Lane, Leach and how college football’s wildest rivalry will get even weirder


OXFORD, Miss. — It happened so fast, Tyrone Nix can’t remember who said it first.

What the former Rebels outside linebackers coach does remember is that the Ole Miss coaches’ headsets were buzzing with essentially the same ominous message after Ole Miss receiver Elijah Moore dropped to all fours in the end zone, lifted his leg and pretended to urinate like a dog to flush away his team’s chances in the 2019 Egg Bowl against Mississippi State.

“That right there freaking probably cost us our jobs,” Nix recounted. “That was the quote.”

Moore’s 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which contributed to the Rebels missing a 35-yard extra point attempt and falling to Mississippi State 21-20 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, sparked an unexpected football upheaval in the state of Mississippi, the kind that promises to make the Egg Bowl — a rivalry that one SEC power broker says makes Alabama-Auburn “look like Sunday school” — even more intriguing, if that’s possible.

Nix, now UTSA’s defensive coordinator, has no doubt Moore’s excessive celebration was the final blow for then-Ole Miss coach Matt Luke.

He’s not alone.

“I remember thinking, ‘Is it going to come down to a kid pretending to pee in the end zone that’s going to cost us our jobs?'” recounted Rich Rodriguez, who was Ole Miss’ offensive coordinator last season. “I guess everybody has their reasons. Sometimes kids just make mistakes. Elijah’s a good kid, and you hope he’s not defined by that. You sure as hell would hope that a program is not defined by a guy making a mistake. Matt did a great job with discipline on that team. It was just a spur-of-the-moment bad decision that young guys sometimes make, and here we are.”



Elijah Moore’s touchdown cuts Ole Miss’ deficit to one point, but an unsportsmanlike penalty pushes the Rebels’ extra-point attempt back and it’s missed by Luke Logan.

Even the guy who now occupies the Ole Miss head-coaching office, Lane Kiffin, agrees he wouldn’t be in Oxford now had that not happened. “That just shows you how stupid this profession is,” Kiffin told ESPN. “If that kid doesn’t lift his leg or they make the extra point [and end up winning], Matt Luke is still here and Joe Moorhead is fired the next day [at Mississippi State] instead of the other way around.

“That’s the profession.”

Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter also acknowledges everything changed that night.

“As I kind of took the pulse and reading the tea leaves from our fan base, I felt like there was a large portion of our fan base that had been on the fence that were maybe willing to give Matt another year and see where we could take this thing,” Carter said. “But when the events of that night happened, it kind of put those people on the other side of the fence.”

Three days after the stunning Egg Bowl loss, Carter fired Luke, a former Ole Miss football player, whose father and brother also played for the school. Luke, who was promoted to unite the fan base after the firing of Hugh Freeze and an NCAA investigation, had a 15-21 record in three seasons.

“I still think Matt Luke was the right man for the job,” Nix said. “It was only a matter of time before we were going to get it turned. It’s unfortunate that one play got him.”

Luke wasn’t even the coach who was supposed to lose his job after the Egg Bowl. There was much more pressure on Moorhead, a former Penn State offensive coordinator and Pittsburgh native who never seemed to be an ideal fit in Starkville.

After the Rebels handed the Bulldogs an unexpected victory in the Egg Bowl, Moorhead famously said on Thanksgiving night: “This is my team, this is my school, this is my program. You’ll have to drag my Yankee ass out of here.”

Rick Cleveland, an award-winning columnist who has covered sports in the state for more than 40 years, was in the room the night Moorhead uttered those words and immediately looked over to Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen.

“He looked like he was constipated,” Cleveland quipped.

Moore’s actions led to a string of dominoes that no one in the Magnolia State could have seen coming:

1. Less than a week after Carter fired Luke, the school hired Kiffin, who won a pair of Conference USA championships at Florida Atlantic but had drama-filled tenures at Tennessee and USC in his first two collegiate head-coaching stops.

2. Kiffin was actually at the top of Arkansas’ list to replace fired Chad Morris, after candidates such as Memphis’ Mike Norvell and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn declined interest in the opening. When Kiffin chose Ole Miss, Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek hired Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman, a former Hogs assistant.

3. Two days after Pittman left, Georgia coach Kirby Smart hired Luke as his team’s new offensive line coach.

4. Moorhead, who seemed to be safe after the Egg Bowl victory, was fired on Jan. 3, four days after the Bulldogs lost to Louisville 38-28 in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl to finish 6-7 in his second season. That’s despite going 2-0 against Ole Miss. Moorhead was later hired as Oregon’s offensive coordinator.

5. Six days later, the final domino fell when the Bulldogs hired Washington State’s Mike Leach, who had also interviewed for the Arkansas vacancy. Mississippi State had targeted former player Joe Judge, but he became the New York Giants’ head coach, which led the Bulldogs back to Leach after some earlier conversations.

“It wasn’t just some mad dash to the SEC. I was very happy in Pullman. I loved Washington State,” said Leach, who was close to landing the Tennessee head-coach job in 2018 before athletic director John Currie was fired and replaced by Phillip Fulmer. “I’d been [at Washington State] eight years and just wanted to see what was on the other side of the hill.”

And just like that, football in the state of Mississippi became a must-see event — on the field, at the podium and on Twitter.

“I don’t know,” Ole Miss legend Archie Manning said when asked if the state of Mississippi was ready for Kiffin and Leach. “But I do know this: It’s sure not going to be boring.”

Leach, unique personality aside, won eight-plus games from 2015 to 2018, nine-plus in three of those seasons. And while it’s true he struggled against rival Washington, it’s also worth remembering the Cougars had 13 non-winning seasons in the 17 years before his arrival in Pullman.

“Having coached for a long time in the SEC, I can tell you the defensive coaches are going to hate that Mike is in that league,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “They threw the ball 710 times last year at Washington State and completed over 70% of them and had the ball almost the whole game. It’s going to be interesting because he’s going to do it his way.”

The same goes for Kiffin, whom Carter saw as somebody who could energize the Ole Miss program. But the first thing Carter wanted to do was to get to know Kiffin before going too far down that road, especially given some of the controversy that has followed Kiffin throughout his career.

“You’ve got to sit across from people and look them in the eyes and size them up and get a comfort level that you can coexist with this person and be successful with this person and lock arms,” Carter said. “When I sat down with Lane in [Boca Raton, Florida], it didn’t really take me long to figure that out, that we had a shared vision.”

It’s no secret Kiffin wanted to get back into the SEC and had emerged as the top candidate at Arkansas. But Ole Miss was the job he really wanted. He just wasn’t sure Ole Miss wanted him.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Can Ole Miss please call today?'” Kiffin said.

And even though Kiffin is adamant it’s a more mature, gracious version of the Lane Train that gets his second shot as a head coach in the SEC, he can’t help himself when asked what went through his mind while watching his friend and former colleague Ed Orgeron win the national championship at LSU last season.

“I was thinking that maybe I’ve got a chance. Pat Haden fired Ed, too [at USC]. Pat Haden didn’t think Ed was good enough, either,” Kiffin said.

Despite “any perceived risks” in hiring Kiffin, Carter said the Ole Miss administration trusted him to make the decision.

“There were people I was talking to, bouncing things off of and seeking advice from, and certainly there were some things that came up about Lane’s journey and some of the things that were out there,” Carter said. “But ultimately, I felt like the risk-reward factor was much more to the reward side and that there was an opportunity for Lane to come in really from day one and galvanize our fan base and create a buzz around our program, which has happened not only here but nationally.

“We haven’t won a game yet, but we’re relevant and relevant nationally because of his reputation and his name and the things he’s accomplished in football.”

Nobody is more revered by Rebels fans or more invested in Ole Miss football than Manning, who admitted to ESPN that he was “a little surprised” when Kiffin was hired.

“I say that because of some of the things that have happened surrounding him in the past,” Manning said. “But I know he’s capable and hope he’s learned from some of his past experiences. We all learn from the past. But I’m all for him. He’s my coach.”

Kiffin and Manning have traded text messages since Kiffin was hired. And, yes, Kiffin has already dropped by Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, where the latest Manning quarterback is honing his skills. Archie’s grandson, Arch Manning — son of Cooper Manning — is a rising sophomore already drawing the interest of recruiters from all over the country.

“Some people say we needed a splash hire. We needed the right hire,” Manning said. “It was getting a little apathetic. Some of the crowds were really down, especially for the nonconference games. But, man, it’s a tough conference.”



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Apathy was also setting in at Mississippi State, which had struggled to remain relevant nationally after former coach Dan Mullen departed in 2018. In 2014, Mullen and quarterback Dak Prescott guided the Bulldogs to their first No. 1 ranking with a 9-0 start. MSU finished 10-2, including a 31-17 loss to Ole Miss.

After three more seasons, Mullen left for Florida, where he had worked as offensive coordinator on Urban Meyer’s two national championship-winning teams in 2006 and 2008.

Moorhead, who had coached at Fordham and led Penn State’s offense for two seasons, went 8-5 in his first season at MSU in 2018. But then the early cries of “Moor Cowbell” turned into more losses. The Bulldogs went 6-7 in a distraction-laden 2019 season, one that was marred even more by a reported fight between linebacker Willie Gay and quarterback Garrett Shrader before the bowl game. Shrader ended up missing the bowl game, and Gay was one of 10 players earlier in the season who was suspended for a violation of team rules.

Leach wasn’t watching the Egg Bowl when Moore’s celebration penalty cost the Rebels. But he has heard plenty about it since taking the job.

“Obviously, it’s a bad deal,” Leach said. “A deal like that hurts your whole unit, hurts your whole team. It might be fun for you individually, but it has a negative effect on the entire group. You can’t allow any of it.”

Those on both sides of the Egg Bowl rivalry hope the Kiffin-Leach dynamic will help disinfect a rivalry that has seemed to grow only nastier over the years. The two coaches are friends and genuinely enjoy each other’s company, going back to their days in the Pac-12 as head coaches.

“He’s awesome, very different,” Kiffin said of Leach. “I just like him because he says what he wants to say and doesn’t do what everybody else does, which is worry about what everybody thinks.”

And for the record, Kiffin says that Leach’s “Twitter is way better than mine.”

“We get along, which you’re not allowed to do in the SEC,” Kiffin said facetiously. “I’ve actually had others tell me people were pissed that I was being nice to [Leach]. That’s the SEC, though. I’d be in SEC coaches meetings, and those guys are almost trained not to be nice to each other. … I know it’s supposed to be competitive, but sometimes it goes too far.”

Leach has known Kiffin for a long time and says, “Lane is entertaining, no doubt.”

That said, Leach isn’t sure how much his friendship with Kiffin will douse the animosity fans of both schools have for the other side.

“It’s always been kind of a nasty game, like rivalries are,” Leach said. “I can’t think of too many that aren’t. … I suspect it won’t die down much. The venom of these rivalries starts with the fans, and as that escalates, I think there’s a vibe among the two teams and then it escalates from there.”

Cleveland, who also has worked as the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in addition to being one of the leading media voices for sports in that state for the past four decades, is hopeful the nastiness of the rivalry will be toned down some because of the relationship between Kiffin and Leach. But he’ll also believe it when he sees it.

“Let’s see if they remain buddies,” Cleveland said. “It hasn’t seemed to matter in the past. Things always seem to get rocky at some point, and the nastiness has never been good for either school. You’re in the smallest, poorest state, and there’s two of you. My point is that it’s hard enough to compete in the SEC West without batting each other over the head all of the time.”

Either way, the Egg Bowl is sure to remain plenty lively, and that goes for the football field and the Twittersphere.

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