December 31, 2013 10:38:22 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Deep beyond what school colors he wears, Les Koenning is a Texan at heart.
That background makes this a difficult week for Mississippi State's offensive coordinator.
When Koenning played at Texas, his father, Les Sr., coached at Rice. The two faced off on the gridiron each of Les Jr.'s four years with the Longhorns. Texas beat Rice each season.
"I consider myself from Houston after going to high school there and having my dad coach there at Rice, so I'm also very familiar with the program and can tell you it's a neat place," Koenning said. "We were in the old Southwest Conference at that time, and I can remember we went into Baylor, they were ranked 10th in the country, and beat them. There's not a lot of things between Waco and Houston, but that trip was pretty exciting coming back from that victory."
Koenning then coached the wide receivers at Rice from 1990-93 after his first stint at MSU. During his stint at Rice, Koenning's teams won 21 games in four years under coach Fred Goldsmith. With MSU (6-6) ready to face Conference USA champion Rice (10-3) at 3 p.m. today in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Koenning knows what it means for the Owls to win 10 games in a season for the second time since 1949.
"Not a lot of people understand the commitment and difficulty in winning at a place like Rice, but I do," Koenning said. "For them to win a conference championship and get to the Liberty Bowl is a great accomplishment for their program."
Koenning, who was born in San Antonio, Texas, will coach against Rice defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond, who is one of his friends. Thurmond and Koenning coached together at TCU (2000), Alabama (2001-02), and Texas A&M (2003-05). Thurmond said he and Koenning respect each other and "even like each other personally, too."
"Les is somebody I've played golf with and spent a lot of time with over the years, so I consider him a friend," Thurmond said. "When you kick that ball off, you try to beat that guy's brains in, but any other time he's somebody I think is a great person. We talk about respect a lot but think about it, you don't hear from another coach that I genuinely like that person."
Thurmond has been close friends with Koenning's cousin, Vic, much longer than he has known Les. Thurmond grew up 21 miles from Vic in Northeast Oklahoma.
"Us Northwest Oklahomans have to stick together, and Vic is a solid person with a great coaching mind," Thurmond said.
After seeing each other at a coaching convention in New Orleans more than a decade ago, Vic, who is the defensive coordinator at North Carolina under former Southern Mississippi coach Larry Fedora, was on a river walk and introduced himself to Les.
"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 immediately called his grandfather and asked him to trace the family tree. The research determined the Division I college football coordinators were third cousins.
"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.' "
Les Koenning even has a river rafting connection with Rice coach David Bailiff.
"Coach Bailiff used to have a river-rafting business. I used to call him up to see if he could get me a deal to get on the river," Les Koenning said. "True story. That was back in our younger days."
On the field, Thurmond said he's impressed with Koenning's ability to adapt his style to the personnel and offensive philosophy of MSU coach Dan Mullen. Koenning was part of a pro-style look at TCU, Alabama, and Texas A&M, but he has adapted to the high-tempo, spread style in a way that has helped MSU average 27.14 points per game in his five years working with Mullen.
"What I think makes Mississippi State so versatile is they're so multiple in what they can line up and beat you with makes them so difficult to prepare for," Thurmond said. "They can be in anything really and then (sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott) can just take off and make you look foolish for worrying about everything pre-snap instead of the player with the football."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.