches have explicitly opposed NIL’s theory since it was officially launched last July, many have criticized the way it has evolved, saying that it is not being used “properly” or that the “spirit” of the rule is not respected. Using catchphrases like “unsustainable” and “semi-professional,” they’re trying to convince the world that this new legislation is dooming the future of collegiate athletics.
And while you may agree with parts of that opinion, no one wants to hear things like that come out of the mouth of someone making something on the order of $10 million from a career coaching kids who (allegedly) haven’t taken anything home for decades. Of course, the open secret of having a little extra recruiting help from boosters has long been known and recognized, but now that money can be openly used as a recruiting tool, everyone is against the “spirit” and “ethics” of it all. In other words, coaches and admins are upset that they no longer have full control over the kids, especially given the transfer portal’s lax rules.
Enter Lane Kiffin. Eternally personable these days (unless you’re a Tennessee fan), sincere on social media, quick with a joke and unapologetically himself, Kiffin was the one major program coach to come forward and say what we all think:
“We are a professional sport and they are professional players.”
Who would have thought? Amidst all the proselytizing and highlighting the honest truth about the state of the sport from Lane, the kiffin’ freaking. Of course, Kiffin wasn’t very popular for much of his career. Considered a failed nepotist clerk for the Raiders, he also did poorly in Tennessee and USC (“left on pavement” any bells ringing?) before Nick Saban took him under his wing in Alabama. Now head coach of Ole Miss, he does stunts like unfollowing everyone on Instagram except Arch Manning, telling reporters that the Saban Fisher The drama should have aired on pay-per-view, done Nick Saban impressions, and most importantly, be funny on Twitter, the latter a surefire way to win people over.
In the SI interview, he openly affirms that players should be paid, and while the presence of collectives is questionable for almost everyone involved in the sport, he refuses to blame the players themselves. Obviously, if they have the money available, especially if they come from a financially unstable background, income would be a major factor in their college decision — and he’s willing not to look down on them for that. Everything is accepted.
“A lot of people sit back and say, ‘Oh, it’s going to go away. NCAA will fix it!’ Okay, go ahead and wait,” he told SI. “As a coach and AD you will not be there. There will be a new trainer and AD. It is here. I don’t spend time like others, ‘How long has it been here? How will they fix it!?’ I do not care. It’s here… People have been trying to avoid it. ‘We don’t do that crap!’ Almost all of these people are unemployed.”
Knowing the NCAA, he’s right – it’s going to be ages before anything changes. He does not attack the reality of NIL. Knowing that players get paid to come in and that there will be many issues in the system that need to be fixed, he also said he believes the gap in performance on the field will widen, at least temporarily, for the top schools. But at the same time, he knows NIL isn’t moving fast, and he’s dealing with it – honestly, a refreshing respite from the nags, including Saban.
While everyone else is lamenting the past, he looks wide-eyed to the future of the sport. He reinvented himself just in time to be the face of college football’s new guard — if he can win, that is.