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Mississippi Mayhem: Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin are a Match Made in Magnolia State Heaven

Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin

Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin

The only thing more strangely entertaining than Mike Leach or Lane Kiffin is how they ended up on opposing sidelines in college football's most hateful rivalry. And the strangest part could still be to come — they might make the Egg Bowl ... friendlier?

It was the pantomimed pee heard — wait, felt? — around the world of college football. With the Rebels down seven points with five seconds remaining, Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral found receiver Elijah Moore at the goal line, presumably setting up a tied Egg Bowl as regulation ended.

The drive had been a series of small miracles for the inconsistent Rebels. Before the touchdown, Ole Miss had already converted a 57-yard Hail Mary on 4th-and-24, keeping hope alive.

The Rebels were now down a single point, but Moore scampered into the maroon Mississippi State logo on all fours and lifted his leg, simulating a dog urinating. It was the same celebration former Rebel D.K. Metcalf had performed in Starkville during an Egg Bowl upset in 2017, and the crowd remembered. So did the officiating crew, who flagged Moore for unsportsmanlike conduct. Rather than elect to take the yardage on the ensuing kickoff, MSU elected to back up the Rebels' point-after attempt by 15 yards. Sure enough, kicker Luke Logan shanked the kick to the right.

In the days that followed, Ole Miss would jettison alumnus and program caretaker Matt Luke, who took over the smoldering wreckage of the Hugh Freeze scandals. The move was swift, and Moore's antics were no doubt the kindling, but there was a purpose — courting former Tennessee and USC coach Lane Kiffin, who was involved at the time in a slow dance with Arkansas.

"There was a quick turn when Ole Miss entered," a source close to the negotiations says. "As soon as the Rebels contacted him, Lane was ready to go. It wasn't really about Oxford or tradition or any of that. He saw a chance at a better roster and a better recruiting structure, which gave him a better shot of staying around in the league this time."

The move to bring one of the most galvanizing personalities in the SEC back into the league would've led offseason headlines. Then, as if they felt challenged to respond to their hated rivals' PR move, State hired the one man capable of upstaging Kiffin.

Maybe it wasn't broke

The idea of Mike Leach vs. Lane Kiffin is a national draw — two larger-than-life personalities both contrasting and familiar. But the reality is that neither the Rebels nor the Bulldogs were that desperate due to on-the-field results.

"I think you can say they were both more of a business move than a ‘what's better for the team or program' move," SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic says. "I get that business influences these decisions, but if you're talking purely about winning football games in the near future, you could argue that both programs were going to do that. In Ole Miss' case, you could definitely argue things were trending up."

After suffering through NCAA sanctions following the implosion of Freeze's tenure, Ole Miss had begun to show signs of consistency, albeit small ones, in 2019. In his third season in Oxford, Luke scrapped his staff and brought in two former Pac-12 head coaches, Rich Rodriguez and Mike McIntyre, to overhaul the Rebels' schemes.

The Rebels floundered out of the gate, losing 15–10 to eventual AAC champion Memphis. After a blowout loss to Alabama, the Rebels were competitive but never cohesive, relying heavily on a group of skilled but green underclassmen and fresh signees. By the time Moore whizzed away the Egg Bowl PAT, Luke had only three conference wins in his last two seasons.

"I think they found out who they were a little bit late," Cubelic says. "Honestly, if [QB John Rhys] Plumlee was the guy in camp, they probably win two or three more games. They probably end up beating Memphis, and they were in it all the way with Texas A&M and Auburn.

"At one point they had 80 percent of their production coming from freshmen. They had only achieved a full 85-scholarship limit in August of 2019. It wasn't hard to diagnose. When you're asking that many guys at that age to do that many things for your football team, I don't know what people expected. The defense gave up yards and plays but they were three times better than they were two or three years prior. You had two great coordinators, but you had a head coach for some reason the fans had turned on. From my perspective, with all the youth they had, there was no reason to make the move they made for football reasons."

Meanwhile, the standards had changed in Starkville. Joe Moorhead's 14–12 record and two bowl bids in two seasons were deemed unsuitable for the Bulldogs. The win-loss record for Moorhead, a renowned play-caller at Penn State, is deceptively solid in the minds of some MSU loyalists. Dan Mullen had fled Starkville for Florida, but the defense he left behind in 2018 was statistically the nation's best, allowing a scant 13.2 points per game and producing three NFL first-round draft picks.

Despite that once-in-a-generation assemblage of talent on one side of the ball, MSU finished a pedestrian 8–5 thanks in large part to a disconnect between Moorhead's offensive system and the option-oriented talent of Mullen's quarterbacks. Entering 2019, Moorhead's Dogs were tripped out of the gate when self-imposed penalties as part of an NCAA investigation created a bizarre scenario: State would have to sit a group of players throughout the season for a varying number of games each, including key players like linebacker Willie Gay.

"I think last season was played under false pretenses from an expectation standpoint for State," Cubelic says.

"You could say the defense was inconsistent, but when you take the equivalent of almost 80 game suspensions spread out over all those players, how could you not be? You have obvious first-team guys who are now on the scout team, starters who can't play — that's not way to develop leadership or chemistry. I'm not sure if the decision-makers would've taken the entirety of those suspensions into account that they would've made that move."

The Egg Bowl incident saved Moorhead for another month. He famously told the media they'd have to "drag my Yankee ass outta here," but after the Bulldogs lost to a rebuilding Louisville team in the Music City Bowl, Moorhead was let go.

The message was clear — it mattered more for Mississippi State to win as much and as often as possible than it did to beat Ole Miss and simply maintain a non-losing record.

Too weird to hate (for now)

"If you could pick two coaches that really wanted their fan bases to look big picture, these two would probably be it," says Brian Hadad, co-host of SuperTalk Mississippi. "Until their teams see each other on the field, it's hard to tell if things are any different. If you look on social media, [the rivalry] is as bad as ever, but that's a terrible place to look."

While it's very, very early in the Leach-Kiffin era, what Mississippi fans and media have already noticed is that both coaches arrived to these jobs as already-established names. That's important, because so much of the recent Egg Bowl-era vitriol was fanned by first-time Power 5 head coaches trying to build their brand through galvanizing their fan bases.

Also — Kiffin and Leach are just sort of doing their own thing.

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"The impression from Leach so far is that he's worried about his players and his system and himself and not much else. You get the impression he's coaching against himself. Kiffin has come across as inordinately chill for a coach. It's hard to imagine him getting furious about a single game or opponent," Hadad says.

"I just don't think you could ever get these coaches to take this rivalry seriously in public. I don't think you could ever get either one of them on the record using a phrase like ‘The School Up North.'"

It's possible neither coach knew where Ole Miss and State were relative to one another until a few months ago. That clean-slate approach to the state's bitter dynamic has merged with their apparent friendliness so far. Kiffin has routinely retweeted Leach on social media with laughter and praise, talking openly about his affinity for Leach's esoteric, offbeat commentary and character.

Whereas the Egg Bowl rivalry seemed to peak when Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze lobbed public and private barbs at each other's programs and fan bases, rival SEC coaches don't feel like either new Magnolia coach will be interested in — or even capable of — manifesting much hate.

"You look at what Lane's been through, being fired in the NFL, walking out on Tennessee, fired on the tarmac at USC... how is Mike gonna get under his skin?" asks an SEC assistant coach. "Why would he? Losing to him? No. There's a level of self-involvement with these guys Freeze and Mullen didn't have, but that comes from confidence. Both of these guys have already succeeded so much before they got here. Mississippi won't define them."

There is, of course, one exception that could break this warm new Egg Bowl friendship long before the football teams actually hit one another in November.

"Recruiting is still recruiting. You watch. In Mississippi, you go to war for those kids," an SEC head coach says.

The real season is the offseason

"My biggest concern I had with the Mike Leach hire is recruiting," 247Sports analyst Barton Simmons says.

"You can get away with a passive attitude on the recruiting trail in Pullman. In the SEC West, especially in the state of Mississippi, you've got to fight some absolute wars on the recruiting trail. Can Leach bring in enough talent to win some of those wars? I think he'd have to show a side that he hasn't shown yet to get that done. I'm less concerned about the reputation of the offense and more interested to see if he's ready to roll his sleeves up and battle."

Given that Leach has run his own unique version of the Hal Mumme Air Raid for years, he attracts both a particular level of talent (as measured by recruiting services) for his system, and a variety of hidden gems.

"I don't think [Mississippi State AD] John Cohen would ever admit this, but they brought in Leach because of his ability to find those [Mississippi native] Gardner Minshews. That's why Dan Mullen was successful there. He found his Dak Prescotts, the three-stars he could turn into NFL guys," an SEC head coach says.

Leach has already assuaged some of the doubts surrounding his ability to recruit big names by reeling in four-star quarterback prospect Sawyer Robertson from Leach's old stomping grounds of Lubbock, Texas. "At the end of the day, I wanted to play for Coach Leach," Robertson told 247, a statement that had to be music to the ears of Bulldogs fans.

Meanwhile in Oxford, the story remains the same — the Rebels are banking on their next head coach's ability to recruit above all else. This was the same methodology that caused former chancellor Robert Khayat to famously endorse the hire of a very inexperienced Ed Orgeron in 2004, and recruiting was the sole metric by which Hugh Freeze's success — and failure — was tracked.

"I'd be pretty excited about Ole Miss recruiting if I'm in that fan base," Simmons says. "I think his brand is still strong. Expectations should be well within the [recruiting] top 25, and with some positive indicators on the field you could see Ole Miss climb into the top-15 range regularly. Anything beyond that will probably take some on-field breakthroughs, because the climate right now is so competitive."

While Leach and Kiffin (along with new Ole Miss OC Jeff Lebby, a former UCF assistant) will run dissimilar systems on offense, that doesn't mean they won't butt heads recruiting particular positions on that side of the ball — or on any spot across the defense. And long before the NCAA came to town, Mullen's and Freeze's war exploded over the myriad in-state blue chippers they both desperately needed to build rosters capable of competing with LSU and Alabama.

"I think Lane Kiffin is going to try to recruit regionally and nationally in a very competitive way. I would expect Mike Leach to recruit much more locally," Simmons says.

"The best thing that could happen to Mississippi State is for Kiffin to get this train rolling nationally in recruiting, because the void that could create within the four-hour Starkville radius could allow both programs to recruit at a high level. We saw that a little bit in the Hugh Freeze-Dan Mullen years when both programs were good. I think if Ole Miss and Mississippi State are fighting over the same recruits, there's not room for two good programs in the state. If Kiffin wins some national recruiting battles, that's great news for Mississippi State."

Relevancy supersedes hatred

"I think it was simple. The decision-makers at both schools were afraid of falling behind, that's why they made these hires," an SEC head coach says.

While several in the industry scoffed at the idea of replacing Moorhead after only two seasons, or holding Luke accountable for a roster withered by Freeze's NCAA battles, there's a fact of life in the SEC West — you're either constantly improving, or you're falling behind. And in the case of the Mississippi programs, the margins between being a factor in the division and cellar-dwelling obscurity are considerably smaller. Settling is simply no longer an option in Mississippi, perennially among the nation's poorest states but capable of paying two college football head coaches over $5 million annually in college football's modern era.

There is another factor at play: For years Ole Miss and State fans have been viewed by outsiders as content to tear one another down, that the Egg Bowl outcome was the only way to judge success. By importing Leach and Kiffin, both programs have sent a signal that they're investing in national relevance first — and beating the hell out of each other a close second.

"You have to be able to convince your fans that if you go 10–2 at Mississippi State but you lose to Ole Miss, that's still a good season. You have to get them to understand that's better than 8–4 and beating the Rebels, or vice versa," Hadad says.

"But... it's impossible to really tell. You can't figure out how bad it is until they play each other."

— Written by Steven Godfrey for Athlon Sports' 2020 SEC Football Magazine.

(Mike Leach photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics; Lane Kiffin photo courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics)