RICHMOND, Mo. — Out in the front yard, a dog named “Bear” is watching over the house in which Dan Lanning grew up. Actually, “watching over” is a stretch. Bear is 16. These days, it’s more accurate to say he looks up lazily at visitors.
“He’s a good dog, I know, but you get attached, and it’s a difficult decision,” said Don Lanning before what might soon be Bear’s last visit to the veterinarian.
Not much has changed on this stretch of Vandiver Road, an unpaved rural stretch in Ray County, Missouri, 27 miles east of Kansas City. Not much except time.
There is a lot of that to be dissected in the hometown of Oregon’s new coach. Start with the fact that Dan Lanning, 36, is starting his head coaching career as the youngest among the 65 Power Five program leaders.
Then try to connect the reasons he has the job at such a young age. It is a desire that compelled him, on a whim 11 years ago, to take his mother’s car and drive 13 hours to the University of Pittsburgh for a speculative job interview.
“‘Does that sound desperate, daddy?'” Don recalls his son asking.
“No,” dad told son, “it sounds determined.”
Don concluded: “You know the rest of the story.”
Well, part of it at least.
In 2011, a 24-year-old Dan Lanning did indeed land a graduate assistant job with Todd Graham’s staff. You know the tale: sleeping frequently at the office, earning next to nothing.
Two years later, he was Graham’s recruiting coordinator at Arizona State. Two years after that, in 2015, he took a step down to spend one year getting touched by Nick Saban’s magic wand as an Alabama grad assistant, earning a national championship ring in the process.
Having met him at Alabama, then-defensive coordinator Kirby Smart hired Lanning, at the time a linebackers coach at Memphis, to coach the same position when Smart took over at Georgia in 2018. A year later, Lanning was defensive coordinator for the SEC powerhouse.
You probably know the rest of the story as it continues developing: equal parts destiny, luck, hard work and timing.
In 2021, Lanning coordinated a defense that, statistically, stood out as the best college football had seen in a decade. Stylistically, the Bulldogs defense might have been the most destructive since the Bama and Miami units of 20 years ago.
In the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship that quenched a four-decade-old Georgia title drought, Alabama was limited to 18 points (lowest in three years) and 30 rushing yards (second-fewest in 15 years).
“There will not be a defense probably that epic [ever],” Don Lanning said.
That’s the backdrop for the ongoing task: Determining how a humble country kid from the 130th-largest city in Missouri has become such a ruthless killer — as a coach, of course. There are breadcrumbs to that path everywhere.
From Bear to Dawg to Dan, if you will.
“Even when he was a little kid he was a steely-eyed little guy that would not flinch,” Don said. “I’m a dad that was always messing with my boys, rasslin’ with them, playing with them. He would never, ever, ever, give up. I could have him mashed to the floor. He could hardly breathe, but he would not surrender.
“You see the adult version of that in his coaching career.”
As Dan settles into this new life, everything has changed. he is learning fly fishing in the outdoorsy Pacific Northwest. The other day, Harold Reynolds dropped by the office. The veteran Major Leaguer and Eugene, Oregon, native started telling Bo Jackson stories. Bo famously nailed Reynolds at home plate in 1989 with a throw from the left-field wall that never touched the ground.
“Oh man, I’m sorry,” Dan apologized. “I wasn’t trying to bring up Bo stories.”
In Eugene, it can’t be helped. The “Bo Knows” campaign might as well had been born there. Dan’s kids were amazed to learn the subject of the audio book they were listening to in the car was now their dad’s “boss,” Nike founder Phil Knight.
“You’re sitting there and you’re pinching yourself, doing like a double take,” Dan said of his first meeting with the icon.
“It’s just different,” he continued when speaking of his new job at Oregon. “I just think this is one of the top 10 programs in the nation. It’s also a top 10 program that hasn’t done everything it can do yet. They’ve never won a national championship here. I’m not saying we’re going to do that next year, of course not. But you can do that. You can absolutely do that if you get the best players to stay on the West Coast.”
Oregon is on its fourth coach since 2016. Yes, it’s desperate to enter the national conversation again. Just when it appeared the Ducks were on the cusp, Mario Cristobal bolted for Miami. It’s hard to blame the native Hurricane and South Floridian for what he did and what he left behind.
“When we got to Oregon, Oregon was 4-8 [in 2016],” Cristobal told CBS Sports in January before Lanning was hired. “All we did was get to work. Four years later, [we had] the best record of any team in the Pac-12 — and not by a little.
“That is why it is a turnkey operation. The culture is set.”
The hope is that a youthful first-time coach will make Oregon a destination instead of a steppingstone. That hasn’t happened since Mike Bellotti (1995-2008) followed Rich Brooks (1977-1994).
As Lanning reminded, he has a 10-year-old son, Caden, who has already lived in eight states.
“Do you realize how many perfectly good colleges [closer to home] I have driven by just to see my grandchildren?” Don said.
Such is the life of a coach working his way up. And when it hits, it hits all at once.
If Georgia had to lost to Alabama the night of Jan. 10, a private plane was waiting to whisk Lanning from Indianapolis to Eugene at 6 a.m. ET. If the Dawgs won, the departure time accounted for two more hours of sleep — or revelry. It left at 8 a.m.
Lanning had to explain to his father that the Oregon plane was waiting for him, not the other way around.
Three weeks later, Lanning landed the No. 1 recruiting class in the Pac-12.
“This is the kind of place really feel like I can stay forever,” Lanning said. “If I’m doing my job and winning, there isn’t a Miami for me like there was for Mario Cristobal. There isn’t a Florida State [for Mike Norvell after leaving Memphis]. If William Jewell calls, thanks, but I think I’ll stay at Oregon.”
Jewell is Lanning’s alma mater, a modest Division II school 28 miles east of Richmond in Liberty with an enrollment today of less than 1,000. Lanning played linebacker at William Jewell where the defense was usually better than the offense.
“To put it in perspective, we lost a game to Culver-Stockton College 3-0 in triple overtime,” Lanning remembered. “We’re coming over to the bench, a fraternity is on the hill right behind us. They’re yelling at our kicker, ‘You’re our best player! Keep it up!'”
It was at Jewell a different fraternity formed around the house on 913 Elizabeth St. The residence became a meeting place for a central group of friends, roommates and teammates. Lanning owned the pad as a sophomore, making the mortgage by renting it out to that cadre of roomies.
“Not a lot of sophomores in college are purchasing homes,” said Jewell teammate Nick Persell. “I think it’s obvious looking back he was going to be a fast riser no matter what he did.”
In those carefree Elizabeth Street days, teammates would rise to debate football on a dry erase board.
“Last one with the marker wins,” Persell said.
Out of that core group came a handful of successful coaches. Defender Trent Figg is now an Oregon analyst after coming from Hawaii. Wide receiver Robby Discher is the special teams coach at Tulane. Linebacker John Egorugwu, the son of Nigerian parents, is an assistant with the New York Giants. Persell, Logan Minnick and Benny Palmer are local high school coaches.
The ongoing task is attempting to connect Lanning, that small-town Missouri kid with the pleasant demeanor, with his reputation as a straight-up schematic and motivational assassin.
In what still qualifies as his opening act, Lanning’s career remains great theater. He has shared a coaching room with at least seven current Power Five coaches: Saban, Smart, Cristobal, Norvell, Lane Kiffin, Billy Napier and Mel Tucker.
“My [coaching] tree is bigger than the Alabama tree,” Lanning joked.
Whatever emerges at Oregon will have ties to Small Town America.
Richmond is a proud burg of 5,000 that bills itself as the Mushroom Capital of the World, far enough from the big city to have its own identity. Lenvil Elliott emerged from Richmond High School to become a Super Bowl champion with the 49ers. The man who shot Jesse James, Robert Ford, is from Richmond. So is St. Louis Cardinals play-by-play man John Rooney.
Lanning’s parents instilled that steely-eyed determination. Don and Janis taught in the North Kansas City School District for 27 years. Thirty-three years ago, they built a house and decided they weren’t going to move. It was best for their sons, Daniel and David, to have a stable school life and be near their grandparents. A plot of land was carved out of a 300-acre farm run by Janis’ parents.
Dennis Dodd, CBS Sports
Up that dirt road is an aging church and cemetery that contains headstones dating back to the 1800s. The Lannings help tend to the upkeep of both antiquities that trace their roots back to the Primitive Baptist faith.
That’s definitely the closest trip they’ve made. The Lannings have worn out cars traveling to their son’s games from middle school fields to SEC coliseums.
“Alabama, Georgia, it’s unreal,” Don said. “It’s not like anything. Missouri’s in the SEC. Politely as I can, I tell my friends it’s not the same [as those schools] … when you see 70-year-old men dressed like Bear Bryant.
“I will miss going to games at Georgia. I don’t know what’s it like at Oregon, but I will miss going to games at Georgia.”
The 800-plus miles to Athens, Georgia, is nothing compared to the trip they’ll take next month – more than 1,800 miles to Eugene for the first time. Whatever the distance, finally, maybe, there will be some roots put down.
Lanning’s parents drew the line at fourth grade. That’s when their son wanted to start playing football. They relented by the fifth grade when Dan joined a youth team called the Raiders.
“That was kind of hard,” Lanning said. “I was a big Chiefs fan. I was born a Raider hater.”
Former Richmond High coach Rob Bowers remembers getting a gangly freshman who got by more on will than skill. By the time Lanning was a senior, he was a star linebacker who helped lead the Spartans to a state semifinal.
“He was an animal defensively,” Bowers said.
Actually, there is more to it than that.
“I don’t know how many tackles he had, blocked two kicks, scored two touchdowns,” Don recalled. “After the game, Coach Bowers comes in and his wife Kerra [who taught Lanning in second grade] is waiting there on the bed. Coach Bowers kind of said under his breath, ‘That Daniel Lanning is an animal.’
“Kerra jumped up and said, ‘No, he’s not; he’s a nice boy.’ There is the dichotomy right there. Off the field, he was a nice boy.”
On the field, though, he thought he could do anything. Actually, those instincts developed early. At age 3, Don had to keep Dan from leaning too far out of a portal where the second-story window was being installed on that new house.
“Too high for me to jump from here, daddy,” Lil’ Daniel said.
“[That meant] he’d been thinking about it,” Don said.
By high school, Lanning let it be known he wanted to coach. Years later, one night with those college coaching buddies at a nearby casino, he let it be known he was going to Pittsburgh to seek football employment.
“We thought he meant Pittsburg, Kansas,” Persell said. “He went out there without any real chance of getting a job and came back with one. I thought he was crazy, frankly. … He was going to make a leap of faith.”
After driving those 13 hours straight through, Lanning discovered none of the Pittsburgh staff was in town. They were all at a coaching clinic. But a day later, on a Saturday, Graham had gotten wind of the intrepid job seeker. Within just four days, Lanning had resigned his assistant high school coaching job back home after being hired at Pitt.
“He started out as the coffee boy,” Don said. “[But] if he said, ‘I’m going to be President of the United States,’ I would say, ‘You guys set your watches because it’s coming.'”
By the time the Georgia opportunity arose, that country kid from Richmond had endeared himself to a roomful of Dawgs.
“He was real life. He realized as a coach what I could do,” said Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean, the 2021 Butkus Award winner now awaiting a high selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. “If they forget everything, they’ll remember … that defense. They’ll remember we won the natty.”
These are scenes from a life well lived across Lanning’s 36 years.
His wife, Sauphia, was diagnosed with a bone cancer so rare in 2016 that it was usually seen only in children. The family had just settled in Memphis where Lanning was Norvell’s inside linebackers coach. While Sauphia was undergoing chemotherapy, Janis was waging her own battle after being diagnosed with a benign brain tumor.
Don and Janis call it providence that their son and daughter-in-law just happened to be in the same city as one of the world’s leading children’s hospitals, St. Jude. The “infrastructure” was already in place, they said, to treat Sauphia.
“My wife and I are totally convinced this is totally God’s planning,” Don said.
Both women emerged from their battles healthy.
Faith is a big part of any coaching plan. You don’t take a cross-country trip with no job prospects without a little of it. You don’t prove yourself to coaches like Saban and Smart without confidence.
You’re definitely not surprised when the planets have aligned for your debut. Lanning’s first game as a head coach is in Georgia, Sept. 3 at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, against Georgia.
Richmond, and beyond, will be watching.