BATON ROUGE, La. — After a season away from football to tend to family matters, former Tulsa and Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe is eager to see if he can turn around LSU's anemic passing game.
His wife and children, meanwhile, are ready for the Tigers' new offensive coordinator to get back to doing what he loves.
"When you go through tough situations, it does strengthen you and you learn a lot about yourself and what's important," said Kragthorpe, whose wife, Cynthia, has multiple sclerosis and underwent heart surgery last year. "Football is a very important part of my life. It's been something I really, really missed. It's been an important part of our family's life.
"My wife and our family have really enjoyed being around college football. And I had two great years at Buffalo, too, in the NFL. It's good to be back and everybody is excited about it."
LSU head coach Les Miles hired Kragthorpe on Jan. 20, saying he wanted a top assistant who could quickly improve the play of his quarterbacks. In his first meeting with the media since taking the job, Kragthorpe said he hoped his emphasis on quarterbacks' footwork and his emphasis on simplifying schemes would help.
"Coaching quarterbacks is about two things: You play with our feet and you play with your head," Kragthorpe said. "You've got to be able to make quick decisions with your head, put the ball where it's supposed to be put, get the ball in the playmakers' hands."
LSU's passing game has been inconsistent since current Green Bay backup quarterback Matt Flynn left after leading the Tigers to the 2007 national championship. This season, LSU ranked last in the 12-team Southeastern Conference in passing.
Kragthorpe, who also worked former NFL star Drew Bledsoe as a quarterbacks coach with the Buffalo Bills in 2002, will now oversee the development of 2010 starter Jordan Jefferson, fellow rising senior Jarrett Lee and coveted junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger, a 6-foot-5 former Georgia recruit who left the Bulldogs because of legal trouble.
Kragthorpe had only nice things to say about all three, but also made it clear than none should expect to enter spring practice next month thinking the starting job is theirs.
"All jobs are open," Kragthorpe said. "I think that's the way the players want it. If you're the quarterback, you certainly want the best left tackle and the best tight end in there. ... If you want seniority, join the army."
Kragthorpe was a head coach at Louisville from 2007-09 and at Tulsa from 2003-06. Earlier in his career, he was the quarterbacks coach at Boston College, where he worked with current NFL starter Matt Hasselbeck. While Kragthorpe never had a winning season at Louisville, he was 29-22 in four seasons at Tulsa and was only the second coach to lead the Golden Hurricane to three bowls.
After leaving Louisville following the 2009 season, Kragthorpe accepted a job as the receivers coach at Texas A&M, then resigned when his wife learned she had M.S. and that the medication she would need does not mix well with other medication she'd been taking for her heart. The best option was heart surgery, thereby removing the need for her heart medication.
The operation was successful and her recovery strong, Kragthorpe said, adding that his wife encouraged him to take the LSU job and is now enthusiastically running the house-hunting effort in Baton Rouge.
Kragthorpe said he was recently a candidate for several positions in college and the NFL, though he declined to specify. He added that the chance to work at LSU with head coach Les Miles jumped out at him as "far and away" the best offer.
The two have known each other since the 1990s, when Kragthorpe was Texas A&M's offensive coordinator and Miles an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys. Both have said they've long respected each other's work. Kragthorpe was particularly impressed with Miles rebuilding effort at Oklahoma State before LSU hired Miles away from the Cowboys. Miles has said he always enjoyed watching film of Tulsa's offense when Kragthorpe was there.
If success at LSU leads Kragthorpe back to another head coaching opportunity, he'd be interested and would have Miles' blessing. At the same time, Kragthorpe said his priorities have changed in the year or so since he left his last head job.
"If I die and I'm not a head coach again, that's going to be fine with me," Kragthorpe said. "I just want to be at a place where I can compete, where I get the chance to win, work with good people and be in a place where my family is happy."