For Ole Miss AD Keith Carter, when the due diligence matches up with the coach on the rebound the gamble is worthy of the risk. It proved out with Lane Kiffin. Will it work with Chris Beard?
As a young athletics director Keith Carter made aggressive moves to fix Ole Miss football.
He fired a beloved former player in Matt Luke as the program, navigating NCAA sanctions at the end of the Hugh Freeze Era, had fallen into mediocre performance and even less in the way of excitement.
Lane Kiffin made things better.
Now will Carter’s second high-profile hire fix Ole Miss basketball with which Carter is so intimately familiar?
If Lane Kiffin was a program uniter Chris Beard has been less so, not because of his incredible success on the floor but because of one unfortunate night away from it.
Chris Beard, having moved from Texas Tech to Texas, had domestic violence issues in Austin. A third-degree felony charge was dropped, a decision encouraged by the alleged victim, girlfriend Randi Trew, but there was no real buffer time between jobs, no time to resettle.
Some might say no time for penance. The hirings of Kiffin and Beard are different in that regard.
Almost six weeks after being fired by the Longhorns on Jan. 5, 2023, Beard was back in major college basketball, hired by Ole Miss on Feb.15.
Carter went hard after Kiffin and has since managed his coach’s eccentricities.
Kiffin isn’t scared to say what he thinks, which makes him a social media hit but also far different from most coaches. His name has been associated annually with other programs, none more visible than last year’s in-season dance with Auburn.
Kiffin hasn’t beaten Alabama and didn’t have a real signature win before this season against LSU, but he’s won games.
He won 10 in 2021 and got the Rebels to the Sugar Bowl. Ole Miss floundered at the end of last season, but it’s not a stretch to think the Rebels will win nine or 10 games this season.
Kiffin is 29-14, 17-12 in the SEC.
Whether Ole Miss football is “fixed” means different things to different people, but there’s no question production and excitement are their highest since Freeze’s back-to-back pre-sanctions New Years Six bowl games.
“We had a little apathy in the program. We needed someone who could come in and galvanize the fan base. Coach Kiffin has been able to do both of those things, and that’s been fantastic.”
Kiffin coaching in the SEC was not a shock. Other teams had interest in him.
He had been a head coach in the NFL. He might have had big-time success had he stayed at Tennessee, but he left abruptly and returned to Southern Cal where he was unable to recreate the magic of his former boss, Pete Carroll, amid the NCAA scholarship cuts left by the former boss.
Kiffin had been on Carroll’s staff for six seasons, the last two as offensive coordinator. The Trojans were 23-3 then before Kiffin was named coach of the Oakland Raiders at just 31 years old.
Kiffin was a football nomad before he entered the Nick Saban Rehabilitation Program for Wayward Coaches. He saw the Crimson Tide lose to Freeze and Ole Miss twice – almost a third time in 2016 – but helped Alabama twice reach the national championship game including a title win in 2015.
Kiffin coached at Florida Atlantic from 2017-2019, and when Carter was making moves, he gambled that he could get a more mature, more settled Kiffin as Ole Miss coach.
Settled and mature may be up for debate, but the results are not.
“You want a coach who can perform on the field and recruit, but you also want a coach who can engage with the fan base. You want to find the absolute best coach that fits with your situation,” Carter said.
Fixing Ole Miss basketball
Carter was lightly recruited out of Perryville, Arkansas when he signed with former Ole Miss coach Rob Evans.
As a senior in 1999 he was an honorable mention AP All-American, a slick 3-point shooter who finished with 1,682 points, still seventh on the all-time list.
More important to Carter, he played on three Ole Miss teams that reached the NCAA Tournament.
The Rebels made the NCAAs in five out of six seasons under Evans and Rod Barnes from 1997-2002.
It was, perhaps, as close to a “golden age” as might exist for Ole Miss basketball.
Andy Kennedy replaced Barnes and in a 12-year run became the school’s winningest coach. He made two Final Fours, but they were of the NIT variety. Kennedy made just two NCAA Tournaments during his Ole Miss tenure.
March Madness was the main talking point for former athletics director Ross Bjork when he moved away from Kennedy in the spring of 2018.
Bjork said his vision for success for Ole Miss basketball included a team that more often than not woke up on Selection Sunday asking, “Where are we playing,” and not, “Are we in?”
Ole Miss lagged behind the rest of the SEC for years in terms of facilities, but that changed during Kennedy’s Administration with the coming of a new practice facility and a sparkling new arena, The Pavilion, to replace leaky-roofed Tad Smith Coliseum.
Kennedy called a sports writer over onto the floor at Tad Smith one day during practice. He pointed up and had him look at something blue on the ceiling. He said, “Do you know what that is?” The sports writer did not. Kennedy said, “That’s the sky, the sky! There’s a hole in the roof, and that’s the sky!”
Tad Smith’s warts became inconsequential in 2016. This season it’s being rebranded as a charming old venue for one non-conference game.
Jokes aside, Tad Smith rocked when Carter played. Fans filled it up, the team entered through the student section to take the floor, and Col. Reb rappelled to the floor amid falling streamers to deliver the game ball.
That’s the scene Carter remembers and wants to see again.
He doesn’t believe Bjork’s vision for Ole Miss basketball is unreasonable.
“If you look at Ole Miss basketball history there have been pockets of success,” Carter said.
There’s no clear answer for why consistency has lacked, he says, but he’s clear on the program’s potential now.
“I think it’s time to take that next step where we become that perennial NCAA Tournament team, that we go and make some deep runs. The expectation is there,” Carter said.
Getting to know Chris Beard
Hard-core college basketball fans knew of Chris Beard before 2019, but Beard cemented his name into the consciousness of less severe fans when he coached Texas Tech to an NCAA runner-up finish, falling to Virginia in the championship game in 2019.
The Red Raiders weren’t one-hit wonders.
They were in the Elite Eight the year before, in position for the Tournament when it was canceled by COVID in 2020 and back in the Dance in 2021.
He had the Longhorns in the Tournament in his first season in Austin and was 7-1 in his second season when he was fired.
Chris Beard had shown the postseason consistency Carter craved for Ole Miss.
The lure of the potential is what made Carter all-in on hiring Beard once he satisfied himself on what happened that night in Austin.
“His success on the court speaks for itself, but we knew there were more questions than that. As with any hire of this magnitude we were extremely thorough in our review of coach Beard. Delving into reports that led to his departure from Texas … those allegations we take very very seriously.
“So, it was important that we gained a clear understanding of that particular situation. The reports were not an accurate reflection of the events that happened. There were multi-level conversations with people of the events surrounding that night, and coach Beard was very transparent in our discussions with him,” Carter said.
Carter wasn’t going after a coach who had an affair years previously or perhaps had a reputation for living large in the local nightlife.
Those in and of themselves are serious problems for coaches who are tasked – fans hope – with developing the character of young men as much as developing basketball players.
Society assigns levels to misdeeds, however, and Beard’s name was attached to something that set off red flags and alarm bells.
Carter was thinking long and hard about giving the keys of the program to a man who had been accused of beating up the woman in his life.
Most successful coaching searches are conducted privately. That’s Carter’s preference, but in this instance he needed to hear from others.
Chancellor Glenn Boyce was one, of course.
“There are some strategic people, whether it’s football or basketball, that you want to reach out to and get their advice and perspective,” Carter said.
There was no pushback on the pursuit of Beard provided due diligence was being done.
Once Carter was satisfied on that front, “from a basketball perspective there wasn’t anybody out there any better.”
Beard is confident success will follow him to Ole Miss. We’ll see.
We’ll also see if Beard stays away from the negative spotlight.
When asked by recruits about that night in Austin, Beard says he just explains what happened and that he’s “comfortable and confident in the truth. A lot of people have been affected. I’ve been extremely remorseful and apologetic.”
Carter’s first big hire, his less risky football gamble, has paid dividends.
At Ole Miss, it’s hard to hire coaches like Chris Beard and Lane Kiffin without the right time of life.
“Just being totally honest, unless there was the issue off the court, and Chris being in a unique situation, we might not have a shot at a coach of that caliber,” Carter said.
For Carter, when the due diligence matches up with the coach on the rebound the gamble is worthy of the risk.
“We’re always going to try to go after heavyweight coaches. Sometimes it helps when there are unique circumstances. It’s been a home run with both of those, but it was definitely unique circumstances.”
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