Is Pursuing Lane Kiffin A Good Idea For the Vikings?

Photo credit: Calvin Mattheis (The Knoxville News-Sentinel)

In the wake of the Black Monday firings of Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman, speculation ran rampant about their replacements. One name that continuously cropped up: Lane Kiffin. Kiffin has been in the NFL before, presiding over the infamous JaMarcus Russell era in Oakland. But he might be eyeing a second stint in the pros. If he did join the Minnesota Vikings, would he even be a good idea? Or would Kiffin just be one more in a long list of names that couldn’t turn the Vikings into contenders?

It should be noted that any head-coaching smoke that comes out right now is just that: smoke. Mark Wilf told reporters on Monday that the team would hire a GM before they hired a head coach, and that GM will have influence over the decision. That means there isn’t a secret code that an intrepid reporter can crack to get the answer ahead of time. Still, there is clear interest, so we know Kiffin is at least a name on a list. That warrants a deeper look into his merits.

Uh oh, a college coach

College coaches have a spotty track record in the NFL, to put it lightly. It’s a different world. In college, working with mostly 18-22-year-olds requires a different type of energy. Imagine P.J. Fleck‘s rah-rah approach in the NFL, trying to motivate a 31-year-old veteran who has seen far more battle than Fleck has. Players are adults in the NFL. If you don’t treat them as such, you might lose their trust entirely.

We’ve seen this bear out more than once. The first example that comes to mind is the most recent one. Urban Meyer’s tenure in Jacksonville was a legendary disaster, complete with infidelity and an incident that legally counts as an assault on his kicker. Still, Meyer is a unique character. We shouldn’t lump every college coach in with him.

Unfortunately, you have to look pretty hard to find a success story. Chip Kelly flamed out and went back to the college ranks. Bill O’Brien never made it past the divisional round despite Bill Belichick’s tutelage. Steve Spurrier couldn’t find pro-level success until he got a job in the Alliance of American Football. He did a lousy job in the pros, by his admission. Even the great Nick Saban fizzled in two years, going 15-17.

That’s not to say there haven’t been success stories. Jim Harbaugh only lasted five years, but that included three NFC Championship game appearances. Tom Coughlin’s illustrious stint as an NFL head coach went through Boston College first.* Let’s not forget older examples like Jimmy Johnson or even the original, Paul Brown.

On the whole, there have been many more failures than successes. Sometimes, it takes a second try. Pete Carroll and Tom Coughlin were both fired once before winning Super Bowls. It makes sense that someone would be better at something the second time around, so maybe there’s more hope for Kiffin. His stint in Oakland ended ugly, but it was also a long time ago.

However, all of this is entirely irrelevant to Lane Kiffin. Sure, he’s a college coach, and so was Chip Kelly, but how much do the two have in common? We can do all the mental gymnastics we want about how college coaches tend to perform. But if we look deeper at Kiffin individually, we can do better than tendency.

An offensive mastermind

After a decade of defensive head coaching, the Vikings may want to return to their old days of an offensive mind at the helm. Before Leslie Frazier, Bud Grant was the closest thing to a defensive coach the Vikings had. Grant jumped directly from being a two-way player to a head coaching job with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Most of Grant’s experience as a player came on offense, which makes those 1970s Vikings defenses all the more impressive.

But after Zimmer and Frazier presided over paltry, stilted offenses, maybe Kiffin’s schematic know-how is just what the doctor ordered. Part of this is a diversity of experience. Kiffin started in a Coryell-style pass-heavy offense at USC during the Pete Carroll years, mostly learning under the legendary Norm Chow.

He then worked with Steve Sarkisian as the Trojans tried to incorporate some of the flexible Jon Gruden offense that took the NFL by storm in the early 2000s. Those were the famous Reggie Bush-era Trojan teams that used shifts, motions, and disguise to get favorable matchups for their superstar. Exploiting matchups was a huge weakness of the Zimmer era, so that might be exciting to you. Unfortunately, Kiffin’s next stop might be the reason you aren’t excited.

In 2007, the Oakland Raiders hired Kiffin as their head coach. They had the first-overall draft pick, so what could possibly go wrong? Al Davis could, of course, strong-arm Kiffin into drafting JaMarcus Russell against his will. Kiffin also had an ailing Daunte Culpepper and a young Josh McCown. All of these quarterbacks had two things in common. First, they used mobility as a key cog to their playing style. Second, they sucked. Because of this, Kiffin designed an offense around short, well-spaced, easy reads and a ton of base runs. It didn’t work, and Kiffin bitterly departed halfway through his second season.

After a short stint at Tennessee, Kiffin returned home to the Trojans. Even though his time in Oakland was a disaster, it bears mentioning that Kiffin didn’t just bring his USC offense to the NFL. He tried to design something around the talent he had. It didn’t work (maybe nothing would have), but that adaptability is good to see. After that, Kiffin re-joined USC, soon taking over for Carroll, who snuck out the back door to Seattle when scandals were about to devastate the program.

Kiffin’s playbook had solidified as a hybrid of pro and college concepts by then, but the NCAA banned the Trojans from bowl games, and therefore struggled to recruit. Kiffin had to make do with what he had, and it ultimately didn’t last. It should be noted that he lost one of his final games by going for a fourth-and-goal from the one while down nine against the first-ranked team in the country. That sort of aggression might be a welcome change.

Next came the most important stop in Kiffin’s career: Alabama. Saban brought Kiffin in because of that aggression and a modern approach. He enjoyed a lot of success in Alabama, but everyone does, so why does it matter? Kiffin’s most famous contribution to the Crimson Tide was his infamous “copycat offense.” Kiffin stole plays from Baylor, Oregon, Michigan State, and even his old staff at USC. This made him some enemies, to be sure, but it also won him games. There are no patents in the NFL, and Kiffin is keenly aware of that. So is Saban, for what it’s worth.

Kiffin learned a lot in Alabama and transferred that to his magnum opus: the turnaround of the Florida Atlantic Owls. As a head coach, Kiffin handed play-calling duties to his offensive coordinator, Kendal Briles. They installed a hyper-simplistic offense with a few staples and the odd Kiffin wrinkle to catch defenses off guard. Briles didn’t run Kiffin’s Alabama offense, but rather, an inside run-and-read-option hybrid that once again tailored itself to the talent the Owls had on their roster.

Before Kiffin arrived, FAU hadn’t won more than three games in three years. In Kiffin’s three years, they had two 11-win seasons, two bowl appearances, and Kiffin was welcomed back into the Power 5 as the head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels. He kept some of those option plays in with Matt Corral and led the Rebels to two bowl games. A major one is “inverted veer,” which you might recognize if you’ve watched any Lamar Jackson highlight tapes.

Over the years, Kiffin has found ways to maximize his talent, whoever it is. Whether he has to work around the deficiencies of a hobbled Daunte Culpepper or maximize Derrick Henry‘s monstrous talent, he is keenly aware of who he is working with and isn’t attached to one scheme or another. He’s famously aggressive, and he wants to run up the score. That might sound like a great foil to Zimmer’s stodgy approach, but there’s also a culture problem in Minnesota. How would Kiffin fare at fixing it? That’s much more complicated.


Maybe the hardest thing any college coach has to go through is the transition between college-age players and adult players. If he gets an NFL opportunity, Kiffin might concoct an interesting brew of modern concepts. But can he fix Minnesota’s broken culture? The players lost their trust in Mike Zimmer. Why should we believe that Kiffin can restore it?

If this relationship gains any steam, we’ll have to reconcile with Kiffin’s sordid history. His last stint in the NFL ended ugly. Raiders lawyers released statements accusing him of everything from breaching his contract to actively sabotaging the team by supplying information to opponents. Kiffin’s firing ended in arbitration, as Kiffin sued the Raiders for a buyout of the remainder of his contract. Kiffin would lose that lawsuit, as the court ruled that the Raiders had sufficient cause, and Kiffin’s record as Oakland’s head coach fell to 5-16.

Maybe Kiffin was vindicated as Al Davis’s later years went further and further south. Kiffin started to rebuild in Tennessee but snuck out after only one year to be USC’s head coach. Moving from an embattled Tennessee program to his old home and blue-blooded USC is understandable. Hastily calling a news conference and walking out with no warning is less understandable.

Volunteers fans still hold Kiffin in the utmost contempt after his bizarre departure. Kiffin didn’t want his closing remarks to be broadcast live and instead wanted to speak with the media off-camera. This was widely regarded as a cowardly move. Players were baffled. Students protested around the athletic department. Mattresses burned. For the rest of Kiffin’s career, his current employers will always have to worry, even just a little, about a Bobby Petrino situation.

At USC, Kiffin again drew an NFL team’s ire by breaking some rules. He tried to poach running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, which involved correspondence that breached Polamalu’s contract. The Titans would sue Kiffin and USC over this matter.

Kiffin has a reputation for this sort of impersonal, disloyal behavior. Kiffin beefed with Urban Meyer over NCAA rule violations, which Kiffin himself is also guilty of. Much like the NFL, these rules are scarcely enforced, but the hypocrisy is still publicly known. It should be noted that the majority of his interpersonal issues took place with the brass above him, not the players below him.

Both USC and Alabama would dismiss Kiffin as well. Kiffin’s infamous tarmac firing may be even more memorable than the other two, but it had more to do with a 62-point loss to Arizona State than anything related to culture. Once he had taken the Florida Atlantic head coaching job, Nick Saban dismissed Kiffin for that year’s playoffs. Kiffin was on the way out anyway, but college football teams care a lot about loyalty.

By all accounts, Kiffin’s influences on FAU and Ole Miss have been positive, but that image is hard to rehabilitate. He might not be allowed to cross Tennessee state lines after everything he’s done to both the Volunteers and Titans. Can players place their trust in a man who might leave at the drop of a hat? The NFL is a different beast than the NCAA. In college football, coaches can come and go as they please. If you burn bridges in the NFL, the nepotistic boys’ club nature makes it hard to make a comeback.

Speaking of nepotism, the Vikings have a problem with it. After staffing three separate sons of current coaches in a now-defunct regime, how would it look to simply hire the son of longtime Vikings assistant Monte Kiffin? Maybe it’s a plus to some to nod to the golden years of Vikings history, but the optics are important. Vikings players distrust the brass above them. Firing Zimmer and Spielman was the first step toward winning back that trust. But would Lane Kiffin betray that progress? More directly, would he betray the Vikings?

Kiffin is a schematic wizard who bounced from college program to college program with a history of disloyalty. Maybe the Vikings need an offensive wizard after a decade of defensive-minded stiltedness. He’s great at scheming up offense. He’s also great at making enemies. If the Vikings genuinely consider him as a head coach, they’ll need to figure out if he’s learned from past mistakes. And if he hasn’t, it might still be worth it to try. One thing we know about Kiffin: He plays to win.

*An earlier version of this post mentioned that Doug Marrone had led the Bills to two division titles. We regret the error.

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