Lane Kiffin appeared on Bo Mattingly’s Arkansas sports talk show on Tuesday, and for the most part the interview was your standard Lane Kiffin fare: He loves his job at FAU, he’s not ruling out another Power 5 job but he’s not itching to get back there, working for Nick Saban was beneficial but difficult. Lane’s basically living out his version of Rascal Flatts’s “Bless the Broken Road” in Boca Raton.
But then the interview took an interesting turn, down a road perfectly carved for sports radio and college football websites, especially in the middle of May: wild speculation!
Mattingly: “When we’ve followed your career over the years here in Arkansas, there’s been a few times when your name has popped up for the Arkansas job. One of the times, I think, was when Bobby Petrino ended up taking the job. Have you ever been a step away from the Arkansas job?”
Kiffin: “Without getting into too much detail, I was very close to coming there one time. I won’t get into detail why we would not come or could not come, but it was very close to happening.”
There have actually been three openings in Fayetteville when Kiffin could have plausibly been considered for the job, following the 2007 season (when Petrino ditched the Atlanta Falcons mid-season), following the 2012 season (when the Hogs hired Bret Bielema) and this past winter, when Chad Morris was hired away from SMU.
Kiffin didn’t specify which time he was close to becoming the Head Hog, but Mattingly asked about the first opening, so we’ll go with that one. It’s the most narratively interesting, and the most logical choice from Lane’s perspective. He wasn’t leaving USC for Arkansas in 2012, and he wasn’t a candidate this time around after one season at FAU.
But in the winter of 2007 it was very plausible that Kiffin would have been interested in Arkansas and that Arkansas would be interested in him. Remember, the 32-year-old Kiffin was in the midst of a disastrous first season as the Oakland Raiders’ head coach. We know Arkansas was looking at pulling a sitting NFL head coach away from his team mid-season, because that’s what the Hogs did with Petrino. So it seems highly plausible that Arkansas tried that tactic first with Kiffin and he strongly considered pulling the ripcord on a failed tenure — the Raiders fired him four games into the 2008 season — before deciding that move would be a bridge too far, even for the pre-humbling Lane Kiffin.
So let’s assume Lane bails on the Raiders in December 2007, and that everything else in the college football world plays out the same.
This means Petrino probably sticks it out with his failed Falcons tenure for another season. Auburn fired Tommy Tuberville in 2008, so do those two make their long-distance flirtation official? And if so, what happens to Gene Chizik — and Gus Malzahn? If Petrino takes the Auburn job in 2008, when does Malzahn break back into the SEC?
And if we’re assuming the timeline remains the same, this means Pete Carroll still leaves USC after the 2009 season. In the real world, Kiffin coveted USC so strongly he was willing to bail on Tennessee after one year, so, in our simulated world, he would definitely leave Arkansas after two years if the Trojans came calling.
If Arkansas opened — again — after 2009, do the Hogs bring Malzahn home as head coach, allowing him to move from Springdale High School’s head coach to Arkansas’s head coach in a 4-season span? Or does Arkansas beat Mississippi State to the punch and hire Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen? If so, who does Mississippi State hire?
Heck, who does Tennessee hire after Phillip Fulmer’s 2008 firing if Kiffin is in place at Arkansas by then? The Vols tried to hire Charlie Strong away from Louisville in 2012, so maybe Big Orange makes a run at the then-Florida defensive coordinator as a means of undercutting Urban Meyer’s behemoth at Florida.
To take this hypothetical a step further, does Cam Newton still transfer to Auburn ahead of the 2010 season if Bobby Petrino is running the offense and not Malzahn? Is it possible he reunites with Mullen at Arkansas and carries the Hogs to the 2010 national title? Where is Bret Bielema today if the Arkansas job isn’t his for the taking in 2012? Where is Wisconsin?
The possibilities are literally endless, but it’s easy to see how the entire SEC landscape would be different in 2018 if things played out just a tad bit differently more than a decade ago. The butterfly effect is in play in every walk of life, but rarely do you see it play out so clearly than in the college football coaching market.
God bless the broken road, indeed.