Mississippi athletic director Keith Carter, left, reacts to Lane Kiffin as he answers a reporter’s question at a news conference, moments after being introduced to Mississippi fans as their new college football coach, at The Pavilion, a multipurpose arena on the campus in Oxford, Miss., Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. Kiffin was previously, the football coach for three years at Florida Atlantic.

Ole Miss has hired its 38th head coach over 126 years of football, bringing in 44-year-old Lane Kiffin to unbridled glee of a large part of its fan base.

So whom exactly did athletic director Keith Carter hire?

Rick Cleveland

Is he the brilliant young coach NFL legend Al Davis hired at age 31 in 2007 to become the youngest head coach of pro football’s modern era? Or is he the guy Davis bitterly fired little more than a year later, early in his second season, citing “conduct detrimental to the Raiders,” and a 5-15 record?

Is he the whiz kid Tennessee hired in 2008 to be the youngest head football coach in Division I? Or is he the guy who left Tennessee for Southern Cal a year later, after a 7-6 season, amid a mattress-burning, Tennessee student riot and with an NCAA investigation looming?

Is he the coach who guided USC to a 10-2 record in 2010 in only his second season with one of the most dynamic offenses in college football and despite NCAA probation? Or is he the coach who was fired in 2012, having lost seven or his last 11 games?

Is he the coach who resurrected his coaching career at Alabama under Nick Saban in three years as offensive coordinator, changing the way the Crimson Tide plays offensive football? Or is he the guy Saban cut loose nine days before playing for the national championship?

This much is certain: Kiffin is the guy who took over a Florida Atlantic program that had won six games in three seasons before his arrival and has won 26 games and two Conference USA championships in the three years since. He is a coach who says he has learned from past mistakes. And he may be the first coach ever introduced as “a lightning rod in college football” at his introductory press conference.

Kiffin is that: a lightning rod. He has been that every place he has worked. Kiffin often has seemed to revel in that role. Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter believes, in Kiffin, he has captured lighting in a bottle.

You ask me, it depends on which Kiffin he hired. Kiffin has been called a football genius. He also has been called brash, immature and worse. His hiring is a calculated risk. Carter believed he needed to make a big splash with this hire because of an apathetic fan base. He strongly believes that revenue generated by increased ticket sales and athletic donations will more than make up for the millions this coaching change will cost. And he might be right.

But not all Ole Miss people are so enamored with Kiffin’s hiring. Archie Manning, the school’s all-time athletic hero, has been noticeably reticent on the subject. He was not part of this hiring process.

There are others.

If Kiffin recruits well and wins big, he will win over most. And if he doesn’t, well, Ole Miss will be going through this again sooner than any Rebel would like.

Kiffin’s four head coaching jobs have lasted fewer than nine seasons, just over two years per job. He left behind NCAA issues at Tennessee and inherited NCAA issues at USC. At age 44, he has spent 22 years in coaching at nine different jobs (including USC twice). Grass has not had time to grow under his sandals.

Both he and Carter plan for his tenure to be much longer at Ole Miss. “We didn’t come here to be good,” Kiffin said. “That’s not why we came here. We came here to be great.”

Being great in the SEC Western Division is infinitely easier said than done. To win a championship, you must be better than Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M, not to mention cross-state rival Mississippi State. Arkansas won’t be down forever. Finish ahead of all those, there are Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, to name three, on the other side. It’s a hard, hard job.

Kiffin says he has learned from his mistakes in Oakland, at Tennessee and USC. He says he became a better coach and a better person at Alabama and FAU.

You need look no further than Kiffin’s friend and former coaching staff member, Ed Orgeron, to see that a coaching metamorphosis is possible. Once a seeming dunce at Ole Miss 12 years ago, Orgeron deserves to be National Coach of the Year this season at LSU. Coach O learned from his mistakes. He is older and wiser.

Where Kiffin is concerned, we shall see.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.