You know college football has gone off the rails when Lane Kiffin sounds like the most sensible and smartest guy in the room.
Kiffin, 48, who’s starting his fourth season as Ole Miss head football coach, has been an outlier for most of his 27-year college and pro coaching career.
But he’s on target assessing today’s college football revolution that allows players to transfer from school to school each season while legally selling themselves to rich alums and well-to-do jock sniffers.
“They used to ask me what I liked better, coaching in the NFL or coaching in college,” Kiffin told ESPN’s Marty and McGee during July’s SEC Media Days in Nashville.
“I’d say I really like college because players care so much more about where they’re at in college. A lot of that locker room is where they wanted to play when they grew up.
“In the NFL, it’s business and it makes for a different dynamic. We (college) have now moved towards where it’s a business. I’d say the joy is not the same (as it once was).”
Which is what made LSU third-year sophomore quarterback Garrett Nussmeier said Tuesday a refreshing revelation in this era of the student-athlete transfer cash-grab.
A quick backstory: Despite playing spot duty in 11 games in his first two seasons as an LSU backup behind starters Max Johnson in 2021 and Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels in 2022, Nussmeier became a hot name as possible transfer candidate in January.
In his final two games last season, he threw for 469 yards and four TDs. He played the entire second half of the SEC championship game vs. Georgia with a beat-up Daniels pulled from the blowout loss. He alternated with Daniels in the Tigers’ Citrus Bowl pounding of Purdue.
Daniels had previously announced via Twitter last Dec. 22 he would be returning to school in 2023. Almost a month later, LSU third-string true freshman Walker Howard announced he was transferring to Ole Miss after just one season.
Nussmeier never entered the transfer portal. Why? Here’s his 143-word explanation in a media interview Tuesday after preseason practice No. 10 that defines loyalty with a capital `L’:
“It matters to me where the state, my jersey and to have LSU as my home means something to me. I think it means something to a lot of guys on our team, but I was born in Lake Charles. My family’s in Lake Charles. That’s my home.
“Being a kid who moved around so much (because of his father Doug’s career as a college and NFL offensive coordinator), Louisiana is the only constant place in my life. Every time I would cross into the state, it felt like home.
“The reason I came here is because I wanted to play for LSU, for the state of Louisiana. I could have gone elsewhere and done different things, but I think it matters to me more to finish what I started and to be where I want to be.
“These are my teammates, the coaches that I’ve learned to grow relationships with, and that’s why I stayed.”
Again, Nussmeier never put his name in the transfer portal. Yet the way he lit it up in his final two games of 2022, he had plenty of schools trying to gauge his interest.
“I wasn’t talking to people,” Nussmeier said. “I wanted to focus on making things right here at LSU. I felt like this is where I should be. This is where I’ve always wanted to be.”
Maybe you can call Nussmeier the Matt Flynn of the new millennium in honor of LSU’s QB1 of its 2017 national championship team who finally started in his fifth season with the Tigers.
Yes, this will be Nussmeier’s team in 2024 when Daniels graduates and hopefully gets a shot at the NFL. But for right now, Nussmeier knows exactly who he is and how he can help the 2023 Tigers’ national championship aspirations.
“I’ll do what I’m told,” Nussmeier said. “I’ll play my role whatever it is. If they tell me to go in, I’m ready to go in. If they tell me to compete, I’m ready to compete.”
A prime example was when LSU head coach Brian Kelly removed the gimpy Daniels from last December’s SEC championship game with the Tigers trailing eventual national champion Georgia 35-10.
Kelly knew his team was completely outmatched. He had no illusions of a miracle comeback victory, but he knew Nussmeier has the competitive streak of a pit bull no matter the score.
Though Georgia finished a 50-30 winner, the Bulldogs never really pulled their defensive starters because Nussmeier guided LSU to touchdowns on three of the five series he played.
He completed 15 of 27 passes for 294 yards (the most ever by an LSU QB in a single half), two touchdowns and one interception.
“There were a lot of guys that made a lot of plays,” Nussmeier said. “It wasn’t just me. It was our team. You saw the fight that we had. We didn’t give up.
“That was the coolest thing. It was about who we were going to become as a team. It was seeing who our new identity was under Coach Kelly. We kept fighting to the last whistle.”
Because Daniels and Nussmeier have enormous respect for each other and the bond of simply wanting to win, there are no frayed egos or backstabbing in the LSU QB room.
Watching Nussmeier’s progression from a gunslinging passer as a freshman to someone now in full command of the offense gives the Tigers’ coaching staff and team confidence there’s no drop-off if there’s a QB change.
“After having a full year with this offense, I’ve learned the different bits and pieces and how to control and manage it,” Nussmeier said. “That’s where I think I’ve grown the most.
“They’ve built an offense with a lot of different players that can move around like chess pieces. How fun is that to play quarterback in that kind of offense? It’s awesome.”
Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org
A native of Baton Rouge and a 1979 LSU graduate, Ron Higgins has written for seven newspapers, two online websites and a magazine in four states during a sports writing career that now spans six decades. The man nicknamed “Mad Dog” has won more than 180 state, regional and national writing awards including more than 80 first places. He is the Journal’s LSU beat writer.