Coach K helps Cardinals QB to Heisman
Chris Klenakis is an unsung hero of college football.
He doesn’t step up to the podium after each game — win or lose. He’s not smothered by reporters before or after practice. He goes to work, makes great athletes greater and does it every season.
His podium is the football field and instead of being swarmed by reporters, he’s surrounded by players who put their faith in his experience and knowledge of running a college football offense. For nationally ranked Louisville, which crowned the program’s first Heisman Trophy winner when dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson accepted the prestigious honor last weekend, Klenakis is one of the reasons why the Cardinals have been so good this year. And he’s one of the reasons why Jackson won the Heisman and also became the first quarterback to win the award for running out of the pistol formation, a shotgun hybrid Klenakis helped develop with Hall-of-Fame coach Chris Ault.
“It’s the first time I’ve been around or had the pleasure to be on the coaching staff of a Heisman winner,” said the former Fallon coach. “It’s great for our program more importantly. It’s the first Heisman Trophy for the University of Louisville. It’s a tremendous boost for Louisville.”
Klenakis defers any credit to his players for believing in the system, putting in long hours during the offseason and making it all come together this season. He knew this year had the potential to be special and he wasn’t wrong.
The Cardinals rose to the top 10 and take away a late stumble, Louisville would be in the four-team playoff. Still, Louisville will be in the Citrus Bowl competing against LSU and it will have a Heisman winner leading the pistol offense.
It doesn’t get much better for Klenakis. The Heisman is a testament to his work not only just with Louisville but also the work he’s done at previous schools, including Nevada and even Fallon for his three years when he was in his young 20s.
“It doesn’t get much bigger than that,” said Fallon coach Brooke Hill, who played under Klenakis with the Greenwave in the late 1980s. “With him working that closely with Jackson, obviously, he’s helped elevate his game with the pistol. They do some other things but they’re pistol based. There’s a guy from that offense that led him to win a Heisman and that’s a special thing.”
Klenakis didn’t spend much time with the Greenwave when Hill was the quarterback. After leading Fallon, Klenakis found an opportunity at Nevada and helped run “Air Wolf” with Ault. After moving away for another coaching gig, Klenakis returned to Nevada and helped design the pistol, an offense that has football at all levels.
“The conception was in 2005. We had great success with it at Nevada,” Klenakis said. “We were able to take it to Arkansas and we’re able to use it here at Louisville with Lamar’s talent. We’re able to maximize things we’re able to do in the pistol with that kind of quarterback.”
Klenakis’ job has never been boring with the offensive trends that swoop the country. One day, it’s the Power-I or the triple option. The next, it’s the spread formation that everyone tries to mimic and add their own stamp.
But now, the trend is the pistol and it showed that it can produce a Heisman winner.
“That’s what makes it challenging. You’ve got to adjust with the times,” Klenakis said. “Those are the dynamics that make running an offense fun. It is ever changing.”
During his first stint at Nevada, the Wolf Pack threw the ball most of the time, setting NCAA records at quarterback and receiver. The pistol, though, is more balanced and deceptive, which Klenakis favors.
“The ability to keep the balance of an offense and not being able to tip your hand by having a back offset,” he said about the formation. “You have the ability to go to either side and not tip your hand. One of the greatest assets is the ability to run the football downhill.”
While Klenakis is one of the reasons why many offenses have been so successful and turn out NFL-caliber players, it’s his desire to continue learning the game and feeding that information to younger coaches that sets up apart from the others.
In fact, Klenakis was the first person Hill called when he was named the Greenwave’s head coach in 2009.
“I wanted to sit down with him and my staff. They had been running the pistol (at Nevada),” Hill recalled. “He’s left a huge mark with what we do. He helped us. He’s a mentor to me and a friend and we’ve talked quite a bit, probably more during football season. He’s very influential as a coach and he helped our program.”
Klenakis’ story from starting as a high school coach poised with maturity and knowledge than most in their 30s is captivating. Consider it the modern version of Ben Franklin’s rags-to-riches story. He was young after playing ball at Carroll College and after a stop in Fallon, no one could prevent Coach K from making it to the collegiate level.
“Most of the guys from the era will tell you he was pretty young,” Hill said of Klenakis when he coached Fallon. “He was early 20s and we were getting coached at a very high level. That’s why we got pretty good pretty quick.”
For those young coaches wanting to do more or become better at the high school level, Klenakis advises others to continue learning the game.
“Work hard and put in the hours. The game is always changing,” he said. “Study and learn. You can always learn. Get around every resource you can. Study film and keep learning the game.”
The many hours spent on and off the football field have made Klenakis one of the best offensive coordinators in the country. He extracts the best out of his players, and he always wants to learn and stay a step ahead as the game continues to change.
“There’s not a lot of coaches who have that pipeline to that high level and quality of experience,” Hill said. “I definitely appreciate it. I don’t ever take it for granted. Most coaches will tell you this that nobody’s successful unless they have people who help them along the way. To have him to go to, you can’t measure that. It’s huge for me and that football program.”
Thomas Ranson can be contacted at email@example.com.