A few years back, the trend seemed to favor offensive coordinators when head coaching jobs were being filled. A classic example of that tendency was that of a man who resided on the other side of the line of scrimmage—Brian VanGorder who was Mark Richt’s first defensive coordinator when Richt became the Bulldogs’ head coach.
At one time, VanGorder had an off-the-chart reputation as a defensive coordinator. I recall Pat Dye saying that the Auburn offensive coaches felt that whatever scheme they came with, VanGorder seemed to counter with finger-snapping adroitness.
Then along came Nick Saban who built his reputation with a “recruiting first” approach, but ever mindful of finding a way to score often while maintaining dominance on defense.
Kirby Smart coached on the defensive side of the ball as an assistant, but he, too, is all about putting points on the board. Naturally, coaches want to have their cake and eat it, too—high powered offenses with dominating defenses. Priority, however, goes to point production. There is good reason for that. Offense aids and abets recruiting.
Oregon’s Dan Lanning is the latest defensive coordinator to land a big job in the Power 5 Conference ranks. I met up with him in the summer as he was, after having spent time with Saban and Smart, into his round the clock, seven-days-a-week routine. He was on vacation but conducting zoom meetings, reviewing game tape, and planning for his first season in Eugene. While the family slept, his mind was racing to make his first year as a Duck memorable.
In an hour plus conversation, he was eager to reminisce about Georgia’s national championship season and what life is like as a head coach on the opposite side of the country. He treasures his Georgia experience, he enjoyed being a focal point within the Dawg Nation, but eager to make the Ducks proud.
After a short night in Indianapolis, he and his family were on a plane early morning Jan. 11th for Eugene, Oregon, population 179,883, the second largest city in the state after Portland. Eugene is situated between the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers which has a personal significance for Lanning in that he has taken up fly fishing and has already enjoyed a nice afternoon catching rainbow trout on the McKenzie.
However, his latent interest is akin to a coach who is a golfing aficionado who must put his clubs away when the football season begins. Dan’s fly-fishing gear has been stowed until a lazy spring afternoon in 2023.
He allowed, in his lengthy conversation, that football passion in Eugene has been ratcheted up in recent years and points out that while Oregon doesn’t have an SEC reputation, the Ducks have played in 35 bowls and won 13 conference championships. Oregon narrowly lost to Auburn in the 2011 BCS national championship game, 22-19.
The stat he prefers to talk about most is that when the dust settled last February, his first recruiting class was ranked No. 1 in the Pac 12 Conference. (That was before UCLA and Southern California bolted for the Big Ten.)
Already, he has been reminded about the rivalry with Oregon State which is located 48 miles away in Corvallis. The rivalry has been called “The Civil War,” for years. He has become friends with Rich Brooks who played at Oregon State but was such a successful coach at Oregon that the football field is named for him.
Among Lanning’s first moves was getting to know Phil Knight, Nike Chairman, who will be at the Mercedes-Benz Dome Saturday afternoon. The first book Lanning read when he settled in, in Eugene, was Knight’s book, “Shoe Dog.” The former Bulldog defensive coordinator also took in track meets at Oregon’s unequaled track facility, Hayward Field.
When he talks football, he reminds you that he wants to score points on offense. “We want to do both,” he says, meaning passing and running the football. “We will operate with a pro style mentality where we create a fast-paced tempo. We want to throw the ball and run the ball at a high clip.
“Ultimately, I’m an old high school coach, so I want to lean on the strengths of our program. If we have a player who is dominant at a certain position, we want to figure out how to get the ball to him in space and create favorable matchups.”
He didn’t have to comment about defense his specialty. He simply wants to dominate like the Georgia D of 2021. He is an advocate of running the football and stopping the run. He wants to build a program where the first priority is to win the game—whether it is 10-6 or 55-54.