If you’re scoring at home, in the stands or the luxury suites, at donor functions, on the recruiting trail, in front of the TV cameras or, like the Hotline, at a keyboard somewhere, the tally looks like this:
USC hired a coach with three College Football Playoff appearances.
Oregon hired a rookie.
The Ducks’ answer to Lincoln Riley taking charge of the most storied program in the Pac-12 is a 35-year-old named Dan Lanning, most recently of Athens, Ga., but originally from North Kansas City.
Lanning has no head coaching experience, no ties to Oregon and limited knowledge of the West Coast. He is the first Oregon head coach without connections to the school or experience in a corner office since Rich Brooks was hired in 1977.
Clearly, there is significant risk to this hire. But there’s also considerable upside, which we’ll address momentarily.
The hire, which became official Saturday afternoon, brings to a close a tumultuous stretch for the Pac-12 in which its three top football programs all chose new coaches.
USC went first with Riley; Washington followed with Kalen DeBoer; and Oregon answered with Lanning.
Based on reputation and accomplishments, the Trojans lapped the field. Whether Riley proves a vastly superior hire to DeBoer and Lanning won’t be clear for two or three seasons.
At least DeBoer has been a major college head coach, having run the Fresno State program the past two seasons.
Lanning has three years of experience as a Power Five assistant coach.
Sure, he spent two seasons on Arizona State’s staff, but in a non-coaching role.
He served as a graduate assistant for Alabama in 2015, working for not only Nick Saban but also assistant head coach Mario Cristobal.
And he spent the past three seasons at Georgia, working for another of the nation’s top coaches, Kirby Smart. (The Ducks face Georgia in the 2022 season opener.)
Without question, Lanning was one of the hottest coordinators on the market during this wild and crazy hiring cycle.
So could it be that Oregon’s answer to Lincoln Riley was to hire … the next Lincoln Riley?
Granted, Riley’s expertise is on offense, but there are a slew of similarities in their backgrounds and ascents.
Riley was a Power Five coordinator for two years, at Oklahoma, where he learned from one of the best, Bob Stoops.
When Stoops stepped down in the summer of 2017, Riley was promoted to the throne of one of the nation’s true blue bloods and instantly proved himself, leading the Sooners to three CFP berths and a 55-10 overall record.
At the time of Riley’s promotion in Norman, he was 33 years old and viewed as a rising star.
Lanning is 35 and viewed as a rising star.
Like Oklahoma, Oregon opted to buy early. That’s better than buying late, especially when you’re convinced the price is destined to rise.
Reportedly, the Ducks considered Brigham Young’s Kalani Sitake, Cal’s Justin Wilcox and UCLA’s Chip Kelly. Assuredly, there were others on the wish list.
In many ways, the Lanning hire fits the Oregon and Nike personas: hip, daring, cutting edge, always pursuing — and often producing — the next big thing.
He could be the next Riley … the next Luke Fickell.
But there are questions:
— Will Lanning, like Willie Taggart and Cristobal before him, leave Oregon after a few years to take a coaching job in the eastern half of the country? That seems like a reasonable outcome if Lanning succeeds — and a risk the Ducks are willing to take.
— Who will run the offense and what style does he plan to deploy?
— What is the recruiting plan? Cristobal used an SEC-style relentlessness to collect a slew of top-10 classes. Will Lanning follow that path? How heavily will he lean on prospects from the Midwest and Southeast? And to what extent will his roster-building strategy depend on the transfer portal?
— Also, can he coach? There is every reason to believe Lanning possesses a first-rate defensive strategist and the organizational and leadership skills to oversee something as sprawling as a major college football program. And yet, it’s impossible to know for sure because he has never been a head coach and because Georgia’s roster is loaded with NFL Draft picks.
But this much we know: The Pac-12 needs Lanning to succeed.
The conference cannot continue to lose ground nationally, either in the playoff race or on the recruiting trail. Oregon has been a pillar in recent years — often the only pillar — as the masses flopped and flailed.
When the programs with the greatest traditions and the deepest resources and strongest recruiting bases and the widest paths to the playoff are all flourishing, the other boats will rise.
There are too many challenges, from playoff expansion to media rights contracts, for the collective to muster a first-rate product without the heavyweights carrying the load.
USC got it right. We believe Washington did, as well. But Oregon took the greatest risk.
If Lanning is another Riley, the reward will be immense.
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