Kiffin hits hot button issues during SEC Media Days session

Published 1:22 pm Friday, July 21, 2023

By Jim Mashek

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The crowd in the Grand Hyatt ballroom had dwindled to three, maybe four dozen sports scribblers on Thursday morning, when the Southeastern Conference played host to its final three schools for the annual SEC Media Days.

Fourth-year Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin batted leadoff shortly after 9 a.m., and he definitely had a few things on his mind.

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Even though, from appearance’s sake, he looked like he wanted to be somewhere else.

Kiffin was introduced by SEC commissioner Greg Sankey before wandering into all sorts of topics. He offered his thoughts on the Name/Image/Likeness and transfer portal realities before going into his team personnel and other subjects.

“I kind of call it (the) disaster that we’re in,” Kiffin said of NIL and the transfer portal. “First off, I’ve always said that I think it’s phenomenal that players get a chance to get paid, which is great … There’s going to be some major issues, and we’re creating free agency with the portal.

“And with NIL, you’ve got a lot of pay-for-play going on, and that is what it is … There’s not a system in place, and I don’t think there’s any other sport, at any level, that are like this … Every year, you can opt out into free agency. Really, twice a year,” Kiffin continued. “I mean, I was just thinking on the plane ride over here. What if you had that in other sports. Tom Brady, (WNBA star) A’Ja Wilson, Lionel Messi, LeBron James … what if, every year, those guys can opt to free agency … twice a year, really, and they have no long-term contracts …

“So I’m excited about the season coming up.”

After a brief opening remark, the 48-year-old offensive guru launched into a narrative on the 2022 season. It began on a promising note for the Rebels before they squared off with Alabama at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Nov. 12.

Ole Miss was ranked 11th in the country and checked in with a 7-1 record.

And Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide did what, well …

“We were on a really good run,” Kiffin recalled. “I’m not going to say a great run, because we have extremely high standards. But, you know, coming off the 10-3 season (in 2021) … and we were 8-1, and with the ball, in our hands, to go down and, obviously, the 14-yard line …

“First and 10 with a chance to beat Alabama, to have a great home win and go to 9-1.”

Everyone in the auditorium knew where Kiffin was going next. Alabama would win that game, 30-24, and the Rebels also lost their final three games. The skid included a bitter 24-22 home defeat at the hands of Mississippi State before a blowout loss to Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl.

Ole Miss finished the season with an 8-5 record while rumors swirled that Kiffin was being courted by Auburn for its head coaching vacancy. Alabama just missed a shot at the fourth and final berth in the College Football Playoff.

“I didn’t do a very good job, over the year, of keeping our team together,” Kiffin said. “Not as an excuse, but I said it up here (at Media Days), a year ago … The challenges when you have roster overhaul, and (NCAA) portal heavy.

“I’ve always been concerned about the culture issues when you do that, because you don’t have the kids that have been there very long.”

From there, perhaps predictably, Kiffin launched into a critique of the Name/Image/Likeness reality, as well as the NCAA Transfer Portal, before finally getting around to changes with his team, including a revamped coaching staff and the addition of first-year defensive coordinator Pete Golding.

“We didn’t play to our standards, at the end of the season,” Kiffin said.

Kiffin was joined at Media Days by senior defensive end Cedric Johnson, sophomore running back Quinshon Judkins, and senior cornerback Deantre Prince.

Johnson offered an observation similar to his head coach when the 2022 season came up in his interview session.

“We started off so fast,” Johnson said, “we didn’t think we could be stopped … I feel like the transition with Coach Golding has been pretty smooth. We’re all learning this together.”

The Rebels open the 2023 season Sept. 2, at home against Mercer. Three weeks later, they’re on the road against Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide for the first of seven consecutive SEC games. Ole Miss also will be on the road to face Mississippi State on Thanksgiving night for the Egg Bowl.

Jim Mashek is a longtime Mississippi sports writer now based in Bowling Green, Kentucky. You can read more of his work, including coverage of SEC Media Days, at his website