'He's always looking for an advantage': How Dan Lanning's William Jewell years shaped his meteoric rise
From having his teammates pay his mortgage to late-night whiteboard sessions, Oregon's new coach has always thought — and acted — outside the box.
Dan Lanning needed a place to live.
Between shifts at Outback Steakhouse and lifting sessions with football teammates, the 30-mile commute between his home in Richmond (Mo.) and Liberty, where he attended William Jewell College, wasn’t cutting it during the summer.
He had lived in the dorms as a freshman and then rented a place with a few teammates as a sophomore — a two-year course in adulting that left the future Oregon coach confident in the next logical option, something teammate Zach Cunningham learned of when Cunningham showed up to meet the linebacker at a single-level home a few minutes from campus on Elizabeth Street.
“I get there and Lanning and his dad are walking through the place. Typical ranch house. Nothing too great about it, but his dad kept saying, ‘If you buy it. If you buy it,’” Cunningham said. “And I go, ‘What?,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to buy this thing.”
Renting was a waste of money, Lanning figured, and he had a better idea: Buy the house, rent the extra rooms out to his teammates and eventually leave Liberty with a diploma and nest egg.
“He was certainly more of a forward thinker than the rest of us,” said Nick Persell, a tenant and teammate of Lanning’s at William Jewell. “He saw an opportunity. It’s probably no more different now than ever.”
Now, Lanning is the coach of a program with complex terrain to navigate. The Ducks have an aging mega-booster and a fanbase shell-shocked after two departures of coaches to Florida in the last four years. There’s talent on the roster and win-now expectations, even with major ground to cover in pursuit of programs like the one Lanning left at Georgia. It’s a nuanced job that requires deft handling. It’s not one to take without fully knowing what’s at hand.
And while yes, Lanning is only 35 and has never been a head coach and has few ties to the West Coast, his old tenants will say that there’s nothing Lanning gets into without a plan.
“The guy oozes confidence,” Cunningham said. “There’s never a time where I’ve ever talked to Daniel where he didn’t know what he was doing.”
NFL dreams don’t go far at William Jewell.
Be sure: The school has a proud football tradition dating back to 1888. The Cardinals have claimed 27 conference titles. In 1952, Al Conway rushed for 1,325 yards, led all of college football with 133 points and Philadelphia picked him in the second round of the 1953 NFL Draft. But with no football scholarships and an undergraduate enrollment of less than 1,000, it’s not exactly a powerhouse that can attract the type of talent Lanning lured during previous stops at Georgia and Alabama.
Or even Memphis, for that matter.
“If William Jewell College comes calling, I love William Jewell College,” Lanning said in December, “but I’m staying at Oregon.”
Lanning and his roommates played football because they loved football. They had part-time jobs with full class schedules and blew off steam with competitive games of GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64, complete with multiple television sets, signal splitters and paper partitions so evenings couldn’t devolve into accusations of “screen watching.” Lanning was a pretty good football player1. He was better at GoldenEye, even if some in the house viewed his usage of the shorter — and harder to aim at — Oddjob as suspect.
“He’s always looking for an advantage,” Persell said.
While Tuesday nights were reserved for Spades2 to decide garbage duties for the week, football dominated the conversation most nights, with countless talks about hypothetical situations answered with a marker and whiteboard.
“We used to say, ‘Ok, SEC championship game. Third-and-5. You’re up by two. Go,’” Cunningham said. “We’d make up all these scenarios that would never happen.”
Each housemate had a chance to diagram a play, followed by a vote for a winner that was hardly ever Lanning, Persell said.
“The stuff he drew up wasn’t your typical 3-4, Cover 3; or 4-2, Cover 4. It was always just something crazy off the cuff that you had never heard of or seen or knew. And then when he explained it, he always had a guy for this or a guy for that. If you’ve watched his defense, even at Georgia, he moves guys around a lot. They’re just Xs on a paper,” Cunningham said. “So whenever we would do those things, I’d always be like, ‘Whatever. This will never work.’
“And obviously I was wrong.”
Cunningham, a defensive back in college, is now a defensive coordinator at Winnetonka in North Kansas City. College roommate Benny Palmer, William Jewell’s quarterback, is Winnetonka’s head coach. Logan Minnick, once a free safety, is the new coach at Kearney High and Persell, a former wide receiver, is the head coach at Richmond, where he and Lanning played together in high school.
Several others — including former Hawaii defensive backs coach Trent Figg — came through the Elizabeth Street house at one point or another and went on to have a career in coaching. Lanning’s began as an assistant at Park Hill South (Riverside, Mo.), where he worked an elementary school physical education job while he planned for his football future.
Persell remembers the day when Lanning unveiled that plan to them.
Their college years behind them, the former housemates were hanging out at the Ameristar Casino in Kansas City in 2011 when Lanning announced he was driving to Pitt to follow up on a meeting he had with then-Panthers coach Todd Graham at a camp a few years earlier.
“With our location, I thought he meant Pitt State in Pittsburgh, Kansas,” Persell said. “So he drives out to Pennsylvania and he gets this job, and I think as soon as that whole scenario played out it was pretty evident he was going to be a fast riser.”
“I’ve always been fortunate enough to recognize opportunity,” Lanning said. “People have heard me say it before, but if you do something and you’re passionate enough, you’ll never feel like you work a day in your life. That’s why you get into a car to drive 13 hours to go sit in front of a coaching staff that you might not have an opportunity with.
“But the fact that you might, that's enough for me.”
Four years later, Lanning was a graduate assistant at Alabama for the Crimson Tide’s 2015 national championship. He was hired by Georgia in 2018, promoted to defensive coordinator in 2019 and two weeks ago was on the sideline for the national championship game, drawing up plays that limited Alabama to 18 points and 30 rushing yards.
“It’s crazy to fast-forward 15 years and there’s Lanning, national championship, making these calls,” Cunningham said. “All the stuff we used to talk about, he’s doing it.”
— Tyson Alger
As a senior in 2007, Lanning was a team captain and earned all-conference honorable mention honors with 57 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, 4.5 sacks and one interception.
“I can remember in high school he was obviously a good player who rose fast, but even in college, having to work for a starting position and playing through some injuries to keep a starting position sticks out for me. I remember he had two torn labrums and I can remember vividly him popping his shoulder back into place after a tackle because he wasn’t going to come out of the game,” Persell said.
Trashcan Spades, they called it.