Coach Dan Lanning on the sidelines of Oregon football game.

Before they even play a down, the William Woods Owls already have an impressive college football legacy

On a brilliant, sun-splashed Spring afternoon in May, William Woods made history. In front of a throng of University students, faculty, staff and supporters in an outdoor campus celebration overlooking Senior Lake, President Jeremy Moreland announced that intercollegiate football was coming to The Woods for the first time in its 153-year existence. The Owls will debut on the gridiron for the first time ever in 2024, representing a new era in WWU Athletics.

But before the Owls actually suit up for their first game, hold a practice, hire assistant coaches, purchase helmets and shoulder pads or even recruit a single player, William Woods already has an interesting footnote in the 2023 college football world. Through an alumnus who resides nearly 2,000 miles to the west of Fulton, Missouri.

William Woods University football unveiling event

One month from now, the college football season will begin across the U.S., and one of the sport’s perennial NCAA Division 1, Power Five Conference powers will begin its second year under one of the hottest young head coaches in the game. That program is the University of Oregon of the Pacific 12 Conference, and that head coach is 37-year old Dan Lanning, a 2010 graduate of William Woods University.

A detour to The Woods

In 2009, 23-year-old Dan Lanning was coaching high school football at Park Hill South High School in the Kansas City area, while teaching physical education at a nearby elementary school. A native of Richmond, Missouri who played small college football at William Jewell College in Liberty, Lanning wanted a boost to his teaching and coaching career while continuing to work. So he turned to an option that thousands of working professionals have chosen for the past three decades – the graduate program at William Woods University.

“A group of my fellow teachers and I wanted to advance our careers while continuing to work, and William Woods made it so convenient,” Lanning remembered. “I enrolled in a cohort program that at the time was being taught at Staley High School (North Kansas City), and the curriculum was very applicable to real life and what I wanted to do.”

Lanning specifically remembered a skilled professor named Steve Sellers, a long-time education administrator who really instilled a sense of teaching ethics and organizational leadership on the young teacher and coach.

Dan Lanning coaching

“We would have engaging open discussions about educating and leading young people, and really focused on important fundamentals that have been applicable to my profession,” said Lanning. “It was a valuable experience that has helped me throughout my professional career.”

Lanning received his Master’s degree in secondary administration from The Woods in 2010, and then embarked upon an amazing climb up the college football ladder that took him straight to the top before age 40.

Small school, big dreams

Shortly after receiving his degree from WWU, Lanning – driven by his dream of coaching major college football – drove 13 hours to Pittsburgh to convince the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh to hire him after Lanning met him one time at a Kansas City-area football clinic. The bold approach led to his first job in NCAA Division 1 football, and with his foot now firmly in the door, Lanning moved up the ranks, coaching at Arizona St., Sam Houston St., and Alabama (under the legendary Nick Saban) before arriving at the University of Georgia. At Georgia, he started as an outside linebackers coach before ascending to defensive coordinator in 2019. With Lanning leading a fearsome Georgia defense, the Bulldogs won the national championship in 2021, allowing the red-hot young coach to make it to the sport’s Emerald City, so to speak, hired by the University of Oregon as the Ducks’ head coach at 36.

In his first year as head coach, Lanning led Oregon to a 10-3 record and a win in the Holiday Bowl. The young man who played football at a small school and burnished his leadership skills with help from graduate school at William Woods had realized his life’s dream. And those lessons he learned from WWU still resonate today, even from his lofty perch at the top of the hill in major college football.

Dan Lanning smiling

“Ultimately, it was studying leadership, and spending a lot of time discussing and debating the qualities of great leaders,” Lanning continued, recalling what he takes from his William Woods experience today. “We would take a holistic view of issues in education administration, and those lessons are things that are still a part of what I have to do as a leader today.”

When Lanning played football at William Jewell in the mid-2000’s, the school was a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and Heart of America Conference, which is what William Woods will compete in as well. He sees the parallel between the two institutions, as The Woods gets ready to begin its program.

“Attending and playing football at William Jewell was perfect for me, just as William Woods will be a great destination for other young men like I was,” he said. “It’s about learning the discipline needed as a student-athlete, making lifetime connections with teammates that are still my good friends to this day, competing at a high level. It’s clear that one can still achieve big-time goals after a small-school experience, and I wish William Woods well in starting their program.”