It was 1987, and the Tigers trailed Dick Sheridan’s Wolfpack by more than 20 points after 2 quarters. As Clemson headed onto the field after what was likely one of Coach Ford’s colorful halftime “chats,” a less than happy crowd greeted them. I’m sure a few players wanted to back-peddle into the safety of the locker room.
My dad, searching for some spark of life in the Tigers, hit my leg and pointed to the corner of the field. “Look at that!” he growled. I followed his gaze to an orange-clad number 49 who sprinted back onto the field at full speed. “That’s Lancaster. See how mad he is? He hates this - can’t wait to get back on the field. That man’s a REAL player.”
Though the Tigers came up just short of a spirited comeback, the impression that fullback Chris Lancaster left on me was lasting. I followed the rest of his brief playing career with great interest. As a competitor, a warrior, Lancaster had few peers. “The things I’m solid with and that I’m most happy about,” says Lancaster from his Lexington, Kentucky office, “are that I did my best, I did everything I could, and I gave every ounce I could.”
The red hair has receded a bit and, he admits with wry laugh, “I can’t fit in the sweats they used to give us – hell, I’m too fat.” Today, number 49 goes by “Coach Lancaster,” in charge of the defensive line at the University of Kentucky. To daughters Kaila and Klemson, he answers to “Daddy.”
The foundation for Lancaster’s coaching career was laid the day he found out he could no longer play. He recalls sitting on the doctor’s table with tears in his eyes, wondering what he would do without football. Coach Ford walked over to him and demanded, “Do you know what you’re going to do?” Chris replied in the negative, and Ford looked at the young man and declared, “I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to be a student assistant. You’re a part of this team. We need you.” And that was that.
After a year and half as a student assistant on Ford’s staff, a run that saw the Tigers gobble up a 20-4 record and two bowl wins, Chris headed west to Baylor University. He worked two seasons as a graduate assistant for the Bears, coaching tight ends, running backs, and defensive ends. In the spring of 1992, Lancaster married Kathi Goodner, a native Texan and daughter of present Kentucky defensive coordinator John Goodner.
That fall, Chris accepted a graduate assistantship at Clemson, joining Ken Hatfield’s staff and working with tight ends. This opportunity, to return to the school he loved along with his new bride, didn’t turn out as well as he would have liked. The Tigers struggled to a disappointing 5-6 season. His tenure as a GA done, Chris quickly found his services needed back in Texas.
“Coach [Chuck] Reedy got the head job at Baylor and hired me. He always told me that he’d hire me whenever he had opportunity to, and I coached tackles and tight-ends for four years.” During his second stint at Baylor, Chris helped lead the Bears to a conference title and a bowl game. Unfortunately, the Baylor administration opted to go the proverbial “different route,” and Reedy, Chris, and the rest of the staff had to move on.
I-AA Sam Houston State called next, and Chris took a position as offensive line coach. For Chris such a move was “a great opportunity – going from tackles and tight-ends to coaching all five positions.” In his second season at Sam Houston, he was promoted to offensive coordinator, a job that came with a whole new set of challenges: “Being winged under Danny Ford at Clemson, I wanted to run the ball, and the head coach there wanted to throw the football.”
After the 1998 season, Kirby Brickhouse, head coach at McNeese State, hired Chris as an offensive line coach. So, the self-described gypsy and his family headed east again, this time to Lake Charles, Louisiana. “I really enjoyed Louisiana – the way of life there and the people,” he says, “Saturday was very important to them. Like in South Carolina, even if you didn’t go to Clemson or USC, you’re still a fan of one of those teams. You’re just raised into it.”
That leads us to the present day and Lexington, Kentucky. Chris, Kathi, and their two daughters moved there prior to the 2001 season, when John Goodner, Kathi’s father and the defensive coordinator for the Wildcats, hired him to be UK’s defensive ends coach. Despite a tough first season, Lancaster sees a big upside to coaching at the SEC school: “We’re not at that [elite] level yet at Kentucky, but we’re working that way. And the fans here … we were 2-9 last season, but we were sold out every week. We’ve been here a full year now, and this place is really special”
What Lancaster brings to the table is an incredible work ethic, a strong sense discipline, and a hard-nosed philosophy forged over a lifetime on the gridiron. “I attended a military academy in Georgia,” he recalls, “I think some of the things that helped me at Clemson and playing as a freshman were the maturity level and discipline I gained there … I attribute a lot of that not only to my father but to my high school coach. They taught me that, if I was going to do something, I needed to do it wide-open and have fun.”
“I’ve been around a lot of coaches,” he says. “Just go back and look at the coaches on the Clemson staff when I played or was a student assistant there. Guys like Tommy West, Chuck Reedy, Bill Oliver, Bill D’Andrea, Wayne Bolt, Larry VanDerHeyden, and, rest in peace, Tommy Harper. I was also fortunate enough at McNeese to work with J. C. Harper, Tommy’s son. What you do in our profession, and, I think any profession, is take a lot from each one of them. You take all their philosophies, all their personalities, what you like and what you didn’t like, and you kind of form your own kit, so to speak.”
Why coaching? For Chris, that’s a no-brainer. “I enjoy that age, period – those 18 to 22 year-olds who are turning into men. I’ll tell you, I’m 18 again when they come in. I’m going to make sure they enjoy coming to work, that they’re motivated. No, it’s not easy, but we’re going to have a fun time doing it, enjoy our success, and always, always appreciate the people who helped us get here. Before games, when we come out of that tunnel and the band strikes up, there’s always a tear in my eye.” At the same time, he is cognizant of the serious responsibilities he has taken on: “Hopefully, they’ll all go on to be successful in life, whether football is with them or not. I want to help them do that. That’s my job. That’s the role I’ve accepted.”
That passion and intensity have always been there, even after a neck injury during his junior season ended his playing career early. “I wasn’t very talented,” Lancaster recalls of his playing days, “I was slow, and I couldn’t run.” What he lacked in athletic ability, however, he made up with a winning attitude and fervent desire to do whatever it took to make the team better, whether it was being the lead blocker for the likes of Stacy Driver, Kenny Flowers, and Terrence Flagler or logging time as a long-snapper.
“At the time I went to Clemson, I filled a niche. That was when Danny Ford went from a split-back to an I-formation – before the Virginia game that year . That week leading up to the game, I was brought over from the scout team. I didn’t even know I was going to travel, and didn’t know I was going to play. Then, Tracy Johnson separated his shoulder, and I was in on 47 plays. We ended up winning the game, with both backs [Driver and Flowers] rushing for over 100 yards.”
When asked to reminisce further about his playing days, Chris doesn’t think back to his first touchdown in a “homecoming” game of sorts at Georgia Tech, the touchdown he scored in the 1986 Gator Bowl against Stanford, or some great block that opened the field for a long Terrence Flagler touchdown run. Instead, Chris remembers the teammates - guys like Rodney Williams, Tracy Johnson, and Donnell Woolford - who shared in his drive to win.
“You know what stands out more than the games?” he asks with youthful enthusiasm. “The everyday life. The practice. The grind of playing for Danny Ford. Not knowing how long you were going to scrimmage. The little things, I guess, handed down to him from Bear Bryant – Coach Ford handed them down to us. Those are the things I rely on in my everyday life.”
He remembers leaving the locker room after home games and, “Walking through the parking lots, past all the tailgaters, talking to them about the game. I loved coming across a group of kids playing touch football, and jumping in and playing with them. Those are types of things you never forget – the types of things that always stay with you.”
As for specific games, oddly enough he looks back to one that he didn’t have the chance to play in: “1988. I was on the sideline when FSU came into town, and I couldn’t play. Burt Reynolds bought them those new britches. I’ll never forget the emotional feeling I had, and I couldn’t even go out on the field. But, at the same time, just being there, I knew I was at home.”
Indeed, when the subject of Clemson comes up, you hear a change in Chris’s tone. “I always tell recruits, ‘Don’t pick a school solely because of a coach, the colors, or even football. If you had to take football out of it, where would you be happy? Would you be proud of yourself for the rest of your life because you went to school there?’ I can say that about my university. I have my diploma on my wall. I have a child named after Clemson [youngest daughter, Klemson], and to this day, it is special in my heart.”
What about today’s Tigers? “When those kids are on the field, they’re special to me, and they’re my brothers. I’d love to see them win every game, but I’m realistic. The bottom line is that those kids are at our university, and they’re playing their hearts out for us. The coaches don’t make the university – it’s the fans and those players, and that’s whom we should appreciate. I’d come and coach there for 50¢ just because of what that place means to me.”
“When I look at my littlest one every day,” he goes on, “She’s just cracked the code and understands that there is a Clemson University and that Daddy played there. Not taking anything away from Kaila, my oldest daughter, but I think Klemson’s personality fits the name: she’s very spirited, she’s high strung, and she’s a people person in that she really cares about others. I got really lucky naming her Klemson, and it’s a good, daily reminder of those five years I was there.”
And, as for all those Tiger fans out there, Chris hopes that he is remembered for being the type of player he was and the type of man he still is: “A tough guy who did what’s right and played his ass off. I got some TDs, and those were good. What I’m most proud of – what I cherish the most – is that I know I can always go back with my head held high.”
Once a Tiger, always a Tiger, my friend.
Got a subscription to Tiger Insider? In this issue you will get:
- The New Defense - New Defensive Coordinator John Lovett sits down with Dan Scott to discuss his defensive philosophy and what Clemson fans can expect from the Clemson defense in 2002.
- Where Is He Now? - A look at Chris Lancaster, a former walk-on that won a starting spot in the Clemson offensive backfield, and won the hearts of many Clemson fans.
- The Evolution of Sports Medicine - Dr. Byron Harder talks in a candid interview about injuries and the state of sports medicine at Clemson.
- Catch Us, If You Can - Cobb Oxford takes a look at Clemson's powerful receiving unit - it should be one of the best cast of receivers in the nation this season.
- The Recruiting Junkie - The Recruiting Junkie knows he has a problem…that's the first step in his recovery from an addiction to recruiting information. The Junkie in this issue's installment from his personal diary takes us through the other steps in his recovery from addiction.
- The Art of the Schedule - Dan Scott takes a look at what it took to get Oklahoma on the schedule in 2008.
- Recruiting Bios and Photos of the signees - Exclusive photos of Clemson signees that you won't see anywhere else.
- Gifted and Talented - Syvelle Newton could follow his good friend Tymere Zimmerman to Clemson. However, Newton is being pursued by several other major colleges.
- Coaching in the Trench - Don Munson takes a look at what it takes to coach the defensive ends and what defensive end coach Rodney Allison has in store for the unit in 2002
- Much, much more and great Clemson photos
Other sneak peaks at previous Tiger Insiders