Playing Georgia in Atlanta just latest chapter in ‘Legend of Lanning’

Credit: Chip Towers

Credit: Chip Towers

ATHENS — The Dan Lanning story starts in his hometown of Richmond, Mo., population 5,600. The next chapter will be written Saturday in Atlanta, population 5.1 million.

That serves as a good illustration for how far the former Georgia defensive coordinator has come. Eleven years after working his first football gig – coaching receivers at Park Hill South High in Riverside, Mo. – Lanning comes to Mercedes-Benz Stadium as head coach of No. 11 Oregon.

That’s the very definition of meteoric rise.

“That wasn’t very long ago; I certainly realize that,” Lanning told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during an exclusive interview in Eugene, Ore., earlier this month. “I’ll say this: I wake up every single day and realize how blessed I am to be in this position, and I certainly don’t take that for granted.”

That Lanning’s first game as a head coach Saturday will come in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff game against the No. 3-ranked, defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs – the team with which Lanning won a national championship only eight months ago – is just another believe-it-or-not moment in one of college football’s greatest success stories. So, prepare to be inundated this week with Legend of Lanning narratives, starting with this one.

That story, though, truly is fascinating from a “how’d they do that?” perspective. To succinctly rehash, Lanning was a high school teacher and position coach when he decided to pack his car and drive 850 miles to Pittsburgh to ask coach Todd Graham, whom he’d casually just met at a coaches’ clinic, for a job.

Changing into a suit at a rest stop, Lanning landed that job, followed Graham to Arizona State and, basically, has been ladder-climbing ever since.

“That one moment probably gets exaggerated a little bit,” Lanning said of “The Drive.” “It certainly was a moment, but there are a lot of other pieces to that puzzle, being a (graduate assistant) at Arizona State, being at Sam Houston State and Alabama and Memphis. A lot of stops in the road, but that was certainly a piece of it.”

Lanning’s first stop on that drive to Pittsburgh was to the family farm in Richmond. Fearing his small pickup truck wouldn’t survive the journey, he borrowed his mother’s 2005 Chevy Impala for the ride.

“There was some uncertainty about whether it would be wise to go that far in it,” Don Lanning, Dan’s father, said of his son’s wheels at the time.

Lanning’s transportation options have improved considerably since then. He and his family traveled in prominent Oregon booster and Nike founder Phil Knight’s jet from Athens to Eugene for his introductory news conference as Oregon’s coach Dec. 11. Lanning remained the Bulldogs’ coordinator for another month to oversee the defense for the playoff run.

That went well, too.

“The biggest thing for me is I never wanted to live a life of regret,” Lanning said. “What if I would’ve or wish I could’ve done something? I never wanted to operate that way. If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out, but it wasn’t because of lack of effort.”

Lanning’s back story is just one reason the Georgia-Oregon game is so intriguing. The football matchup itself is equally fascinating. It’s Pac-12 versus SEC, West Coast versus Deep South, the Power O brand facing off against the Power G.

It’s also the Ducks’ veteran offensive line and quarterback Bo Nix versus the Bulldogs’ rebuilt defense. It’s about Lanning’s deep knowledge of Georgia’s inner workings and matching wits against his mentor Kirby Smart, who possesses the same internal intelligence about Lanning.

This one goes many layers deep.

“Knowing the intensity and the organization and the leadership that Dan has, they’re going to be one hell of a team,” Smart said this week. “They’ve got a lot of good football players.”

Several of those players, Georgia unsuccessfully recruited. They include linebackers Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe and running back Jordan James.

It’s also about the unknown. While his track record as a college football analyst and assistant coach is impeccable, nobody knows how Lanning will do as a head man. This is the first head-coaching gig of Lanning’s life. Well, with the exception of coaching a third-grade boys basketball team as a high school junior.

“We were pretty good, too,” Lanning said.

That Protégé vs. Mentor storyline is certain to get a lot of play in ABC’s lead-up to Saturday’s kickoff.

“It’s not about the occasion, it’s about playing the game, and that’s our focus,” Lanning said during Oregon’s Media Day on Tuesday in Eugene. “Kirby Smart is not going to play a single snap on Saturday, and neither is Dan Lanning.

“So, it doesn’t really matter what I know. It matters what my players know and how they execute.”

Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Smart expects his former aide to be successful at Oregon. He first identified Lanning’s talent when he worked under Smart as a defensive analyst at Alabama in 2015. He called it a “no-brainer” hire when he tabbed Lanning, then linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator at Memphis, to succeed Kevin Sherrer as Georgia’s outside linebackers coach in 2018.

“He didn’t try to be somebody he wasn’t,” Smart said. “He didn’t try to impress people. He just worked and he grinded, and he really did a good job of just doing what you asked him to do. I always thought he would be successful.”

With the season-opening game now at hand, Georgia players and coaches on both sides are downplaying their personal relationships with Lanning. For the three years, nobody has been closer to Lanning than Georgia outside linebacker Nolan Smith.

“I don’t think too much of it,” Smith said of his former position coach. “He’s an amazing coach, and I know he’s going to have those guys fired up and ready to play Georgia.”

As for Don and Janis Lanning, they won’t be in Atlanta for Saturday’s game, unfortunately. A recent medical situation will keep them from making either the 11-hour drive or two-hour flight to see in person their son’s first game as a college head coach.

“Yeah, but we’ve got a 55 (-inch television) and we’ll (be) wearing our green sitting here with some friends and enjoying the afternoon, you betcha,” Lanning’s father said this week.

Georgia is a prohibitive favorite, with the points spread exceeding 17 this week. But Don Lanning expects his son to give Smart’s Bulldogs a run for their money. He’s learned to never count out his boy.

“I know how he processes things and how he works,” Don Lanning said. “I know he’s doing the best job he can of equipping his staff and his players to do their very best. That’s the challenge that he’ll strive for, just to get the very best out of those guys.”