UK Football

Bright future was always in the cards for Kentucky's new offensive coordinator

Shannon Dawson spent four seasons at West Virginia — three as offensive coordinator — before taking the same position at Kentucky.
Shannon Dawson spent four seasons at West Virginia — three as offensive coordinator — before taking the same position at Kentucky.

Shannon Dawson should've been shaking, but he wasn't.

Much bigger, more experienced coaches had stood in the spot before him and wilted with all of those eyes fixed on them alone at the front of the room.

So Dawson, just a couple of months removed from being a senior in college, should've been panicked a bit at the thought of giving one of the important Friday night team speeches at Wingate University.

But as Wingate Coach Joe Reich recalled, Dawson, with his easy smile and his "New Orleans-type Louisiana accent thing going," owned the room in minutes.

"I still remember what he talked about," Reich said more than a decade later. "That's how good it was."

Addressing the room, Dawson pulled card after card from his pocket. He read from each a pre-fab excuse for why the team lost aloud: "It's Coach Reich's fault," the first one said.

"It's my dad's fault," said the second.

"It's my mom's fault," said the third.

"I can just keep these in my pocket and every time something bad happens, I'll just pull one of these excuses out," Dawson told the room.

Finally the early 20-something coach pulled the last card from his pocket and slammed it down onto the table next to him.

"We don't need no damn excuses!" he said.

The room was electric, Reich recalled. "He knocked them out."

It wasn't the first time Dawson had dazzled Reich. He remembers the fearlessness with which the quarterback-turned-wide receiver would take the field as a player.

"He was the guy we'd send in on our screens, wanting to crack some linebackers with our wideouts," Reich said. "He was tough, physically tough. I don't think we've had anybody who was willing to do that since then."

There's the charismatic Dawson, the hard-nosed Dawson, even the softer Dawson, who still regularly texts his former coach and first boss to ask how his game went that day.

It's all of those qualities and a few more that have helped Dawson climb the coaching ladder over the past decade, starting at places like Wingate before finally landing at West Virginia.

And they're the same qualities that will make the 37-year-old from Clinton, La., a great offensive coordinator for Kentucky, those close to him said last week.

"He'll come off with the right bit of charisma and confidence, but with the right amount of humility," said Reich, still the head coach at Wingate, where he hired Dawson fresh out of college to a low-level position on his staff. "He's the whole package. ... He'll be good head coach material down the road."

'He was years ahead'

Dawson's journey up the Air Raid coaching tree started at Mississippi College where he met Dana Holgorsen, who coached quarterbacks, receivers and special teams.

Holgorsen had learned under Hal Mumme at Valdosta State in the early 1990s. Holgorsen and Dawson formed a fast friendship that would eventually lead Dawson into his chosen profession.

But there would be many stops along the way.

In 1999, Dawson followed Holgorsen to Wingate, a small liberal arts school in North Carolina. The next year, Holgorsen left to join Mike Leach at Texas Tech and Dawson stayed behind to play a final season at the place where his coaching life would begin.

His senior year, Dawson was the team's top receiver, leading the 2001 Bulldogs with 43 catches for 584 yards and seven scores.

In private meetings, Dawson told Reich his dream was to be a college coach. Less than a year later, he was hired to coach the position group he'd just led on the field the season before.

"He was years ahead of what you'd think for a first-time coach," Reich said. "He was really, really already up to speed. It was as if he'd been coaching a number of years when we got him."

He was like a sponge, soaking in information, taking mental notes.

"He had some good ideas on some things, which for a guy right out of college is more than a little unusual," Reich said.

Dawson made the same impression on Mumme the next year when he joined the newly formed staff at Southeastern Louisiana.

Basically working for nothing, Dawson spent day and night learning the system, asking good questions, offering better suggestions, including the game-winning play in the season opener.

"The game's never going to be too big for him," Mumme said. "He's not a guy who's going to be afraid."

Mostly Dawson is a "master at building relationships," the former UK coach said of the new UK offensive coordinator.

"He's a guy in the locker room that the guys want to be around," Mumme, the former UK coach, said. "You might be around 10-20 coaches and only one of them has that personality trait and he really does."

It's one of those things you know when you see, said Reich, his coach and friend at Wingate.

"He's very self-confident, got a little bit of swagger to him, but he's not obnoxiously confident," Reich said. "He has a good balance of personality, ability and confidence."

It doesn't matter if you're his boss or one of his players.

Actually, it doesn't matter what age you are, you will be drawn in by Dawson, said Jeremy Moses, who played under him at Stephen F. Austin.

"He can interact with little-bitty kids at youth camps all the way up to senior citizens there to watch the game," Moses said. "He's very easy to talk to, very nonchalant about most things, a very charismatic guy."

High expectations

A year after following Mumme from Southeastern Louisiana to New Mexico State, Dawson took a job calling plays at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.

Coming off a 2-7 season in 2005, the Majors won the Southern Collegiate Athletic conference title both years Dawson was there. His offense put up 4,000-plus yards each season.

He piloted a similar dramatic turnaround at Stephen F. Austin, his final stop before joining Holgorsen at West Virginia in 2011.

When he got to Stephen F. Austin, the Lumberjacks were coming off a winless season and averaging only 16 points a game.

In Dawson's first season as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, SFA ranked third in the nation in passing offense, 13th in total offense and 14th in scoring offense. The Lumberjacks won or shared the Southland Conference championship and advanced to the playoffs both years.

He made learning the offense easy and made players that played for him exude the same swagger as their coordinator, said Moses, a two-time All-American under Dawson.

"He's able to simplify things as far as the game plan goes," said Moses, who once threw a Division I record 89 passes in a game (completing 57) with Dawson as his offensive coordinator.

"He has a very simple-minded thought process in what he's teaching, but what goes on in his head is a lot more complicated. He's able to dumb it down for you, get the most out of you."

His relationship with Dawson wasn't always easy.

"I was a decent player for him, but there were plenty of times he was shouting at me at the top of his lungs calling me the worst quarterback in America when I'd throw an interception or something," Moses laughed.

The former quarterback said he and his Lumberjacks teammates learned quickly that Dawson had no tolerance for slacking off. "He'd jump your butt in no time," Moses said.

So many of the things Dawson said to him during his playing days stick with Moses now. His former offensive coordinator is the biggest reason Moses opted not to go to business school and become a coach instead.

"The more and more I was around him, playing for him, saw how he carried himself and the business in which he operates, he's probably the guy who swung me over to wanting to be a coach," said Moses, who now coaches running backs at Stephen F. Austin.

Moses still talks regularly with Dawson, who has become a friend and a mentor.

"I have so many questions and things that come into my head I'll shoot him a text about, or give him a call to catch up," Dawson said. "That's a guy I'll never lose contact with."

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