Let Dan Lanning write his Oregon story before guessing the ending
If the new Oregon coach accomplishes his goals, won't we all just be here again? "There doesn't have to be a next step for me," he says.
Eric Evans photo/GoDucks.com
EUGENE — Before Dan Lanning took the podium for the first time as the 35th head coach in Oregon history, his wife Sauphia and their three sons entered the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex auditorium and took their seats in front of a room filled with strangers.
The last 48 hours had been a whirlwind.
The Lannings arrived in Eugene from Georgia on Sunday. They’ve toured schools, attended a barbecue and met more people and posed for more photos than they’ll ever remember. It’s been so busy that when Lanning came back to the family hotel Sunday night, he said his boys were already passed out on the pull out couch.
“My three best friends,” the new coach would later call them.
The boys — Caden, Kniles and Titan — were given Oregon jerseys to wear Monday and greeted by university president Michael Schill when they arrived for the press conference.
“We’re so happy to have you,” Schill said to the boys as they gathered for a picture, then instructed them to cup their hands together.
“This is your ‘O.’ It stands for Oregon, OK?”
It was 1:58 p.m. and the three boys wore wide smiles. A minute later, their dad entered in a blue suit, yellow tie and outlined his take on the Oregon story.
(Tyson Alger photo/I-5 Corridor)
Rob Mullens has done this before.
Monday was the fourth time Oregon’s athletic director has introduced a head coach in his 11 years, a relatively high number for a program with 103 wins and 37 losses during that span.
Mullens hired Mark Helfrich. He hired Willie Taggart. He hired Mario Cristobal. And now he has hired Dan Lanning.
The first three hirings made sense in a way. Helfrich was the in-house successor to Chip Kelly. When Mullens fired Helfrich three years later, the reach across the country for Taggart was a countering change to the formula. And when Taggart left, a player-led coalition pushing for Cristobal made for few arguments when promoting the former offensive line coach.
This one was more challenging — and a paper with a bunch of players’ signatures didn’t make things easier this time.
A letter signed by 14 former Oregon Ducks was sent to Mullens last week, with players including Justin Herbert, Marcus Mariota and Joey Harrington imploring Mullens to “look within the Oregon family.”
“Returning to the successful foundation upon which the program was built, or chasing a national championship, don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” the players wrote.
In the days after receiving the letter, Mullens reportedly interviewed and made an offer to Cal coach Justin Wilcox, a former Oregon safety. Wilcox reportedly turned the job down, Mullens moved on and Lanning’s hiring was announced Saturday afternoon.
The letter leaked shortly after, leading to another bizarre night in Oregon social media circles that included finger pointing, back tracking and Harrington popping into Twitter spaces to explain the exact definition of a “Blue Blood” program.
“Just because I believe in putting something together in a different way doesn’t mean that in any way I have a different goal,” the former quarterback said. “It just means that everybody can have a different opinion on what the best way to put together a champion is.”
The fallout from the letter was significant enough that the top of Lanning’s speech included a note to former players — “I’m a servant to you” — and Mullens facing extended questions about other candidates more than 48 hours after the search ended.
“You got to understand how this process works,” Mullens said. “You go down parallel paths. There’s a lot of fluid conversation going back and forth. And some of those conversations, when you get to a next level of interest, might include, ‘Hey, what does the buyout look like? What are the resources available for me to be successful?’
“We have very, very high expectations here and that scares some people away. So you can go down a path and get into some of these conversations, but when you get down to the real nitty-gritty, we negotiated through a contract with one person.”
For it being his first time doing it, Lanning hit the right notes.
Oregon will recruit hard. It will hire great coaches. It will emphasize making the right decisions ahead of quick ones.
The Ducks lost a coach that took them to three Pac-12 championship games and left a roster that’s loaded for a run now — no rebuild needed.
“This program is staged to compete and win national championships,” Lanning said. “We won’t shy from expectations and our goal is to compete for national championships here.”
And that’s a bit of the worry, no?
Not that Oregon will compete for national championships — classic Blue Blood or not, that is a realistic expectation for an athletic department at the forefront of the facilities and uniforms arms race — but that the 35-year-old Lanning will be the one to do so.
If he accomplishes his goals, won’t he be the hottest coaching commodity in the country? Won’t we all just be here again three or four years from now talking about another coach who went home?
“Ultimately — I said the same thing to our players yesterday — I’m not asking you to trust me. I’m asking for an opportunity to earn your trust,” Lanning said. “But also, my situation is unique. If William Jewell College (Liberty, Mo.) comes calling, I love William Jewell College, but I’m staying at Oregon as long as I can stay at Oregon and as long as Oregon will have me. There is no other for me. This is a premier job in the nation, not just the league, in the nation. It was going to take a premier job for me to leave the situation I was in. I’m thrilled to be here because I know what we can do here. There doesn’t have to be a next step for me. This job can be the final step.”
It’s not fair to ask Lanning on the first day of his job if he’s going to be here five, 10 or 20 years from now. There’s so much that has to happen, and before Lanning can even begin he still has to finish out a run through the College Football Playoff with Georgia. Then comes the move to Eugene and the start of the Lanning family Oregon story.
And yes, they have stories before Eugene. The Lannings are from North Kansas City. Dan and Sauphia fell in love while working together at an Outback Steakhouse. They’ve been a part of five different teams, facing battles on the field and winning more important ones off, like Sauphia’s 2016 bone cancer diagnosis. And now they’re here, with three boys smiling in Oregon jerseys learning the first things about a program that people around this state hold so dear.
“I’ve only been here a couple of days and haven’t really come up for air yet,” Lanning said. “But it’s already starting to feel like home.”
— Tyson Alger