September 29, 2011 2:26:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- While at a coaching convention in New Orleans more than a decade ago, Vic Koenning was on a river walk when he saw a man who looked like a family member.
The man was offensive assistant coach Les Koenning, and Vic's first glance was correct.
"I walked up to him and said, 'I'm sorry, but I have no idea who you are but we have to be related," Vic Koenning said.
Les Koenning immediately called his grandfather and asked him to trace the family tree. The research determined the Division I college football coordinators are third cousins.
The family believes two Koenning brothers came from Germany around 1858 and settled in Port Lavaca, Texas, which is three hours southwest of Houston and three hours southeast of San Antonio. Immigrants Joe and Leslie Koenning got in a fight. One pulled a weapon and they split up and went on to live separate lives in Texas.
"We're all immigrants from somewhere, but at some point time during the first time I was at Mississippi State (1986-1990), I met Vic and then wrote my grandfather a letter about it," Les Koenning said. "I was shocked when he wrote me back and said, 'Yup, that's your cousin boy.' "
The dispute between the immigrant brothers explains why Vic and Les' last name is different even though it is spelled the same way. Vic's last name is pronounced CONE-ing, while Les' is pronounced "KEN-ing." Apparently when the brothers split, they didn't want to be connected in any way, so one of them intentionally changed the pronunciation.
"Les' granddad confirmed a story I had heard about the two old brothers, and it made sense because my dad always talked about working on the farm in East Texas," Vic Koenning said.
The wrinkle to this family connection is both men have specialized on opposite sides of the ball. Vic is in his second season as the defensive coordinator at the University of Illinois, while Les is in his third year running the Bulldogs' offense.
"Look at him and look at me now because he's a lot bigger than me," Les Koenning said. "He's been raised in a different defensive world than I grew up in."
Most coaching families exist on one side of the line of scrimmage. Bob, Mark, and Mike Stoops were defensive coordinators before Bob and Mike took head coaching opportunities at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Arizona.
The Harbaugh brothers (John and Jim) were offensive coaches before getting NFL head coaching jobs.
However, according to Vic, he thinks his cousin uses his intense defensive mentality on offense.
"Don't let Les fool you now, he's just as fiery as any defensive coach I've seen," Vic Koenning said. "His personality is pure Texas, and that crosses over any lines of scrimmage. Trust me."
After being a being a three-year starter at Kansas State, Vic Koenning started his college career as an assistant coach for the University of Memphis before becoming the defensive coordinator at the University of Wyoming. In 2000, he was named the Cowboys' head coach, but he was fired following the 2002 season after posting a record of 5-29. In 2005 Koenning became defensive coordinator for the Clemson Tigers. Koenning resigned his position Dec. 2, 2008. He was hired at Kansas State by coach Bill Snyder on Dec. 8, 2008, to be assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator at his alma mater. The KSU defense improved from 118 to 38 under Koenning.
On Dec. 18, 2009, Koenning took the defensive coordinator job at Illinois.
"I think Illinois is one of the places my kids and my wife really enjoy living in, and that's so important," Vic Koenning said. "We've been at some places where they couldn't wait to get out, and when I'm doing well on the field and they're happy at home, that's the perfect deal."
Les Koenning has been at 12 schools since 1981 including a one-year stint with the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
Both Koennings have executed rebuilding jobs at their current schools. Les and the spread philosophy have helped make MSU more explosive under head coach Dan Mullen.
In two-plus years, Koenning's offense has nearly doubled the average number of points scored (15.2 points per game in 2008; 29.0 in 2010) and has developed an offense that is one of the nation's top rushing attacks.
Last season the Bulldog finished in the top 10 in school history in passing yardage, completion percentage, passing touchdowns, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total offensive yards, per-game offense, and first downs.
Vic has transformed Illinois into a multiple-base defensive scheme. The No. 24 Illini are off to a 4-0 start for the first time since 1951. Illinois is fifth nationally in rushing defense, but it has played only pass-oriented offenses, Koenning said. The Illini also are 11th in scoring defense and 18th in total defense.
"I'm really happy he's doing well at Illinois because he's done well at a lot of great places, but he seems to have found a spot for himself in that community," Les Koenning said.
The cousins say they keep in touch in the offseason via text messages despite having never worked on the same staff together.
"I've learned this business is pretty cut throughout the years and (Les) is one of the few people I've never worked with that I trust," Vic Koenning said. "It's hard to trust people in coaching, at least for me, but we've helped each other, and I'm sure that will continue."