Canzano: Oregon Ducks' coach Dan Lanning -- and his team -- are never far from home
Ducks coach stakes a claim in Eugene.
Daniel Lanning’s childhood home sits on 6.54 acres in rural Missouri. The property is surrounded by rolling hills and piles of limestone. When he was just a boy, his father, Don, would announce at the breakfast table, “We’re picking up rocks today.”
The kid who is now University of Oregon’s head football coach would get with his brothers, David and Jordan, and they’d help their father gather rocks and drag off loose timber so the land could be mowed.
“Every time the wind blew there were branches that fell,” his father said.
Janis and Don Lanning worked for decades as middle-school teachers. Janis taught English and language arts. Don was a science teacher. The first rule of the Lanning family was that the children were to make their beds every morning.
“I’ll still call them on this as adults,” Don said.
They also learned to do their own laundry, help around the kitchen, and take out the trash. Once a week, the Lanning children would be asked to prepare the family meal, too. It might only be hot dogs, but the job was on the kids.
Said Janis: “There was always stuff to do around the house.”
Daniel — which is what his parents still call him — is the youngest among 65 head coaches in Power Five Conference football. The 36-year old was hired in December by Oregon. He got off a plane in Eugene with his wife, Sauphia, their three sons, and sky-high expectations. Lanning will coach his first game one week from Saturday, in Atlanta, against the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs.
Who is Dan Lanning?
Is he ready for this?
To answer these questions, you need to understand Ray County, Missouri. This is where the Lanning family moved when Daniel was three. It’s where he rode the bus to school, learned to drive a stick-shift pick-up truck, and idolized the Kansas City Chiefs.
“My wife and I were a couple of public-school teachers,” Don said. “Our salaries didn’t allow us to do a lot of big, fancy things, and travel all over and see a bunch of sporting events, but we had each other.”
Staking a claim in Missouri
Oswald Tanner served in the Navy. He spent a couple of years of World War II in the Philippines. When the fighting ended, he came home and moved back to the family farm, a few miles outside of Richmond, Mo.
Later, he bought a few acres from his aunt.
Tanner is Daniel Lanning’s maternal grandfather. He died in 2012. Before that, he raised crops and cattle on what eventually grew to more than 300 acres. He also owned a couple of bulldozers that he used to build terraces and dig ponds for other farmers.
“He worked and saved and added to his farm when he could afford it,” said Don Lanning. “As a farmer, sometimes you have a good year — a lot of times you don’t.”
I asked Don and Janis Lanning what drove them to trade their life in north Kansas City for one on a farm when Daniel was a toddler.
They answered by telling me about a promise.
“We made a promise to the Lord and to ourselves and to our children,” Don explained. “We would not move them around once they started school. Wherever they started kindergarten, we would make sure they stayed and graduated high school.”
Grandpa Tanner wanted his daughter’s family nearby. One summer afternoon, Don and Janis were visiting and he asked, “Have you ever thought about having a house on a farm?”
They had. But neither wanted to put pressure on him. Grandpa Tanner broke the silence by announcing, “Well, get in the pick-up truck.”
He drove them to a nearby section of his farm, got out, then pulled a hammer and a couple of wooden stakes from the truck bed. He pounded the stakes into the soil and said, “How about here?”
Daniel Lanning and his siblings would grow up there, climbing trees and building forts. It’s where he’d learn work ethic and perform chores. When he and his brothers wanted to buy a Nintendo video-game console, their parents gave them a list of extra jobs to earn it.
“Janis and I were not believers in kids being given their own cars,” Don said. “We told the boys that there will be something here to drive, but it’s not your car.”
A mid-1990s Plymouth Acclaim was Daniel Lanning’s first car. It was burgundy, had four doors, and previously belonged to his grandparents. After that, he learned to drive a stick shift by borrowing the old, black, Ford F-150 that was used around the farm.
“The kids still talk about that good ‘ol pick-up,” Don said.
It jarred his memory, in fact.
One day, Don and his sons decided they needed to wash the truck. So they took it to the town car wash — one of those self-serve, power-washing stops. Don got out, slipped some quarters into the machine, and began to spray.
“Daniel and his brother were in the pick-up, making faces and sticking their tongues out at me in the window,” Don said. “So I opened the passenger door and sprayed water all over them. I still don’t think they can believe I did that.”
I thought about that jovial act on Tuesday evening, as the Oregon football coach posted a video reel to his Instagram page. Lanning is knee-deep in fall camp, less than two weeks away from coaching the biggest game of his college career. He hasn’t publicly named a starting quarterback. But Lanning posted a video of his three sons in the kitchen, battling Dad in an evening puzzle game.
“Football Camp — but still got to find some time to compete with my boys!” the coach wrote.
The guys on the field win the games
Wes Neighbors played on two national championship teams as a defensive back at Alabama. Later, he served as a defensive analyst with the Crimson Tide and holds the distinction of being part of five national-title teams as a player and assistant.
Neighbors is now the secondary coach at the University of Maryland.
“I was just a graduate assistant at Alabama in 2015 and I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be great, we’re really going to be good,’” Dan Lanning told me on Sunday. “Wes Neighbors looked at me and said, ‘What are you talking about? We’re terrible. We’re not going to beat anyone.’”
Lanning remembers thinking, ‘Great. The year I come to Alabama is going to be the one season in college football history that Alabama football stinks.’”
The Crimson Tide weren’t bad. In fact, they went 14-1, won the SEC championship, and beat Clemson in the national-title game that season.
“Lesson learned,” Lanning said. “You never really know if you’re going to be any good until the players get on the field and play the games. You just don’t know. Everyone wants to make this about my first season, but I want this season to be about my guys.
“This game is about the guys on the field.”
Lanning’s favorite “guy on the field” growing up was a running back. Eddie George played at Ohio State and Lanning’s parents bought their 9-year old son a Buckeyes’ jacket as gift for Christmas.
“He absolutely adored Eddie George,” his father, Don, said. “He wore that jacket and, oh my gosh, he was king of the world.”
Lanning also loved watching Nolan Ryan compete on the mound. The Hall-of-Fame pitcher had a career that spanned four decades. He threw seven no-hitters and struck out 5,714 batters.
“As a little kid, Daniel had it in his head that he had to have something Nolan Ryan,” Don said. “But we couldn’t really afford anything. So he saved a couple of bucks and bought a new baseball himself. Then, he brought the ball to me one day and asked, ‘Dad, would you sign Nolan Ryan’s autograph for me?’”
Don thought about it — then, decided there was no harm. He penned Ryan’s signature best he could and Daniel proudly displayed the forgery on a bedroom shelf.
Years later, while coaching the defensive backs at Sam Houston State, Lanning told someone that story. A colleague overheard it and, later, presented Lanning with a genuine Ryan-signed ball.
“He was a favorite of mine,” Lanning told me. “I will never forget him putting Robin Ventura in a head lock.”
A first-time trend at Oregon
The University of Oregon has had other first-year, first-time head football coaches. Rich Brooks had never been a head coach before the Ducks took a chance on him in 1977. Chip Kelly was an offensive coordinator hire from New Hampshire, who was promoted to the head-coaching job in 2009. And Mark Helfrich, who grew up in Coos Bay, got his first chance to lead a college program in 2013 after Kelly left for the NFL.
Daniel Lanning was asked about his lack of head-coaching experience during his introductory news conference in December. He was ready. Lanning cut off the reporter with a correction: “When I was in high school, I coached a third-grade basketball team. And we were damned good.”
It got laughs.
“It bothers him to lose,” his father, Don Lanning said. “He handles it well but it bothers him.”
I learned more about Lanning after talking with his parents than I did at that first news conference. I learned that their son attended “The Roy Williams Basketball Camp” at the University of Kansas. And that he loves sitting around with his brothers, quoting lines from movies. And that he played the role of the dentist in his high school senior play, “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Said his mother, Janis: “Daniel stole the show.”
I also learned that Lanning’s childhood bathroom had Kansas City Chiefs’ wallpaper. He’d bring friends over and show it off. In December of 1996, a family friend even offered the Lanning’s a few tickets to a Packers-Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium.
Don remembers his sons walking through the stadium parking lot, wide-eyed.
“They’d never seen anything like it,” he said. “We just walked through the parking lot for an hour and a half, and the boys saw people hooking up TVs at their tailgates and cooking with enormous cookers and playing catch. Daniel was always eager to play catch with whoever wanted to throw the ball with him.”
They found their seats, ate hot dogs and popcorn, and watched the Chiefs upset the eventual Super Bowl champions, 27-20. It was the only NFL game Daniel Lanning ever saw in person as a kid. That day’s attendance: 79,281.
“We didn’t have a lot of extra funds,” Don said. “The boys and I got to go to the game. Boy, oh, boy, it was fun.”
Family — off the field — and on it
Janis Lanning said her son possesses high expectations and buckets of personal pride.
“Whether it be a team, a school play, a church activity, he had a high calling and demanded a lot of himself,” she said. “He worked at bringing everyone else along with him, too. He wasn’t domineering. He was always very encouraging.”
As a teenager, Daniel Lanning took a job working for a local ice business. A family friend who owned a school-bus company used the rigs in the summer months to transport bagged ice to local businesses. Lanning tied the ice in bags, drove them across town, and stacked the product in store freezers.
“For years,” his dad, Don, said, “we’d pass by a business that sold bagged ice and Daniel would wander over and inspect how the ice was stacked in the cooler and examine how precisely it was bagged. Often, he’d come back and say, ‘You know Dad, someone did a terrible job with that ice.’”
When I told Oregon’s new football coach I was planning to speak with his parents, Daniel Lanning told me, “They’ll say all the things that proud parents say.” Then, he implored me to not make this column all about him.
“I always want it to be about my guys,” he said.
I’ve been in Oregon, writing columns, and covering football coaches for 20 years. A key part of my job has been to understand and develop working relationships with coaches such as Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly, Mark Helfrich, Willie Taggart, Mario Cristobal and now, Daniel Lanning.
In the last 14 seasons, the Ducks have played in 13 bowl games and suited up twice in the national-title game. Oregon is on head football coach No. 6 in that span. As I spoke with Lanning’s parents this week, I was struck by how different Oregon’s most recent hire is from the five who proceeded him.
Bellotti fashioned himself a CEO. Kelly was a visionary with a wicked wit and little patience for idiocy. Helfrich was hyper-cerebral, but never really let his guard down. Taggart showed up, blinked, and was gone. And Cristobal was masterful at recruiting and trained in combat sports for fun.
All of them, older than Lanning.
Each of them, offensive minds.
None of them, raised on a farm.
He is likable and engaging. And Lanning possesses a seemingly healthy work-life balance for a football coach. But will he win big? And if he does, will he stick around?
“Daniel,” his father said, “is loyal to a fault.”
Prior to Oregon’s appearance in the 2009 Rose Bowl, I called Chip Kelly’s father, Paul. He was a retired trial attorney and a pleasant guy. We had a brief conversation about how his son used to park cars at the shore in the summers.
“Deeds, not words,” the late Paul Kelly preached.
That succinct wisdom worked wonders for the now-UCLA head coach. Brevity is Kelly’s trademark. I called Don and Janis Lanning this week and spent 55 minutes on the phone with them. Then, I hung up, and the Lannings spent the next couple of days rummaging around their home, pulling photographs from the family albums, and sending them my way.
“OK,” Don Lanning wrote in a text message, “I know you don’t need more of these but I can’t resist sharing. That’s Daniel in the red shirt with his brother David ‘flying’ their homemade airplane.”
Don and Janis Lanning tell me they have plans to fly from Kansas City to Eugene for the Oct. 1 Oregon-Stanford game. Then, they’ll take a road trip the following week with the Ducks to Tucson, to see Oregon play at Arizona.
“We love seeing our grandchildren,” Janis said.
Ask Daniel Lanning about himself, and he’s quick to turn the conversation to his players. He’d rather talk about Noah Sewell, Brandon Dorlus, DJ Johnson and a line of others. For a while, I wondered why he did that. Then, I talked with Lanning’s mother and father and complimented them on their parenting.
Then, Don Lanning said, “You know, Daniel and Sauphia are all-star parents. They really are. I told Sauphia that I wish there was some way of bottling up that gift they have to give it to parents who need it.”
Turns out, you can grow more than crops on 6.54 acres.
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