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December 19, 2011

Getting to Know Koenning

Fans who go back with the North Carolina football program a couple of decades fondly remember the hot summer evening when Mack Brown took a scrappy team out to Los Angeles and officially gave notice that the Tar Heels had arrived under his leadership.

Carolina's 34-9 win over Southern Cal on August 29, 1993 was a landmark victory in Brown's tenure in Chapel Hill---ushering in the second straight season of what would be seven straight bowl berths at UNC in the 1990s.

But for the man who's set to become North Carolina's new defensive coordinator, Vic Koenning, his landmark victory over the Trojans came two years earlier.

Thing was, it wasn't even supposed to happen.

That is, Memphis State---still known as Memphis State back in the fall of 1991---heading out to the storied L.A. Coliseum to play a Southern Cal squad loaded with future pros including Curtis Conway, Willie McGinest, and Johnnie Morton, among others.

But prior to the start of the 1991 season, Southern Cal had a scheduling conflict with Kansas, who backed off the Trojans' schedule.

That opened the door for the Tigers, known almost exclusively as a basketball school and who hadn't had a winning season on the gridiron in nearly a decade, to play a Southern Cal team that as usual was in the Top 20 and a preseason favorite in the Pac-10.

Heading into that '91 contest at USC, Memphis State was coming off a dreadful period in its gridiron history with just 20 victories over six years, including two two-win seasons and a 1-10 season in 1986.

But the Tigers had an ace up their sleeve in the form of head coach Chuck Stobart, a former Southern Cal assistant who knew the ins and outs of the Trojans and had helped recruit many of their players to Los Angeles before going to Memphis.

Stobart had promoted Koenning, a Kansas State graduate who had worked as a graduate assistant at Memphis State in 1988 and 1989 while pursuing his graduate degree, to a full-time coach in 1991, making Koenning Memphis State's secondary coach.

And in his very first game as a position coach at the college level, Koenning led a Tigers secondary that shut down Southern Cal's pro-laden receivers in the second half on the way to a stunning 24-10 upset of the No. 16 ranked Trojans.

It was the only time before or since that Memphis has played Southern Cal on the gridiron, and clearly it was one of the shining moments in the history of that program.

Memphis State would go on to a 5-6 record that fall, including a 10-7 near-upset of Alabama in the regular season finale the year before Gene Stallings led the Crimson Tide to a national championship.

Koenning stayed in Memphis as secondary coach for five more seasons, from 1992 to 1996, and over that time the Tigers had some of the top defenses statistically in all of college football.

Over a three-year stretch from 1992 to 1994---all winning seasons for Memphis State---the Tigers were ranked in the Top 20 in total defense nationally every year, including finishing third in the nation in the total defense in 1992 and 1994, and eighth in the nation in scoring defense in 1994.

After one more big win at Memphis State in 1996---the Tigers shocked Peyton Manning and Tennessee 21-17 in the next-to-last game of the season that fall---Koenning left prior to the 1997 season to become defensive coordinator at Wyoming under coach Dana Dimel.

Koenning worked in Laramie for a total of six seasons, ascending to the head coaching position in 2000. He wasted no time making an impact with the Cowboys defense, as his first Wyoming unit led the nation in interceptions and was second in sacks in 1997.

He ascended to head coach in 2000 after Dimel left to take the head coaching job at Houston, and Koenning remained Wyoming's head coach through 2002, although it was unquestionably his toughest stretch in coaching.

Wyoming went just 5-29 over Koenning's three seasons before he was fired after the 2002 season, and while he hasn't been a head coach again since that time, he redeemed himself in his next three coordinator jobs.

Moving to Troy State in 2003, Koenning helped future NFL standout Demarcus Ware become a two-time All-Sun Belt Conference selection as Troy improved from 4-8 in 2002 to 6-6. The following season Troy's defense was ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring, rushing, pass efficiency, and yards per play defense.

Troy's 2004 defense led the nation in interceptions (25), tied for second in turnovers forced (32), was ninth in fewest yards allowed per play, and finished 16th in total defense (311.0). Troy would go on to the school's first-ever bowl game as a Division I-A football program, while Ware went on to be the No. 11 overall pick of the Dallas Cowboys in the 2005 NFL Draft.

It wasn't the first time Koenning was involved in a school's first-ever bowl game, as back in 1983, when he was a starting linebacker at Kansas State, he helped lead the Wildcats to the 1982 Independence Bowl, that school's first.

Following his senior season, Koenning won the Paul Coffman Award for leadership at KSU.

While at Troy in the mid-2000s, Koenning caught the eye of Clemson's Tommy Bowden, who had also built a reputation earlier in his career at a smaller Gulf State school, Tulane.

Luring Koenning to Clemson in 2005, Bowden ushered in one of the most successful defensive eras in the storied history of Tiger football, as over the next four seasons, Clemson's D would be ranked in the Top 25 in scoring, rushing, pass efficiency, and total defense every single year.

Not before or since has Clemson been ranked in the top 25 statistically in all four major categories four straight years.

Along the way Koenning coached a number of future pros, including the late Gaines Adams, an All-American defensive end under his watch, as well as Tye Hill, and Phillip Merling, among others.

Despite outstanding statistical success as Clemson's defensive coordinator, neither Koenning nor Bowden was able to give what the rabid Tiger Nation really wanted---an ACC championship---and after back-to-back losses to Maryland and Wake Forest early in the 2008 season, Bowden was fired, replaced by Dabo Swinney.

Swinney's hiring at Clemson spelled the end of Koenning's time in Death Valley, as he departed the day after Swinney settled into the Big Chair at Memorial Stadium.

Koenning didn't exactly leave Clemson on warm and fuzzy terms, and although it's going to be a few more years before the Tar Heels and Tigers will meet on the gridiron unless they play in the ACC championship game, one can figure that particular matchup will have particular significance for UNC's new defensive coordinator.

After leaving Death Valley Koenning quickly landed on his feet at his alma mater Kansas State in 2009, and he proved once again his ability to make remarkable defensive strides.

KSU had ranked 112th in the NCAA in rushing defense in 2008, but under Koenning in 2009 the Wildcats moved up 96 spots to 16th in the country. KSU gave up a full 12 points less in 2009 defensively than 2008, while giving up 140 fewer yards than they had the season before.

Joining Ron Zook's staff at Illinois in 2010, Koenning quickly set out to reverse the Illini's defensive fortunes and he did so, as Illinois moved up 53 spots in the national defensive rankings, from 91st in 2009 to 38th in 2010. They moved up 44 spots in rushing defense, 48 spots in scoring defense, and 61 spots in turnover margin.

After getting off to a 6-0 start this season, Illinois had a meltdown late in the season, dropping six straight games as the Illini offense failed to score more than 17 points in any of the final six losses.

Despite going a dismal 2-6 in Big Ten play this fall, Koenning's Illini defensive unit ranked second overall in total defense, allowing 291.8 yards a game, and a respectable fifth in the league in scoring defense---allowing 20.1 points per game.

Illinois earned a berth in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco December 31 against UCLA---a game Koenning will serve at Illinois' interim head coach---but he's leaving immediately after that to come to North Carolina.

This means that addition to needing to watch the Christmas Eve Hawaii Bowl, which features Larry Fedora and what will likely be several members of UNC's 2012 coaching staff working their final game at Southern Miss, Tar Heel fans will also want to make sure to tune in to the Christmas Eve showdown between the Illini and Bruins, which will be a showcase for Koenning and his innovative defensive schemes before he heads to Chapel Hill.

Koenning has already started recruiting for UNC, which provides us the necessary confirmation to call this a 'done deal.'

Bradenton (Fla.) safety Clinton Heaven confirmed to Tar Heel Illustrated that Koenning contacted him over the weekend, before the start of the Holiday 'Quiet' Period, which began at midnight Sunday morning.

Koenning will bring some wrinkles to Chapel Hill that should get Tar Heel fans excited about the future of the Carolina defense.

Although he employs the same basic 4-3 defensive scheme used by the prior UNC regime, there are many variations that make it difficult to characterize it strictly as a 4-3 defense.

Often Koenning's defenses will have just three so-called 'down' linemen---meaning their hand is on the ground---and a fourth standing at the line of scrimmage outside the defensive ends or in one of the gaps between guard-tackle or center-guard.

In addition, Koenning's defenses don't always have three traditional linebackers, as they will often go into what can better be called the 'nickel' or 4-2-5 defensive scheme.

While UNC's past regime employed the 'nickel back' as the 11th player at certain times, in Koenning's scheme, the 'nickel back' would be better referred to as a 'Bandit,' a hybrid player capable of playing a traditional linebacker position or dropping back into coverage like a safety. Typically this player plays on the strong side of the field depending on where the opposing tight end lines up.

Koenning's defenses are designed to create confusion within opposing fronts and poking holes in the pass protection pocket to create opportunities for big plays.

His units are known for creating big plays, indicative in all the statistical success his teams have had over the years.

He's also known for making big impacts early in his tenure at different schools.

When he first arrived at Clemson in 2005, the Tigers went the last seven games of the season allowing just 11.5 points a game. He became the first defensive coordinator anyone could recall who held Bobby Bowden and Steve Spurrier without an offensive touchdown the same season.

As time went on at Clemson Koenning took some criticism from Tiger Nation for being too conservative, too 'bend but don't break' at times, but that shouldn't be something to be expected under his new boss in Chapel Hill, as Fedora is known for taking chances on defense, employing the blitz liberally, and forcing turnovers through pressure and confusion.

Perhaps that's why this seems to be an outstanding fit on many levels for North Carolina.

Koenning has earned a reputation as a thinking man's coordinator who also has the chops as a former player who played on a bowl team in college and also two years professionally in the USFL.

That kind of background should help him quickly earn respect and get through to the Tar Heel players.

Koenning will not have nearly the rebuilding job at North Carolina that he had his one year at Kansas State and most recently at Illinois.

The Tar Heels were well-served by the experienced staff put together by Butch Davis this past fall, and while the results didn't reflect in a dominant season, the UNC defense was second in the ACC this season in rushing defense and in the top half in scoring and total defense.

UNC returns starters at defensive end (Kareem Martin), linebacker (Kevin Reddick and Darius Lipford), and in the secondary (Jabari Price, Tre Boston) in 2012, and there's plenty of talented young players chomping at the bit to make an impact this spring and catch the eye of their new coaches.

People can make whatever criticisms they want of Everett Withers, but he's heading to Ohio State after all this is said and done, so clearly somebody---no less than Urban Meyer---thinks he can coach a little bit of football.

But with Withers leaving, UNC couldn't have done a whole lot better than landing another defensive coordinator with 20-plus years of college experience, who's won at several different places, and sees a good fit in Chapel Hill under a coach in Fedora who shares a similar background and has worked with many of the same people.

Koenning probably won't be officially announced by North Carolina until early January, after the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, but he's in position to be ready to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail over the next several weeks prior to Signing Day.

He's already got some existing recruiting relationships with players he recruited to Illinois, so it will be interesting to see how many of them might pop up as UNC targets in the coming weeks.

As the dust settles from the termination of Coach Davis and Fedora gets the program back off the ground, it appears he's already making good moves.

The people in Illinois don't really want to see Koenning leave, and there's plenty of people in South Carolina who, whether they'll admit or not, know that UNC is getting a solid defensive coordinator.

It's a big-time opportunity for both sides, as Koenning looks to continue building his coaching resume at a place eager for success on the gridiron.

With the people he'll be working with and the players he'll be in position to recruit, there's no reason to think the Tar Heels aren't going to be sitting at or near the top of the ACC defensive statistical standings in the coming years with Koenning at the helm.








 

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