Lane Kiffin isn’t the hero college football wanted, and certainly not the one we thought we’d get, but he may just be the hero college football needs. The 47-year-old Ole Miss coach has watched the SEC drama of the past week play out in a sort of shocked delight (a man of the people), and in an interview published by Sports Illustrated, he took a very different tack than the one many of his peers have chosen on the ever-shifting state of college athletics. Rather than complaining about unfairness or corruption and hurling thinly veiled accusations at his opponents, he’s taking it all in with open arms and a full acceptance of reality — which is looking more and more like the only way left to survive in the sport.
While very few college coaches have explicitly come out against the theory of NIL since its official inception last July, many have criticized the way it has played out, saying that it isn’t being used “the right way” or that the “spirit” of the rule isn’t being followed. They use buzzwords like “unsustainable” and “semi-pro,” and try to convince the world that this new legislation is dooming the future of college athletics.
And while you might agree with parts of that sentiment, no one wants to hear that kind of stuff being spewed from the mouth of someone who makes something in the $10 million range from a career of coaching kids who have (supposedly) taken home nothing for decades. Of course, the open secret of having a little extra recruiting help from boosters has long been around and acknowledged, but now that money can openly be used as a recruiting tool, everyone’s against “the spirit” and “the ethics” of it all. Said another way — coaches and administrators are upset that they don’t have full control over the kids anymore, particularly given the lax transfer portal rules.
Enter Lane Kiffin. Eternally likable these days (unless you’re a Tennessee fan), genuine on social media, quick with a joke, and unapologetically himself, Kiffin has been the only major program coach to come forward and say what we’re all thinking:
“We’re a professional sport and they are professional players.”
Who would have thought, indeed? Amongst all the proselytizing and grandstanding, the honest-to-goodness truth about the state of the sport from Lane freaking Kiffin. Kiffin was, of course, not well-liked for much of his career. Seen as a failed nepotism hire with the Raiders, he also performed poorly at Tennessee and USC (“left on the tarmac” ring any bells?) before Nick Saban took him under his wing at Alabama. Now head coach of Ole Miss, he pulls stunts like unfollowing everyone on Instagram except Arch Manning, telling reporters that the Saban-Fisher drama should have been aired on Pay-Per-View, doing Nick Saban impressions, and, most importantly, being funny on Twitter, the latter a surefire way to win people over.
In the SI interview, he openly affirms that players should be paid, and while the presence of collectives is questionable to just about everyone involved in the sport, he refuses to blame the players themselves for it. If the money’s available to them, particularly if they come from a financially unstable background, income would obviously be a major factor in their college decision — and he’s willing not to look down on them for it. It’s all met with acceptance.
“A lot of people sit back and say, ‘Oh, it will go away. NCAA will fix it!’ O.K. Go ahead and wait,” he told SI. “As a coach and AD, you won’t be there. There will be a new coach and AD. It’s here. I don’t spend time like others, ‘How long is it here? How are they going to fix it!?’ I don’t care. It’s here…People tried to avoid it. ‘We’re not doing that crap!’ Almost all those people are out of jobs.”
Knowing the NCAA, he’s right — it will take ages to make any sort of change. He’s not pulling any punches on the reality of NIL. He knows that players are being paid to come in, and that there will be plenty of kinks in the system that will have to be worked out, and he also said he thinks that the gap in on-field performance will widen, at least temporarily, for the top schools. But at the same time, he knows that NIL isn’t going anywhere fast, and he’s dealing with it — quite frankly, a refreshing respite from the complainers, Saban included.
With everyone else lamenting about the past, he’s forging eyes wide open into the future of the sport. He reinvented himself right in time to be the face of the new guard of college football — that is, if he can win.
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