By Billy Watkins
Dancing answers often say it all.
Sorta like telling your girlfriend “I love you” for the first time, and she responds, “Aw, that’s sweet. Wanna see a movie?”
That’s how it’s been with Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin when asked if he will be the next head coach at Auburn.
“That stuff seems to come up every year.”
“I love it here at Ole Miss.”
“We’ve got a lot of good players coming back next year.”
Those have been some of his responses.
And that’s where things stand as Kiffin’s team gets ready to play Mississippi State in Oxford on Thanksgiving night.
Here is what I think: If Kiffin gets the contract he desires, he’s gone. If Auburn won’t agree to certain demands — length of contract, amount of a buyout, etc. — then he might stay at Ole Miss. I’m leaning toward the former.
But there is another guy I’ve always considered a good fit at Auburn — former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, now at Liberty. I wouldn’t rule him out.
Ironic, isn’t it, that John Cohen, who recently left State to become athletic director at Auburn, is head of the coaching search?
Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter and Chancellor Glenn Boyce have done everything possible to keep Kiffin. A new contract offer, estimated at $10 million per year. A guarantee of NIL (name, image and likeness) money available to pay players, reportedly exceeding what Kiffin had informed them he needed. There is nothing more Ole Miss can do. And in the end, it might be enough.
Shortly after Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin on Halloween, media reports out of Alabama named Kiffin as Target No. 1. During the past two weeks, it has been one of the hottest sports topics in America.
After losing 30-24 to Alabama on Nov. 12, Ole Miss stood 8-2 and still had a shot at winning 10 regular season games for the second straight year. Arkansas and State stood in the way. That’s also when the rumors became deafening.
Think about it. Coaches despise distractions. They’ll go to great lengths to avoid them.
Kiffin did nothing to stifle the rumors before Ole Miss played Arkansas on the road last Saturday. The Razorbacks, better than their 6-5 record, might have won the game, anyway. But I do not believe they would have led 42-6 early in the third quarter.
A distracted team makes mental errors, and the Rebels committed so many that 703 yards of offense couldn’t overcome them.
After the game, the players said exactly what I knew they would say. They tried to treat the rumors like no big deal. “You hear things,” said quarterback Jaxson Dart, a warrior who has improved each week, “but our guys have done a good job just trying to stay focused and not let it get into our heads. Just control what we can control.”
Nothing has changed this week. So the team will enter the Egg Bowl still wondering Kiffin’s intentions.
One report said he met with the players Monday and told them he had not agreed to a contract with any school, that it was all talk.
But if he didn’t tell the players he would be at Ole Miss next year. what good did that meeting do?
It’s a mess when a coach is interviewing for a job while his team is in the middle of an important stretch run. And I’m yet to meet anyone who knows how to fix it.
In the era of the transfer portal, we are talking about more than Ole Miss possibly losing a coach. It could lose a bunch of players, too. Some could follow Kiffin to Auburn. Some might be fed up with the uncertainty and go elsewhere. And there is the 2023 recruiting class to consider. What are the commitments thinking?
There are others to consider.
What about the portal transfers who will still have eligibility remaining after this season? They used their one-time free transfer to join Kiffin and Ole Miss last spring. If they transferred again, they would have to sit out a year.
What about the assistant coaches, researchers, recruiting analysts? There is no guarantee that Kiffin would take any of them with him. They could be out of a job.
Think those guys might be a bit distracted?
Let’s talk about the two parties, Auburn and Kiffin. Many seem to believe the Auburn job is a huge step up from Ole Miss.
I do not agree. Auburn shares the same state with the Alabama Crimson Tide. As a friend and former coach remarked today, “Auburn is the New York Mets of Alabama.”
Yes, Auburn won a national championship in 2010 with Cam Newton at quarterback.
Auburn nearly won another in 2014, losing in the final minute to Florida State.
But let’s look at the past 10 years, including 2022. The Tigers are barely above .500 in SEC games (44-37, 54.3 percent). In those 10 years, Auburn has just five winning seasons in SEC play. And in games against Big Brother Alabama, Auburn is 3-7 and been outscored 386-225.
It has a larger stadium than Ole Miss — 87,451 seats compared to 64,038. But it can’t compare to LSU’s Tiger Stadium (102,321), Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium (101,915) or Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821).
The Auburn job is not in college football’s Top 5. It’s not in the Top 10.
So what might make Kiffin — who should be financially secure for life whether he stays or goes — attracted to Auburn?
Maybe the fact that Auburn has won a national championship. And let’s remember that Kiffin shared the state with Auburn when he was offensive coordinator at Alabama (2014-16). He had a chance to evaluate the Tigers’ program as an in-state rival.
Kiffin has worked wonders at Ole Miss. He inherited a program that had been ravaged by NCAA probation, went 5-5 in his first season (2020, the COVID year) and 10-3 a year ago. Using his experience with free agency during his time as an NFL head coach, Kiffin used the portal to upgrade overall talent and fill holes created by graduation.
He also lured three-star prospect Quinshon Judkins out of Alabama in the 2022 signing class. Judkins is second in the SEC in rushing and leads the league in touchdowns.with 17.
Kiffin has illuminated the Ole Miss brand like never before.
He’s popular for being different, quirky. He looks younger than his 47 years. Relates well to recruits. Doesn’t get close to media members or alumni. Maintains a mysterious aura.
It’s strange that his record over the past two seasons is 18-5, yet it’s difficult to name a signature victory.
He nearly got one against Alabama this year, which I’m sure would’ve been perfect in his mind. At times he seems obsessed with the Crimson Tide and head coach Nick Saban.
Sometimes a coach or player can want to win a game too badly. Blind desire can cloud one’s brain.
The Rebels got the ball against Bama with 2:23 remaining, needing a touchdown and an extra-point to win. They moved to the Crimson Tide 14-yard line with 1:19 left, mainly via the rushing of Judkins.
But Judkins was spent. He had rushed 25 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns against a ruthless Alabama defense. Zach Evans, a splendid runner as well, went out late in the second quarter with a concussion.
It was time for the Rebels to be creative — and execute — in the red zone, where they rank 96th nationally.
It didn’t happen. No bunch formations, which is how Ole Miss beat Alabama in 2014. No receivers put in motion. Frankly, I expected more from one of the top offensive minds in college football.
When the fourth-down pass fell incomplete, Kiffin flung his play sheet, angry and frustrated.
Much like Ole Miss’ fans are now.