ATHENS – By all accounts, Dan Lanning is going to be named Georgia’s defensive coordinator in the coming days. Or, at the least, one of the D-coordinators.
To find out exactly what kind of guy the Bulldogs are getting to run their defense in 2019, we turned to the “Boys of Elizabeth Street.”
Few people know Lanning as well as the guys who played football with Lanning at tiny William Jewell College (enrollment 1,000), and especially those who lived with him in the little house on Elizabeth Street. They can tell you in great detail the story of how Lanning went from playing football at a tiny NAIA school in Liberty, Mo., to becoming a rising-star coach in Power 5 football. It is the stuff of legend.
Trent Figg, one of those teammates and Elizabeth Street roommates, says it starts with an unexpected phone call he received from Lanning one day in January of 2011.
“I’ll never forget it. He calls me on a Thursday afternoon and he was like, ‘Dude, I’m going to make a move,’” Figg recalled. “I said, ‘what are talking about? He said, ‘I’m driving to Pitt and I’m not coming back until I get a job.’”
At the time, Lanning was coaching wide receivers at Park Hill South High in Riverside, Mo. Figg was working as a graduate assistant at Jewell, where they both played college ball. When they were living on Elizabeth Street, Lanning was always talking about wanting to be “a D-1 coach.” But two years out of college, that dream had not come any sharper into focus.
Lanning saw an opportunity and he wasn’t going to miss his chance. So he had packed his pickup truck after school to make the 13-hour drive overnight to Pittsburgh. The plan was to talk the Panthers’ new coaching staff into hiring him.
Lanning didn’t choose the Pitt Panthers blindly. The staff at Park Hill South had attended coaching clinics at the University of Tulsa the previous two years. That’s where Lanning got to know head coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson.
That January, Graham became head coach at Pitt, which set off a light bulb in Lanning’s head.
“He said, ‘you know what, these are the only people I know in Division I ball. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get hired,’” Figg said. “He had a good high school job, making pretty good money. But he leaves after school, drives through the night, stops at a truck stop and showers, puts on a suit and walks into the Pitt football offices.’”
There had been some correspondence via email between Lanning and the Pitt coaches he knew. But while Patterson told him they “might have something available after signing day,” Lanning wasn’t waiting to hear back.
By Friday morning, Lanning was at Pitt’s Duratz Athletic Complex. As luck would have it, the coaches weren’t there. They were attending a clinic off campus.
But Graham was duly alerted that a young man Missouri had shown up to talk to him, and they eventually met on Saturday. In the meantime, Lanning introduced himself to Pitt’s support staff and actually dove in to help them out while he was there.
By end of the weekend, Lanning had a quality control job with the Panthers. He resigned his high school gig on Monday and was working full-time at Pitt by Wednesday morning.
“It’s going to make a tremendous book one day,” said William Jewell College head coach Shawn Weigel, who was a defensive assistant when Lanning played there. “Talk about somebody doubling down himself and just going and doing it. But he had the skills to do it and had the unwavering support of his family. It’s an awesome journey he’s been on.”
Unknowingly, Lanning provided a blueprint for the Elizabeth Street Boys, many of whom have gone on to field full-time jobs in coaching.
- Figg followed Lanning to Arizona State when he moved there with Graham in 2012. Today he is running backs coach at Missouri State.
- Robby Discher coaches tights and special teams at Toledo.
- John Egorugwu is assistant linebackers coach with the Buffalo Bills.
- Three more of Lanning’s teammates are high school head coaches in greater Kansas City.
Pretty good for a tiny college in western Missouri. Amazing for a little house on Elizabeth Street.
“I’ll never forget that house,” Egorugwu said with a hardy laugh. “That was the house we’d all go to and hang out and kick it. I didn’t live there, but I slept on the couch many a night. We were all teammates and congregated there. A lot of good times in that house.”
Lanning had an entrepreneurial spirit even as an undergrad. He had the forethought to purchase the small house in Liberty and utilize his teammates’ rent to pay the mortgage for him. It also made him a leader among his peers.
But nothing validated Lanning’s standing more than jumping in that truck and driving to Pittsburgh. He was showing his friends the way.
“At the time he was doing it, we were all, like, ‘Dude, you’re crazy.’ But he’s always been a determined guy and obviously it worked out for him,” Egorugwu said. “That’s what people should look at when they look at his résumé. He’s not a guy who’s connected. He didn’t have a father who coached for a long time and helped him along the way. He’s really done this on his own, from the ground up.”
After getting his foot in the door at Pitt, the rest was up to Lanning. From there on, everybody seems to have liked what they saw. Graham took Lanning with him from Pitt to Arizona State, where Lanning would become recruiting coordinator. Lanning’s first on-field coaching gig came at Sam Houston State in 2014.
Lanning met Kirby Smart in 2015 when he joined Alabama as a defensive graduate assistant and started helping with outside linebackers. Next came a two-year stint at Memphis as inside linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator.
In 2018, his brief time with Smart in Tuscaloosa paid off as Smart tabbed Lanning to succeed Kevin Sherrer as Georgia’s outside linebackers coach. He further endeared himself to Smart by showing some strong recruiting chops. Not coincidently, Lanning finds himself surrounded now by talent at his position, including former 5-stars Brenton Cox, Adam Anderson and the newly signed Nolan Smith, the No. 1-rated player in America.
“You know, we always talk to each other about ‘I’ve got this opportunity or that one.’ But regardless of what anybody thought, Dan always bet on himself,” Egorugwu said. “Every opportunity he has taken ended up being the right choice, even when people might have thought he was taking a step back.”
Lanning hasn’t gone it alone. He had plenty of motivation, going all the way back to that spontaneous truck ride to Pittsburgh. He had only then recently married his wife Sauphia, and they’d soon welcome their first of three children, Caden. Kniles and Titan would come soon after.
It was during their stint in Memphis that the Lanning family overcame their biggest challenge of all. Sauphia was diagnosed with bone cancer. After months of chemotherapy and treatment, she was deemed cancer-free.
“She’s been with him for every step of this journey and hasn’t batted an eyelid at all the moves,” Figg said. “That’s why Dan does what he does. But when he gets somewhere, once he gets an opportunity, no one is going to out-work him. That’s why he’s been able to move up like he has.”
And now it appears Lanning is about to move up again.
It has been nine weeks since Mel Tucker resigned Georgia’s defensive coordinator position to take the head coaching job at Colorado. And while other assistants have since left the Bulldogs, Lanning didn’t.
That’s key considering that he was offered the defensive coordinator’s job with Tucker at Colorado. Smart urged Lanning to stay at Georgia, and the opportunity to coordinate the Bulldogs’ defense made that notion even more enticing.
Smart made a similar promise to James Coley last year when Coley had a chance to join Jimbo Fisher as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M. To keep him in Athens, Smart named Coley co-coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and Coley succeeded Jim Chaney as sole coordinator when Chaney accepted a position at Tennessee earlier this year.
Lanning’s buddies believe the same fate awaits him, but aren’t willing to bank on it.
“He’s extremely, extremely loyal,” Figg said of Lanning. “A lot of guys gossip in this business, but he doesn’t ever say anything until it’s fact. He’s told me, ‘I’d love to be defensive coordinator and I think I’ll have a really good shot at it, but nothing is official until it’s official.’ That’s what he told me after he didn’t go to Colorado. He also said, ‘I don’t have a for-sure answer on that, but I think I’m in the mix.’ I know he talked with Kirby about it.”
Weigel and Egorugwu share similar vague interactions.
“We talk regularly and I’m aware of that stuff, but it’s not really my place to say,” Egorugwu said. “All I know is he’s been really grateful for the opportunities he’s had at Georgia and loves the community and the coaching family there. He very much likes the direction Coach Smart’s taking the program.”
Theories abound as to how Smart might divvy up the defensive coaching duties. For the Sugar Bowl, Lanning and inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann split the responsibilities. But it was Lanning who stepped up to the podium to answer questions for the defensive coordinator’s press conference. Since then, Smart brought in Charlton Warren from Florida as defensive backs coach and awarded him with a three-year contract that pays him $610,000 annually. Either coach could possibly join Lanning in the task of coordinating Georgia defense in 2019, which happens to be a year of great expectation for the Bulldogs. Or Lanning could go it alone.
Whatever happens, nobody who shared space with Lanning on Elizabeth Street is surprised to see him fully in the mix.
“We all look to Daniel for advice,” Egorugwu said. “He’s special, man. I’m just telling you, he really is special. He’s got all the things you’d want: a tireless worker, smart, good with people, always been a leader, even when we were all at William Jewell. He’s got all the makings of a great one and I’m excited to see how his career goes and all the things he’s able to accomplish.”
Said Figg: “Dan is the most determined, hardest-working person I have ever been around, and I’m not just saying that because I’m on the phone with you. He truly is. He just doesn’t take no for an answer when he sets his mind to something. He will literally work until he gets what he wants.”
And, yes, Figg said, Lanning wants to be Georgia’s next defensive coordinator.