Exclusive Q&A: What Lane Kiffin now says about his Tennessee football exit and his Ole Miss future

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

OXFORD, Miss. – Lane Kiffin is perhaps the most intriguing coach in the SEC, and his Ole Miss football team should have the substance in 2021 to back up Kiffin's sizzle. 

The Rebels returned 18 offensive and defensive starters from the squad that went 5-5 in their first season under Kiffin. 

During a wide-ranging interview with the USA TODAY Network, Kiffin discussed his Ole Miss future and reflected on the perspective he gained from coaching Florida Atlantic. And, yes, we discussed his infamous January 2010 exit from Tennessee. 

Here is a portion of that interview, with questions and answers edited for brevity and clarity.

What excites you about this team?

A lot of returning players on both sides. Not as much success on defense, obviously, so a lot of work to do there, but we do return a lot of players on offense that had successful years, especially at the skill positions, plus four linemen up front. 

What’s your expectation for Year 2?

It’s never like, 'this many wins,' or anything like that. I just hope we play a lot better on defense, we improve turnovers on offense and maintain the scoring part of it and do better in the red zone.

What motivates you?

I think that’s changed. Now, it’s more player based, where probably before, it was more personally: Win this, beat this coach, whatever.

TOPPMEYER:As Lane Kiffin fever engulfs Ole Miss, Rebels coach says he has changed

Where, I think really now, it’s more enjoying seeing the players develop, achieve their dreams. Some of these kids want to play in the NFL. If you’re able to see them on draft day achieve their dreams, especially when it’s high picks, and how many people they can support in their life, I would say it’s more of that.

Why do you think it changed?

I don’t know if that’s maturity, age. I’ve said this before, I think early on, I was more ego driven. Kind of selfish. And I think that now, you just look at it from a different perspective, more what you can do for them and what do they get out of it, their experience.

Like, last year, going to a bowl game when they hadn’t gone to (one since the 2015 season), and then winning the game. Just those memories created.

I think now, I enjoy the moment better. I enjoy the process better than the outcome, where it used to be the other way around.

It was always, OK, we win this. Now what? Or, we should have won more. Get on to recruiting.

Versus, teaching them to enjoy the moments that they’re in, the seasons and the games within those seasons.

Did you experience something that you think changed your perspective? Or, is it just getting older?

No, because I think when you get older, you don’t necessarily change. A lot of old people still are stuck in their ways.

I think that FAU helped that. Going back, I think getting fired at USC helped with ego. That was a hard firing to go through. You kind of fall off the face for a little bit, for a few months there, off the map. Then you go to Alabama. And I think FAU was my first time being at not a major program, and those kids changed me.

Our first season, we won 11 games, won a (conference) championship, won a bowl game. The seniors had never won more than three games in a year. And most of those guys weren’t going to the NFL, which was different than places I’d been at.

I think that really changed me, seeing the players, seeing the excitement – it didn’t matter that there were only 8,000 people at a game or something – when they won. I think that was a big part of it, kind of the wholesomeness of the game, like how some people say when you go back into the high school game or something. A little bit of that feeling.

Was that a surprise benefit of that FAU experience, or did you think you might get something like that out of it?

Not at all. It was the best available job, and I wanted to be a head coach again. I was not taking that job thinking that was going to make me change perspective on how I think about my job.

Why was Ole Miss the right opportunity for you?

Record-wise, over the last few years, it had been a lower SEC program, but I’d not remembered it that way. I know a big part of the intrigue for the job came from being at Alabama when Ole Miss was playing good, and only losing two regular-season games in three years at Alabama, and both were to Ole Miss – one here and one there.

Seeing the stadium that day (in 2014 in Oxford), that was the Katy Perry day and everything.

So, to me, it wasn’t like a program that you’ve got to do some miracle that’s never been done before, or the last time we won was 20 years ago. So, that was fresh in my memory.

Plus, my brother had been an assistant here during that, so I had visited. I had seen how cool the town was, the people. That helped me think of it as, hey, that’s a place they can definitely win.

How do you get back to that level?

They did a great job recruiting, obviously. They had the year where they signed three five-star players: Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell.

That’s the big part: get players.

I think we kind of have similar blueprints from the offensive perspective – fast, unique, creative – like they did. So, kids want to play in that, and at times it’s worked well, even in this conference.

We’ve got to recruit really well, play better defense and keep playing good offense.

Are you aware of the rock-star status that you’ve built?

I really am not. I am, and I’m not.

Like, I’m not on a daily basis, and I think a lot of that is because, if I’m not here, I’m in one of two places: I’m in Boca, where I have a house, or most of the time when I’m not here, I’m in L.A., where my kids are.

L.A. gets mad when you say this, but neither place are football places. L.A. can say they are, but they don’t even sell out Rams and Charger games, even though there’s a billion people (living) there.

So, I forget it when I’m away from here, because both of those places, 95% of people do not recognize you, and the 5% that do, 95% of them don’t say anything to you. If they do, it’s, ‘Good luck, Coach.’ And, usually, if they say something, they’re not from there. They’re from the South somewhere and they’re visiting. So, I forget it.

And then I get back here, and I don’t think about it around the office or around the players. And then if I go to get ice cream or something, it comes back. Or then this (summer caravan) tour, then it comes back to you.

It’s regional, like I said. Go to San Diego or something, you go to dinner and nobody says a thing. You would think, L.A., you were the head coach at USC, you’d get more, but no. Like I used to say, there’s a lot more famous people.

Was this something you tried to build, though?

No. The Twitter thing only started because of recruiting. I think I had (Twitter) at USC, but it was nothing back then. Nobody really had it. Then Alabama, it hit. OK, you can’t text kids and parents, but you can direct message them (on Twitter), which was a dumb rule. What’s the difference?

So then, you had to have Twitter, because that’s how you can communicate. Then, it just kind of blew up. It really wasn’t on purpose. Then at FAU, it became on purpose, because it was marketing for the school, too.

The president there hired me, and he wanted all that. He wanted all the attention. ‘Any news is good news.’ He wanted attention on FAU, because something would happen, and he had people research the amount of times FAU was googled. ‘Where is FAU?’

Out-of-state applications went up after our first year 40-some percent, and he was the one that said, ‘We haven’t done anything different except the head coach of football.’

He embraced all of that, so that’s really where it kind of took off.

Maybe it wasn’t your intent, but why do you think you were able to build that rock-star status, as I’m calling it?

I think it’s like a love-hate thing. I think it’s like anything, if you either love or hate – and I think the majority of it’s hate – a person, you’re going to follow them. You’re going to be intrigued by them. You’re going to want to watch when they’re coaching a game or they’re in a show, or whatever it is.

I think a lot of it’s that. Some are rooting for you, and a lot are rooting against you. So, they watch, and they follow, and they talk about it. I think that’s a big part of it.

And from a football standpoint, if you’re in the SEC, it’s magnified. Now you’ve been at three SEC places and two as a head coach – one in the West, one in the East – and leaving Tennessee created a lot of hate. So, we’re back to that pay attention, hate him thing. That’s my guess.

Do you think a lot of people hate you? Because I live in Knoxville, and even in Knoxville, in some circles, you have rock-star status. Do you think there’s a lot of people rooting against you?

I think there still are. I think that’s turned. I don’t know the exact reason why. Part of it is maybe time heals things, from leaving there. I don’t know.

The way Tennessee has turned, a lot of it that you’re talking about and that I hear – because, people tell me all the time that are there, ‘It’s not what you picture. It’s really turned. And most people have changed the perspective of you leaving to, boy, the one year was really good, and we were on the right track and we miss it’ – you would think that was a huge PR plan, like you had a PR crisis person on how to figure that out.

(Kiffin references a 2018 article by The Athletic that detailed how, in fan emails to former Vols athletics director John Currie, Kiffin was the coach most frequently suggested that Tennessee should hire during the 2017 coaching search.)

That would be like a PR miracle that would take years to do, and it really wasn’t. I don’t know. I’d like to say it was. It wasn’t. Obviously, I wasn’t at some other job, like, ‘We need a PR plan to get Tennessee people back.’ I don’t know.

You’ve been back to Neyland Stadium as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, but it’s different as a head coach. Have you thought about that return this season?

I haven’t. I got asked last night on that speaking tour about it, and I really haven’t. It’s not how I think. I don’t worry about what I can’t control and when I can’t do anything. I’ll worry about that game the week we play it.

And, worrying about myself walking in there physically has nothing to do with the outcome of the game.

If the USC job doesn’t open in January 2010, where do you think you’re coaching right now?

Hmm. I’ve never heard it phrased that way. That’s pretty good.

Everyone usually phrases it, ‘Do you wish you wouldn’t have gone?’ And I say, ‘I don’t think of things that way, because it doesn’t do any good.’

That’s a good way to phrase that.

I would like to think Tennessee. People say that dream job thing all the time and don’t mean it. USC was (Kiffin's dream job), and it was for multiple reasons.

When you were somewhere as an assistant growing up, you have your first two kids there, and the third one is on its way, you have all these memories. It’s not just being there six years. It was being there for six years, and we had one of the greatest runs in the history of college football. You can’t even describe how your mind thinks of that place, and it’s all it knows.

We got there with Pete Carroll at the beginning, so it wasn’t like we just came (in) on top. I saw how it was done.

I thought, ‘Well, why can’t we go do that again? It’s in a better place than it was back then.’ I didn’t know about sanctions.

(Six months after Kiffin's hire, the NCAA sanctioned USC, including a two-year postseason ban and scholarship reductions, for a lack of institutional control during Carroll era.) 

So, my whole thing was, I have the blueprint. I was there. I know how Coach did it. So …

I would certainly think Tennessee.

My point of the dream job thing is, it’s not like I was at Tennessee going, ‘OK, there’s 20 better jobs, and when one opens, I’m going.’ If you’re at Tennessee, outside of USC, because of how special it was to me, I don’t know where you would go. I’ve said it before: Tennessee is a top-10 job in America. It’s so easy to recruit to Tennessee.

I feel like Tennessee actually was, back then, because of the (Phillip) Fulmer era and Peyton (Manning), that Tennessee actually was the best SEC school to go to (as a coach) to nationally recruit. That’s changed now with Alabama, but it really was, and I knew to win at Tennessee, you needed to nationally recruit. We used our name and brand of how we are on offense and all that style to nationally recruit to come to Tennessee.

A long-winded answer to say: Tennessee.

You mentioned the perspective that FAU helped you develop. Now that you’re back in the big time, how do you keep that perspective? Or, is that even important?

It’s very important.

If my son wanted to coach and I could pick his path, I would want him to go to not a big place, initially. A lot of coaches have done that, like the Urban Meyer model. And I think there’s something to that.

When you start at a smaller place, you’ve got to do everything. When you learn like that, it’s different. If you’ve only ever been at a big place, you don’t ever have to do the little things. There’s a million people doing them. So, I think once you do that, you do a better job of being a head coach at a bigger place, and you have more appreciation when things are done and things that you have.

It’s like the rich kid-poor kid. Give them the same present. Which one is more appreciative?

I see when we hire assistant coaches from smaller places how appreciative they are with everything, versus ones that come in here from a big place and complain about everything.

So, maybe don’t start out as head coach of the Raiders?

Lane Kiffin was 31 when he was first hired to be Raiders head coach.

Correct, but I’m even saying as an assistant. My first full-time assistant (job), I was in the NFL with the Jaguars. My first full-time (college) job was at USC as an assistant. That’s not really roughing it.

After one season here, I think you already had some Ole Miss fans worried about losing you. How does Ole Miss keep you here? How does this become a long-term thing for you?

That huge buyout they keep putting in there. 

That’s a really honest answer.

That’s the Lane Kiffin answer. No other coach would say that.

...

Their commitment to (facilities improvements). I’ve been where they give you drawings or whatever. They’re really doing it. And last year helped that. I could sense at the end of the season, around the bowl game, the commitment to not just say we’re going to do it. Here’s really the architects. Here’s really plans. We’re going to start digging. Like, really doing it.

I know they’re serious about being good, because you can have some good runs, upset somebody, even have a good year. You’re not doing that, year in and year out, if you’re not doing the other stuff, which is usually facilities and coaches’ salaries. There’s a reason why that stuff helps.

But, mostly, it’s the buyout?

(Laughs). No, it’s not. Buyouts really don’t matter anymore, since we’re being honest.

No, because I don’t care about money. I didn’t take this job because it’s four or five times more than I was making at that other job. I’m at a different place in my life than  where I would have been 10 or 15 years ago.

My point was: I used to say when I was young, ‘I want to make enough money so that I don’t have to take jobs.’ I can take whatever job I want, not looking at the salary, or where I want to live or something.

I want to win. So, if you want to win on a continual basis, then it takes those (facility) things in order to do that. Just like it takes (Ole Miss AD) Keith (Carter) paying (offensive coordinator Jeff) Lebby when people were trying to get him.

That, to me, shows, OK, even though that maybe wasn’t in our budget, he’s serious about doing things to win.

Does it bother you that people might know you more for your Twitter handle than your offense?

I hadn’t really thought of that. No, because I feel recruits don’t (think that way), which is really all I care about. I don’t care about the common fan from whatever school. I don’t care about them.

I think that, recruits, when I meet one or get on the phone, I feel that they know what’s happened on offense at different places, and they have that respect for that, or they want to come play for that. Especially (recruits’) dads. I feel like dads have that more than kids, necessarily.

I hear the dads say a lot, ‘I want my kid to come play for you.’

How do you think Matt Corral developed throughout last season?

I think mentally he developed, from a leadership standpoint. I think missing the spring was a big deal with a new system. I just think his confidence grew. He didn’t have much confidence when we got here.

What’s next for him?

Protecting the ball and playing like a veteran quarterback and not like a young one that makes big plays and then has bad plays.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.