State of interest: Mississippi may now be the center of the college football universe

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·5 mins read

Joe Moorhead. John Hendrick. Matt Luke.

Last season, those were the three football coaches at Mississippi State, Jackson State and Ole Miss, respectively.

You had to be one very devoted college football fan to know their names, and not just because they went a combined 14-23 last year before each was relieved of his duties. Good men, sure, but these were mostly anonymous guys, career assistants who were little threat to win games, let alone generate headlines.

Well, it’s an entirely different state of Mississippi these days.

Meet the new guys: Mike Leach. Deion Sanders. Lane Kiffin.

Or you may know them as: The Pirate. Coach Prime. The Lane Train.

Welcome to the most interesting state in college football, at least in the category of coaching personalities and profiles.

This may or may not produce the best football over the next few years, but it will undoubtedly be entertaining. And if you happen to be an in-state recruit with these three all coming after you, buckle up and enjoy the show.

Then-Southern California coach Lane Kiffin (R) and then-Washington State coach Mike Leach watch their teams warm up for an NCAA college football game in Los Angeles, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Then-Southern California coach Lane Kiffin (R) and then-Washington State coach Mike Leach watch their teams warm up for an NCAA college football game in Los Angeles, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

It started in December of 2019 when Ole Miss hired Kiffin to replace Luke.

Kiffin has been a live wire wherever he’s been – and wherever he’s left. In 2007 he was hired, at age 31, by the Oakland Raiders to be the youngest NFL coach in the league, but he began feuding with owner Al Davis almost immediately over Kiffin’s opposition to using the No. 1 overall pick on JaMarcus Russell (score one for Lane).

It got worse. For instance, knowing Davis was about to fire him, Kiffin, in his final game, did things like have kicker Sebastian Janikowski attempt a 76-yard field goal (it fell short). When Davis finally pulled the plug, he held a lengthy press conference, complete with an overhead projector, to detail Kiffin’s failings.

Kiffin then took over Tennessee to much fanfare and immediately began ruffling feathers across the SEC. After just one season, though, he left for USC. (This resulted in an effort to name a waste management station after him in Knoxville). He lasted three-and-a-half seasons with the Trojans before getting pulled off the team plane and fired on the LAX tarmac.

He wound up on the staff of Alabama, where he upgraded the offense and showed his play-calling skill. Then Tide coach Nick Saban grew so annoyed that he fired Kiffin in the middle of the 2016-17 College Football Playoff.

Kiffin was off to Florida Atlantic though, where he went 26-13, routinely punched above the program’s weight and created lots of media attention. The guy can coach. That was enough for Ole Miss, who wanted a return to relevance and is quite willing to deal with a bit of a character.

“The charisma and the energy that he [has is] going to be perfect,” athletic director Keith Carter said.

Mississippi State followed that up a month later by luring Leach to replace Moorhead.

Leach built winners at Texas Tech and Washington State in part by embracing the then-novel “Air Raid” offense and chucking passes all over the place. Couple that with a colorful personality complete with comic press conferences and media interactions.

Dubbed the Pirate because of his love of pirates, he reveled in things like giving dating advice (can you use a coupon on the first date?) or debating which Pac-12 mascot would win a battle royale – “What kind of mythical powers does a Sun Devil have, we have to consider that.”

“We didn’t hire Mike Leach because he is charismatic, but he is,” athletic director John Cohen said. “We didn’t hire Mike Leach because he has a great sense of humor, but he does.”

Deion Sanders attends SiriusXM at Super Bowl LIII Radio Row on January 31, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
Deion Sanders attends SiriusXM at Super Bowl LIII Radio Row on January 31, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

Not to be outdone, however, is Jackson State, an FCS program that isn’t playing this season due to COVID-19. The proud, HBCU program that counts Walter Payton as an alum announced this week the hiring of Sanders, one of the greatest athletes in modern times – he played in the NFL and MLB (once on the same day).

The only thing greater than his athletic prowess is his self-promotion, which dates back to his days at Florida State. He currently wants to be referred to as “Coach Prime,” a play off of his old “Prime Time” nickname. He arrived at his introductory press conference in a Cadillac via police and marching band escort.

“Confidence is my natural odor,” Coach Prime said.

That was Monday. By Wednesday he had landed a transfer from Mississippi State and was tweeting out that he needed to find a four-bedroom house, preferable on a private lake. He makes Kiffin and Leach look shy.

Sanders adds some salt to what was already expected to be some wild recruiting battles. Jackson State doesn’t normally fare well against the SEC schools Leach and Kiffin run, but with Coach Prime, anything is possible. Although, he says he may have his eye on even bigger battles.

“I’m not recruiting against Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin,” Sanders said. “Read into that.”

Saban and Coach O?

Alrighty then. Hey, why not?

This is Mississippi in full bloom, full of bluster, full of promise, full of fun. If you want to take it a step further, there is even Southern Miss, whose interim coach, Scotty Walden, is the youngest in FBS football at age 30 and could be reasonably described as a human can of Red Bull. USM can keep him permanently, or try to find their own personality.

There’s no telling what will work here. Can Leach duplicate the magic again? Can Kiffin live up to his long-held potential? Can Sanders be as much of a coach and organizer as he is a motivator and promoter?

Who knows?

It’s going to be fun to find out though, right there in Mississippi.

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