Georgia's wunderkind DC Dan Lanning feeling at home in Athens
Dan Lanning can’t sat sit still.
The last time the Georgia defensive coordinator spent this much time in one place, he was playing at William Jewell College from 2004-07.
“Three years for me (coaching) in college football,” Lanning said, “this will be the longest I’ve been anywhere.”
He’s come a long way from his NAIA linebacking days in Liberty, Missouri. William Jewell has 739 students, and its football stadium is smaller than a lot of 7A and 6A high school venues in the Peach State.
Yet from humble beginnings in suburban Kansas City has arisen one of college football’s brightest young minds. One that earned the defensive coordinator role after just 1 year as an assistant under coach Kirby Smart, and a contract extension last month that brings his annual salary to $1.25 million.
“It was really a no-brainer for me,” Smart said when he hired Lanning in 2018.
With Lanning’s rise and finances come expectations — primarily to deliver an elusive championship to the Dawgs and their rabid fan base. The Sean McVay effect on professional and major college football has cast young, relatable, creative coaches in an unprecedented spotlight.
Could a head coaching job be in the 34-year-old Lanning’s future? Quite possibly.
But he’s pretty darn happy in Athens so far.
“You talk about being a place you’d love to raise your family, and Athens has truly been that place,” Lanning said. “Sometimes it takes that progression to get there in your career. I’m very fortunate to be in a place where I can see myself for a long time.”
From prairies to peaches
The progression began when Lanning was born in North Kansas City on April 10, 1986. He attended Richmond High School, and got his coaching start at nearby Park Hill South after graduating from William Jewell.
At a 2011 coaching clinic in Tulsa, Lanning met Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham. Then not long after, he drove the 13 hours to Pennsylvania and convinced the Panthers’ staff to bring him on as a graduate assistant.
Lanning then parlayed that energy and persistence into a swath of coaching experiences that rapidly formed him into the coach — and man — he is today.
One year Pittsburgh. Two at Arizona State, where he ascended to on-campus recruiting coordinator. One season at Sam Houston State. One on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. Then two more at Memphis, where he coached inside linebackers and oversaw recruiting efforts.
In 2018, Smart brought him on to coach outside linebackers. When current Michigan State coach Mel Tucker left to take the head job at Colorado, Lanning was promoted to DC.
His first defense led the FBS in scoring defense and rush defense.
“Dan does a tremendous job,” Smart said when he hired Lanning. “I got to watch him work and be around me when I was with the University of Alabama. He had a really good résumé coming into Alabama.”
Smart, the former Tide defensive coordinator, appears to see something of himself in Lanning. Smart was the youthful, zealous brain behind several Bama’s defenses.
Lanning’s year in Tuscaloosa showed him what a championship-type program looks like. His time in Memphis taught him how to reel in top-level talent.
He has been responsible for getting 5-star recruits Nolan Smith, Brock Vandagriff and Nakobe Dean to commit to Georgia, among others, according to 247Sports.
Lanning has also become remarkably well-connected throughout the coaching world. That came in handy when COVID-19 hit. While Georgia’s assistants were stuck at home, they tapped into their contact lists, picking the brains of high school contacts all the way up to NFL coaches.
“It was a lot of fun as a staff to be able to connect with somebody on the other side of the world, whether it be the San Diego Chargers or a high school coach in Florida,” said Lanning, who hinted the group spoke with someone from almost every NFL team. “We spend a lot of time (doing that).”
The loss of spring practice and a summer on lockdown also afforded him more time with his wife Sauphia and sons. After Sauphia’s successful fight against cancer while the Lannings lived in Memphis, family time is something none of them take for granted.
“It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time,” Lanning said. “The amount of time that we were at home rather than on the road recruiting doing some of the things you’ll do within coaching has been really rewarding from a family standpoint. My wife and kids, they make it work for me, and it’s great getting to spend a lot of quality time with them this summer.”
But game week has arrived, and Lanning’s group is intent on improving its pass defense, forcing more turnovers and compiling a higher Havoc rate.
If the Dawgs defense can help carry it to the program’s first national title since 1980 in the next couple of years, who knows how long he’ll stick around?
But relatively for Lanning, this is already a long-term fit.
“People coach their entire career dreaming to coach at a place like Georgia,” Lanning said. “That was certainly the case for me.
“I certainly don’t take that for granted.”