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July 5, 2011
The coach who could be most responsible for LSU winning the 2011 national championship didn't even have a job in 2010.
It was Steve Kragthorpe's choice to sit out the last season. He says he may be a better coach for it, and that's good for LSU's BCS title dreams.
Entering 2010, Kragthorpe had a job coaching quarterbacks at Texas A&M. But he left before the season started to tend to his wife, Cynthia.
"She was diagnosed with MS," Kragthorpe said. "When we found out she had MS, it was a good and bad day.
"We were happy to find out what was wrong because she had been struggling for a while. But in order to go on the medicine she needed, we found out that she needed to have a heart procedure. That's when I decided to call timeout, that I had to take care of this now."
Now, with his wife healthy, Kragthorpe is ready to coach again.
"I had followed his career," LSU coach Les Miles said. "I watched his teams at Tulsa [2003-06] improve when I was head coach at Oklahoma State [2001-04]. He's the guy who got Tulsa turned. At Louisville, his pass offense was very good. I knew he would fit in well with our staff."
In the spring, Kragthorpe began working to re-make an LSU offense that holds the key to the Tigers' hope of winning the national championship. While the Bayou Bengal defense has a few small holes, it again should be a strong unit.
But questions persist about an attack that ranked 11th in the SEC in total offense (341.3 ypg) last season with Gary Crowton
Despite those woeful offensive numbers, LSU still won 11 games in 2010. How much better can the Tigers be with just an average offense in 2011? Miles knows the talent is there. And he thinks Kragthorpe, 46, is the man who can maximize it.
"His ability to communicate with quarterbacks and teach them is key," Miles said. "Steve has taken his knowledge and applied that to improving [quarterback] Jordan Jefferson. It's making a difference.
"He has taken the things we were doing and things he did in the past and applied some good old-fashioned technique and teaching and made Jefferson a better passer and quarterback. And he understands the offense better."
Anyone who has seen Jefferson play knows he's an unrefined product. He finished last season 11th in the SEC in passing efficiency, hitting 56.5 percent of his passes for 1,411 yards with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. At times, Jefferson's play was downright ugly, causing him to be a lightning rod for criticism in Baton Rouge.
"You really can't listen to everyone when it comes to criticism," said Jefferson, who ended the 2010 season on a high note, passing for 158 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-24 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M. "People outside the program don't really know what's going on. You have to stay level-headed and humble and continue improving every game."
Kragthorpe knows what it's like to be doubted and criticized. In 2006, he was one of the nation's hot coaches after resurrecting Tulsa's program with a Conference USA title and three bowl bids in four seasons. But things started to go wrong after he took the Louisville job in 2007.
Kragthorpe was unable to build on the momentum the program had established under Bobby Petrino. Each season, Kragthorpe's win total fell and the critics howled. After three seasons and a 15-21 record with no winning records, Kragthorpe was out.
Miles still was impressed.
"I liked who he was as a family man and who he was as a coach. I liked his body of work," Miles said. "I first met Steve when I worked for the [Dallas] Cowboys and he came to a staff room and was studying football. You could tell his professionalism, his want and desire to improve himself. I enjoyed meeting him there."
In addition to helping tend to his wife last season, Kragthorpe used some of his idle time to gain new insight.
"I visited some schools," he said. "I went back to Texas A&M a couple of times and watched them play. I went to the Texas-OU game, which is something I always wanted to do. Went to the Tennessee-Florida game.
"And I spent a lot of time with my wife and kids. I reconnected with my family. I did stuff I never had done before in my life. I went to parent-teacher conferences. I went to movies with my wife on Wednesday nights instead of watching movies with my team or coaches. It was a good time. It was a time when I needed to step back and re-evaluate things and see where our life was going."
Rested and ready, Kragthorpe began work in the spring. LSU's offense won't have a radically different scheme than it did under Crowton. Kragthorpe instead has changed terminology to lessen the learning curve of the players.
His biggest project is Jefferson, whom he must make into a consistent passer to take advantage of a good collection of receivers. It the LSU passing game is clicking, it will open more room for what should be a strong rushing attack.
"I think [Jefferson] definitely solidified himself as the starter in the spring," Kragthorpe said. "We opened the competition and he took a hold of it. I think he's poised to have a really good senior year and he has some good weapons around him.
"That's something he and I have talked a lot about. He just has to be the guy who distributes the football, takes care of the ball and puts in the right guy's hands."
Why has Jefferson, who has completed 58 percent of his passes for 3,996 yards with 28 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in his career, been so inconsistent?
"We spent a lot of time on fundamentals and playing the position of quarterback, particularly footwork," Kragthorpe said. "I don't care if you are coaching small college or the NFL, that's the way I always have approached it with quarterbacks. I think you have to be fundamentally sound in order to put your body in position to make the plays you have to make.
"I think he really bought into it and some things that we thought would really help his game."