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Lane Kiffin's Ole Miss has mastered NIL and the transfer portal; now how would he fix them?

Andy Staples head shotby:Andy Staples03/06/24

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Andy Staples Recapping Conversation With Lane Kiffin on the State of College Football | 03.06.24

Lane Kiffin called college football a disaster last spring.

Name, image and likeness payments and evaporating transfer rules have changed so much about the sport in the past three years. But as prepares to embark on spring practice for his most ballyhooed team since his arrival at Ole Miss in 2020, Kiffin wants you to remember what else he said during last year’s SEC meetings.

“I also said to make sure you understand I’m not complaining about it,” Kiffin told On3 in an interview Tuesday. “And I’m not sitting here complaining and not using it.”

Kiffin and Florida State’s Mike Norvell have been the two best coaches at using the new system to improve their programs’ fortunes. Each has quickly revamped rosters through the transfer portal and also proven adept at developing players who arrived from elsewhere. They also have collectives attached to their schools that have worked efficiently to maximize value even though they might not have the nation’s largest war chests. They also have impressed upon their administrations that the rising tide that floats all boats in this age first flows through asking donors to prioritize the collective even if it means a little less might flow into the athletic department budget. Norvell has done it quietly, but Kiffin has done it while bluntly explaining exactly how college football’s new world works. When Kiffin called it “legalizing cheating,” he wasn’t complaining. He was simply pointing out that the thing that got programs punished not long ago — paying players — is now common practice. 

Kiffin has repeatedly and correctly pointed out that most of the dollars flowing to athletes are for their value as athletes. That Caitlin Clark Nike ad? That’s a true NIL deal. The deals most power conference football players make with collectives are not. They mostly reflect a player’s roster value.

“It just probably sounds strange to a lot of people for me to say the disaster when we’re out there — some would say — maximizing it as well as you can and as well as anybody,” Kiffin said. “But to me, that tells you how much of a disaster it is. Even though it benefits us, I’m still telling you it’s a disaster even though it benefits us at Ole Miss a lot.”

It has especially helped this offseason. The Rebels return much of their offensive production — especially quarterback Jaxson Dart and receiver Tre Harris — and have created competition on their line by mixing returning starters with transfers who will beat out or push returning starters. They’ve also added South Carolina transfer Juice Wells, who when healthy has the potential to be one of the nation’s best receivers. The Rebels also bolstered their interior defensive line with Texas A&M transfer Walter Nolen, their pass rush with Florida transfer Princely Umanmielen and their secondary with Alabama transfer Trey Amos. The result is a team coming off an 11-2 2023 season that is dreaming even bigger as the 2024 season approaches.

That’s why Kiffin isn’t complaining. Even though he still thinks it’s a disaster, Kiffin believes talking his way through the sudden changes to the sport has helped him work out how to best navigate the new world. “I kind of feel like because of that it made us better,” Kiffin said. “Because I was looking at every angle of everything. How to be outside the box. How to work with the rules — all the things.”

Kiffin understands that a coach can be uncomfortable with change while still adjusting to change. His one-time boss Nick Saban was a master at publicly decrying threats to his empire (up-tempo offenses, for example) while behind the scenes working to turn those threats into advantages his team could utilize. But not every coach understands that. Kiffin has heard the coaches who aren’t merely talking through the changes, too.

“You had this other side saying ‘This is ridiculous. The players shouldn’t be paid. This is going to go away.’ There was a lot of that,” he said. “A lot of coaches and administrators thought this is going to go away. From the beginning, I said it may, but it’s going to be a long time from now before it goes away. If you sit around and wait for it to go away, you’re going to be out of a job as an AD or a coach. And your football program is going to be really bad.”

Some of that group is now finally accepting the new reality. Meanwhile, Kiffin has already moved on to the next thing.

One of the codes he cracked early was that developmental programs needed to try to develop transfers rather than high schoolers. Dart (USC), tailback Ulysses Bentley IV (SMU), defensive tackle J.J. Pegues (Auburn) and defensive end Jared Ivey (Georgia Tech) all started their careers elsewhere but are entering their third seasons at Ole Miss. In the old days, coaches hoped to get three productive seasons out of a signee. Kiffin and his staff realized that once players got one free transfer as an undergraduate, they had to stay at their second school until they graduated unless they wanted to sit out a year after transferring again. “When you take a younger player who has multiple years, until now he couldn’t go again. So you have him for multiple years,” Kiffin said. “When you take the high school kids, they still have their one-time transfer. It’s like looking at the A’s and Moneyball and all the analytics behind it. So let’s take young players from another place when they use their one-time transfer versus the high school kid that as soon as something doesn’t go right will just leave.”

In December, a federal judge issued an injunction that effectively invalidated all the NCAA’s transfer rules. At the moment, an undergraduate can transfer a second time and play immediately at his new school. “So we’ve got to adjust to that,” Kiffin said.

That change puts an even greater onus on the scouting department and the collective to make sure NIL money is used as efficiently as possible. “If you’re not one of those top five blueblood programs,” Kiffin said, “you’ve got to find a way to maximize all those areas.”

Sometimes that means letting a player walk. Kiffin didn’t name any names, but starting tailback Quinshon Judkins very publicly left Ole Miss and transferred to Ohio State this offseason. Edge rusher Tyler Baron, a Tennessee transfer who had committed to Ole Miss this offseason, flipped to Louisville. Kiffin, who once coached the Oakland Raiders, believes college coaches need to get comfortable understanding not every player can be retained or signed. That’s a fact of life in the NFL, but college coaches have been accustomed to having control thanks to the transfer rules and the pre-NIL NCAA rules against payments. Maximizing value is often more important than a single player. “You’ve got to let someone go,” Kiffin said, “because they’re saying they want this much money but you can get four other SEC starters for the money that one player is demanding.”

So now that Kiffin has proven he can master the shifting new world, how would he fix the “disaster” that he says stems from a lack of structure and rules? With ideas that a few coaches have suggested — most notably former Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh — but that most wouldn’t have dared speak about 10 years ago. Heck, most coaches still wouldn’t say it on the record now.

“I would get some structure around it to make them employees so they have real contracts that everyone can see,” Kiffin said. “So you know what the market and people can’t say ‘I have this’ or ‘I’m making this.’ Then there would be revenue sharing involved, so it would be more equal what they’re getting. And then there would be a cap.”

That cap, Kiffin said, could vary by conference. “So at least there’s some level playing field,” he said.

That last one likely would require collective bargaining, but Kiffin isn’t nominating himself to be commissioner even though he has shown an ability to effectively navigate a swiftly changing regulatory environment. He realizes it makes him sound like a homer, but he’d like to see SEC commissioner Greg Sankey* in charge of all of college football if such a position existed. 

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with him,” Kiffin said. “I really think he gets the good, the bad, the problems.”

*Even if Kiffin is only saying this to curry favor with his league’s commissioner, it’s a remarkable example of growth compared to the Lane Kiffin who coached Tennessee 15 years ago and nearly drove then-SEC commissioner Mike Slive mad. 

Kiffin also would want Sankey to have a very particular lieutenant. In most player-rich areas, there were hustlers who acted as agents for recruits long before NIL laws made it possible for players to hire professional agents. Kiffin would install one of these hustlers near the top of the new college football governance to identify potential pitfalls of proposed rules and to help explain how things work at the grassroots level. “He knows exactly how all of it works out there and what’s really happening,” Kiffin said. “They have these committees. They have these ADs. They have all these meetings. But they don’t go to the streets to find out what’s really happening.”

Kiffin isn’t sure when the structure will come. A recent federal court ruling has effectively paused all of the NCAA’s NIL rules, so more change — and likely more chaos — will come from that. 

When it does, Kiffin probably will accurately describe what’s happening when someone asks him about it. He understands that might sound like complaining to the untrained ear. But he’s really just trying to figure it out, and hopefully faster than everyone else.