As Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin takes the reigns in a football season already defined by uncertainty, he is impressed with the leadership and unity demonstrated by his team.
Written by John Davis | Photos Provided by Ole Miss Athletics | Illustrated by Frank Estrada
There are 24 head college football coaches entering their first seasons at new schools, and Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin is one of them.
When he was hired by the Rebels at the end of 2019, he could not have anticipated what 2020 had in store. Kiffin’s first spring practice with the team was scheduled for March 17, just four days after the national emergency proclamation from the White House was issued, and the United States, like many other parts of the world, shut down. There were no more games to be played, and for sports that weren’t currently in season, practices were eliminated.
Spring football practice is an important time for both coaches and players. For Kiffin and his staff, the spring practice sessions were going to be even more impactful because they were heading into their first season together at Ole Miss. Spring practice also gives fans a peek at what’s in store and can jumpstart recruiting efforts for the future.
Kiffin hasn’t sidestepped the fact that the inability to have spring practices puts the Rebels at a disadvantage when it comes to starting the 2020 season, but he doesn’t want to use that as an excuse.
“We are still looking to measure ourselves from a success standpoint instead of just getting the chance to play, a chance to get on the field again,” Kiffin said. “We don’t just want to look at this as being a success. We want to get better and better, we want to be competitive, and we want to win the games we play.”
“Unexpected” is a word that barely describes how coaches who lead teams viewed the nation’s quarantine. For Kiffin, a veteran coach who was born and raised on football, the shutdown was a situation he had never experienced. Even his father, who started his coaching career in 1966, was unable to offer advice.
“The closest thing would be like a strike in the NFL,” Kiffin said. “But it’s not even like that because even those teams, those players, were used to each other and had been together before the strike.”
Zoom meetings with players replaced the 15 spring practices and one-on-one talks with players once the shutdown began. The NCAA allowed coaches much more leeway in regards to virtual meeting time than usual, and the eight hours allowed per week during May and June enabled Kiffin to really start to get to know his team.
“I saw tremendous leadership and maturity from our guys during their time away from us on campus,” Kiffin said. “With what has gone on in our country, our team has been unified ... I’ve been proud of how they have handled everything. It hasn’t been easy.”
In the midst of the pandemic, student-athletes voiced their concerns about social issues and the hope for change. Ole Miss Athletics held a Unity Walk on campus in June, which was led by defensive end Ryder Anderson. Kiffin was fully supportive, saying the march was “a step in the right direction” and a chance to “promote change and to help end injustice that is occurring throughout our nation everywhere.”
“This is a serious issue that we’re dealing with as a country,” Kiffin said. “The Unity Walk came up from a lot of different people, but partly from listening to the players and their concerns. This is about taking action.”
Though new to Ole Miss, Kiffin is far from a rookie as a head coach. He had a plan for how his operation would work before the spring. Once the virus made its impact, Kiffin adapted and modified that plan. It remains to be seen how the 2020 season will play out, but Kiffin said the plan on how the offense and defense operates can be installed, and then built on gradually.
“Our staff has done a great job of getting a plan together and being prepared for our season,” Kiffin said. “There are things in place that will allow us to add as we go. There are things we can do that will allow us to put the players in a situation to have success.”
A day-to-day approach has been the best approach for Kiffin and other coaches as questions about the 2020 season arise.
“There is only so much you can do until you find out more about what the season will look like for us,” Kiffin said. “Everyone here at Ole Miss has been very supportive, very nice. Our transition has been made easier because of all the great people here in town and on campus.”
Lane Kiffin was named the head coach of Ole Miss football in December, not long after he led Florida Atlantic University to winning the Conference USA championship.
In addition to three years at FAU, Kiffin was head coach at the University of Tennessee; the University of Southern California (where he also spent several years as an assistant coach); and the Oakland Raiders. Immediately before his time at FAU, he spent three seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the University of Alabama.
Kiffin is originally from Minnesota. He graduated from Fresno State University, where he played quarterback and started his coaching career. He has two daughters, Landry and Presley, and one son, Knox.
Meet the rest of this year’s football staff here: Meet the Staff.