Lane Kiffin knows making players employees is the way to fix college football

Ole Miss coach calls for contracts
Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin waves to fans during the Walk of Champions in the Grove before an NCAA college football game against Georgia Tech in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin waves to fans during the Walk of Champions in the Grove before an NCAA college football game against Georgia Tech in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)

It’s not surprising that Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin said the transfer portal and NIL systems are a “disaster” for college football. He’s among many coaches who don’t like the increased roster turnover that’s come along with players having more power. They long for the days when coaches had more leverage to keep players on campus once they arrive.

What’s different about Kiffin is that he’s one of the few coaches who’s willing to state the obvious solution to the problem.

“You’ve got to adjust again until they figure out some semblance of a system that would model professional sports, and these (players) would be employees and they would have real contracts and (then) everyone would know,” Kiffin told reporters after his team’s first spring practice Wednesday.

Some of Kiffin’s colleagues would have us believe their disdain for the NIL and portal is about protecting players. Kiffin, as is his habit, skips over coachspeak and gets right to the truth. If coaches want to stabilize the system, then they should accept that players are workers and treat them as such.

Negotiate contracts that bind players to teams for a period. In exchange for that commitment, teams pay the players salaries. We know that would end the constant roster turnover in college sports because that’s how it works in professional leagues.

Kiffin’s candid comments were in response to a question about cultivating team chemistry when rosters change so much. Kiffin said he had a handle on the issue until NCAA officials, facing legal challenges, ruled that athletes who transfer more than once are immediately eligible at their new schools instead of having to sit out a year.

“I said in the SEC meetings, college football, in regards to the portal and NIL, is a disaster,” Kiffin said. “I said that last year. And then they really changed a major thing in the system, and now everyone can transfer multiple times, so that creates really different ways of going about that.

“Now you’ve got to worry about losing all your guys multiple times, twice a year, because as of now, there are two windows. I think you could ... say our last-year plan worked well because we won 11 games, and we were very portal-heavy.”

Kiffin has gamed the system better than any coach in major college football.

Ole Miss had the second-ranked transfer class in 2023, according to 247Sports, with 23 incoming players. They helped the Rebels win 11 games for the first time in school history. Ole Miss has the top-ranked transfer class this year. Kiffin said that signing so many good, experienced players is one reason why his team’s 2024 roster is “the best one since we’ve been here, probably, by far.”

The coach who is winning the portal is calling for changing the rules of the game.

“I know it sounds strange,” Kiffin said. “I am the first to admit that Ole Miss as much as anybody benefits from the transfer portal and the system. And I am telling you that even with that, how much it helps us personally, it is a disaster and it got worse.

“It just is what it is. We will just always continue to adjust as they continue to make the system worse.”

Kiffin is the only active coach who’s forthright about making the system better by paying players. I predict more Power 5 coaches will join Kiffin’s chorus as big-time football schools continue to assert more independence from other NCAA members. The latest development in that schism is the formation of an SEC-Big Ten advisory group to “address the significant challenges facing college athletics.”

The NIL and transfer portal are near the top of that list. Division I and II coaches who responded to an NCAA survey released last year cited player retention as their top concern. Adopting Kiffin’s idea of signing players to contracts is the best way to solve that problem for coaches while also allowing college athletes to finally have the same rights as all workers.

Jim Harbaugh was singing the same tune as Kiffin before he left for the NFL’s Chargers days after winning the national championship at Michigan. Harbaugh lobbied for players to get a piece of the financial pie during ESPN’s College Football Playoff show, then reiterated his stance to reporters before the national championship game.

“The one I can’t figure out is why the players aren’t sharing in the revenue, why that change hasn’t occurred,” Harbaugh said. “People come to watch the players. They really don’t come to watch the coaches, they don’t come watch the administrators. They come to watch the players.

“And in a world where the revenue is ever growing, the student-athletes being able to participate in that ever-growing revenue, who could argue against them? And when is that going to change? When is everybody going to start using their voice to say, ‘Hey, this is wrong, this isn’t right’?”

I doubt morality will be the reason why players get a fair share of the substantial revenue that they generate. The people with the power in the system have a vested interest in the status quo, including the coaches and administrators that Harbaugh mentioned. It’s more likely that self-preservation will be the driving force behind college athletes winning labor rights.

NCAA schools are facing antitrust lawsuits from former players and the federal government. They stand to lose billions of dollars if the plaintiffs prevail. College sports leaders have created chaos in the system with an incremental approach to giving athletes more power. They just can’t let go of the dying “amateur” model.

One result of that failed strategy is patchwork NIL and transfer rules leading to heavy roster turnover in college football. Kiffin’s program has benefited from the upheaval, but even he knows the system needs to change. And he’s right that making players employees is the way to make it better.