Think Dan Lanning will leave Oregon? Check the ink

EUGENE, Ore. — Somewhere in those 6.5 hours of perpetual pain, Dan Lanning’s phone lit up. But he didn’t see it. He was wincing. He was breathing deeply. Alec Turner, the artist tasked with completing the massive tattoo on the left side of Lanning’s chest, saw the name on the screen, and his eyes bulged.

The incoming call? Phil Knight.

So Turner removed the needle piercing the ribs of Oregon’s gregarious football coach and deadpanned: “Hey, man, you should probably answer this.”

When Phil Knight calls, you stop what you’re doing. Lanning sat on the table, swiped his phone screen and took a respite to talk to the founder of Nike and Oregon’s most famed alumnus and donor. Lanning told Knight where he was and what he was cramming into one session.

The permanent portrait of Lanning’s wife, Sauphia, is sprinkled with various homages to their journey through life —and football — together.

Before Turner dipped the needle in ink on Jan. 4, 2023, he offered Lanning numbing cream. Lanning declined but now admits that, as the hours dragged on, he regretted that decision. He thought to himself: I’m a football coach, right? I should be able to handle this.

“I just didn’t have a big window of time,” Lanning says. “Pain is weakness leaving the body. Let’s go. Knock it out.”

He had just finished his first year as head football coach at Oregon, where the Ducks won 10 games, were in the College Football Playoff conversation most of the season and had a top-10 recruiting ranking for the 2023 class. He was already hooked on life in Eugene.

These were the first steps in Lanning’s project to not only build Oregon into a winner his way, but to sustain it for years to come. His second season with the Ducks in 2023 was another step forward, showcased by a record-setting offense that wowed even a fan base accustomed to them.

But nearly a year to the date he had his map charted in ink, the ultimate test of allegiance arose.

On Jan. 10, 2024, Alabama’s Nick Saban announced his retirement, rocking the college football universe. Lists of candidates to replace the seven-time national championship-winning head coach were formulated by the sport’s insiders almost immediately. Most put Lanning at the epicenter of the speculation cycle.

The Lanning-to-Alabama conjecture lasted not even 24 hours, despite false reports that he was in Tuscaloosa interviewing to replace the legend for whom he’d once worked. It ended with a close-up of Lanning, puffing smoke from a cigar, announcing that he was — as he says again and again — “10 toes down” in Eugene.

Ask Lanning if he turned down Alabama, and he flashes a grin. “When you’re in a situation where your answer is already going to be no, people don’t ask you those questions.”

At Oregon, Lanning enjoys a fully guaranteed deal that pays more than $7 million a year through the 2029 season and requires a $20 million buyout to leave early, in addition to the perks of running a program with the support of Nike’s deep pockets. But conventional wisdom posits that most coaches linked to the highest profile and most illustrious job in the sport would at least open up a lane for communication.

Lanning, turns out, isn’t all that conventional.

The digital clock inside Lanning’s office runs vertically on the wall to the right of his vast desk. The Ducks-green seconds tick away alongside the minutes and hours to tell Lanning how much time he has. On this visit, he would turn 38 the next day, but Lanning would rather talk about anything else.

“Twenty-one is the last time I celebrated a birthday,” he says.

So what about how, at 19, on a waiter’s salary at Outback Steakhouse, he purchased a house on Elizabeth Street in Liberty, Mo., while balancing life as a Division II linebacker at William Jewell College? He had four teammates move in who helped pay the mortgage. It’s been nearly 20 years since they huddled together for Nintendo 64 tournaments. If a roommate was short one month, Lanning would cover for them. But he wouldn’t forget about it.

Leaning forward in a chair, Lanning says, “Realizing early you can create your own success with hard work is something that stuck out with me.”

Trent Figg, head coach at Division III Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is one of Lanning’s former teammates and roommates. Figg says Lanning hasn’t changed since he’s ascended college football’s coaching ladder. Figg’s scouting report of his friend Dan Lanning (not head football coach Dan Lanning) is succinct:

  • He’s a social butterfly and the life of the party at all times.
  • He loves action movies.
  • He likes to smoke a cigar.
  • He likes to cook steak on his own stovetop.
  • He still wears white Nike dress socks to work every day.

“That,” Lanning says, “is mostly true.”

Lanning’s former roommates and former employers offer up a common theme: He carries with him a unique devotion to people who believe in him.

“He’s the most loyal person I’ve ever been around,” says Figg. “Like, if you talk about why he stayed in Eugene instead of going to Alabama, he sees the value in how people have invested in him, and he fully believes in himself. He’s a very confident person. And he totally believes in what he has at Oregon.”

It’s been over a decade since Lanning left his post as recruiting coordinator at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas. Longtime head coach K.C. Keeler remembers when Lanning approached him and said he got a call from Saban to join Alabama’s staff as a graduate assistant for the 2015 season. Lanning’s body language was telling, Keeler says; he wasn’t grinning. He felt like he was going to let Keeler down.

Keeler told Lanning he had to go, because that’s where he’d meet someone who would eventually notice him as a future head coach.

“It doesn’t take you long to figure out Dan Lanning’s style,” Keeler says. “I remember telling my wife back then, ‘I’m going to have this guy for a year.’ This guy was always on a different path.”

That path is forever detailed on his ribs, shown through Sauphia’s portrait.

The Oregon symbol on her neck features a yellow ribbon in the center, commemorating her battle with an aggressive type of bone cancer in 2016. Their three sons, Caden, Kniles and Titan, are there. There’s the state of Texas outline for Sam Houston State, the Sun Devils pitchfork from Lanning’s time as a graduate assistant at Arizona State, the Pitt emblem for his year with the Panthers and Alabama’s signature “A.” There’s a boomerang honoring Outback Steakhouse, where Dan and Sauphia met as co-workers. The “816” is the area code of Lanning’s hometown in Missouri, and 33-18 is the score of Georgia’s win over Alabama in the national championship after the 2021 season when he was the Bulldogs defensive coordinator.

“It definitely hurt,” Lanning says.

The tribute to his life’s work isn’t meant as an ode to himself. It’s to his wife, his kids, his faith, his journey, the night shifts at Outback when he was courting Sauphia by paying for her 18th birthday dinner. It’s also a reminder to Lanning that the work is just starting.

“The seat I sit in now, I remember what it was like when I wasn’t sitting in it,” Lanning says. “Loyalty to me is giving the best you got every day, 10 toes down on the job that you’re responsible for and owning that and realizing success will come from that. I get to live my dream. I get to do exactly what I signed up for and what I’d hoped.”

Existing in one’s dream doesn’t mean it’s without its constant demands. The home office where he does video calls lately doesn’t have an impressive array of trophies and photos in the background; the office is his closet. It’s where he can tap in when needed to talk to players, parents or recruits. And when that’s done, it’s done, and he’s out on the couch informing his three boys the night’s movie is “Field of Dreams” or “Back to the Future.”

“In a lot of ways in our jobs now, you’re a doctor on-call,” he says. “Something can happen at any moment and it requires your attention. What I think I’m getting better at is making sure I take advantage of those moments when it does arise. I’ve been poor at that. I’ve gone through basketball seasons where I got to see my son play once. That’s not something I’m proud of. I want to get better at it.”

He may sound like how a football coach is supposed to sound when he’s dissecting depth charts in media scrums, but Lanning is not a caricature of a football coach. It’s helped, he says, that the stops that brought him to Oregon have meant working for Saban, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Florida State’s Mike Norvell and others.

“Great head coaches have to be themselves,” Lanning says. “If they try and be something else, or if you do what you think everybody else is doing, then you catch yourself in a trap.”

One avoids such traps by staying a step ahead. And Lanning, his friends and colleagues say, always has been. Since he was a 26-year-old on-campus recruiting coordinator at Arizona State, he possessed a preternatural ability to recruit.

And apparently he doesn’t miss when a window into his world swings open. Before Oregon’s 42-6 trouncing of Colorado last September, Lanning allowed ABC cameras into the Ducks’ locker room to capture a speech that went viral. Speaking of Deion Sanders’ Buffaloes becoming the topic du jour of the sports world, Lanning told his team, “They’re fighting for clicks, we’re fighting for wins.”

It was a flashpoint in the 24-hour news cycle. The payoff was a glimpse for recruits to see that what you see with Lanning is what you get.

Oregon coach Dan Lanning catches raindrops on his tongue before the Ducks’ game against Cal on Nov. 4, 2023. (Ali Gradischer / Getty Images)

For much of the past decade, Oregon fans felt slighted, because they invested in two head coaches who vowed that Eugene was the place for them, that they’d guide the Ducks to title contention, only to leave for other jobs. Willie Taggart spent one year as head coach in 2017 before leaving for Florida State. His replacement, Mario Cristobal, coached four years at Oregon and ultimately left to coach his alma mater, Miami.

So imagine the level of paranoia when college football pundits listed Lanning as their guy to replace Saban. Lanning quashed it with the minute-long video. “When good things happen, speculation occurs — and there’s been a lot of good things that happened to us at Oregon,” Lanning says.

Before it saw the light of day on social media, on the night of Jan. 10, Lanning was on the phone with the mother of a recruit who was afraid that their decision to choose Oregon would be fleeting. She’d read the headlines connecting him with the Alabama job.

“I said, ‘If I made an announcement for you, would that make it clear exactly what we’re going to do?’” Lanning recalls. “The mom said that, ‘Yeah, that makes it really clear.’ And then I told her, ‘Hopefully at some point they’ll stop asking the question.’”

New Oregon quarterback Dillon Gabriel says even though he’s been on campus for only four months, Lanning’s confidence in his program is infectious.

“How cool is that? That’s who I committed to,” Gabriel says. “That coach is the guy everyone wants for the right reasons. He’s great at connecting with people, he listens, he understands, he can translate that into action from a guy who’s been in it for a long time. Everything he’s said has come to fruition. He just keeps it real, and I think you can appreciate that. He just does the easy things at an elite level. He’s mastered it. That’s exactly why people want him.”

The Ducks are 22-5 in two years under Lanning and have cultivated one of the sport’s most explosive offenses with offensive coordinator Willie Stein calling the plays. With Heisman Trophy finalist Bo Nix at the helm last year, the Ducks ranked No. 2 in the country in total offense. Oregon’s defense finished top 25 in overall team defense, too. But the undoing of the team’s College Football Playoff aspirations were two agonizingly close losses to rival Washington.

The Ducks now prepare for a new era as they enter the Big Ten alongside the Huskies, USC and UCLA. Asked why he thinks this year’s Ducks have a shot at contending in the expanded 12-team playoff, Lanning says they’ve always been aggressive in looking to increase the talent on their roster, through recruiting high school players (the Ducks ranked No. 3 in the 247Sports recruiting team composite rankings in 2024) and in the NCAA transfer portal.

During the winter portal window, they added Gabriel (Oklahoma), cornerbacks Jabbar Muhammad (Washington) and Kam Alexander (UTSA), wide receiver Evan Stewart (Texas A&M) and former five-star recruit and UCLA QB Dante Moore. In the last week, the Ducks have further bolstered their defense with safety Peyton Woodyard (Alabama) and defensive lineman Derrick Harmon (Michigan State). Lanning staying put and believing he’s in Eugene for the long term has set up Oregon for both the present and the future.

“Dan likes to prove people wrong,” Figg says. “Dan knows he can win a national championship at Oregon, and he wants to show the world he can do it.”

Oregon is no longer an upstart. The Ducks made a national championship appearance, though it was nearly a decade ago in 2015. Lanning believes the program can win it all in this quaint remote town thousands of miles away from where the Southeastern Conference has reigned supreme the past two decades.

“I love being part of a program that’s proactive,” Lanning says. “They’ve always wanted a great product. This is a place where you can create that.”

Lanning talks about making the jump from good to great. The Ducks being agonizingly close in big games has to change in the Big Ten era. Ohio State visits Oct. 12, and three weeks later, the Ducks go to The Big House to face reigning national champion Michigan on Nov. 2.

With his ribs aflame with pain after being tattooed, Lanning posed for Turner so he could share the work done in one sitting on Instagram. Turner was born and raised in Eugene. For years, he has tattooed Oregon players and the “O” symbol on fans. Never could he have imagined Chip Kelly or Mike Bellotti walking into his shop. But in talking to Lanning, Turner says he felt like the head coach is sold on the life and pace of his hometown.

Before Lanning walked out the doors, he told Turner something the artist now fully believes.

“He told me he wanted to retire here,” Turner says.

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Tom Hauck / Getty Images)

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