Drawing plays since 4 years old, new Kentucky offensive coordinator has football in his blood

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – Tim Coen still remembers the look of incredulity on his assistant coaches’ faces.

The year was 1989. Coen was meeting his staff in the tiny office at South Kingstown High School in Rhode Island while his young son, Liam, entertained himself on the chalkboard the staff normally used to diagram plays.

As the coaches planned for practice and the upcoming game, one happened to look toward Liam and let out a startled exclamation.

“He was in front of the chalkboard, had an absolute wishbone formation with 11 players, where they were supposed to be, and a defense lined up,” Tim said. “It was incredible. We were all sitting there going, ‘You have to be kidding me.’”

Liam Coen was 4 years old. More than 30 years later, the coaching prodigy has been tabbed by Mark Stoops to take the Kentucky football offense in a new direction.

Just don’t expect the wishbone formation Liam perfected before he’d even started school to be of much use in Lexington.

“I was always a coach, but we ran wishbone and wing T,” Tim said. “We weren’t into the stuff they’re doing now-a-days.”

What Liam is doing now-a-days is building upon one of the most exciting offenses in the NFL.

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For the past three seasons, he has served as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Rams under offensive guru Sean McVay, including the last two as the team’s assistant quarterbacks coach.

McVay’s offense has captivated the NFL since the Rams' run to the 2019 Super Bowl.

The Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers both hired head coaches from McVay’s staff. Now Stoops hopes bringing a version of the Rams' offense to college football will help the Wildcats revitalize a passing game that has ranked last in the SEC for three consecutive seasons.

But long before Liam was an in-demand coaching candidate, he was just another son of a football coach in a Rhode Island high school football program not exactly known for producing high-level recruits.

“I always wanted to play at the next level,” Liam said. “Didn’t get that opportunity. Had a great college experience, and I always thought that was kind of going to be it. But I knew I would coach, and once you get into the profession, you never know how it’s going to end up.”

Football in his blood

Liam’s grandfather, Phillip Coen, was a team captain for Boston College in the early 1950s and an assistant coach at Brown. Tim helped build the program at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, where he went 53-12 in seven seasons as the coach before taking the job at La Salle Academy in order to coach Liam.

Together, Tim and Liam led La Salle to four consecutive Rhode Island Division I Super Bowls. Liam threw for more than 5,000 yards and 66 touchdowns across his last three seasons there to earn a scholarship offer at UMass, where he would go on to break almost every one of the program’s career passing records.

“I get the opportunity to coach my son,” Tim said. “It was like the greatest time. … So much fun coaching your kid, especially when he loves the game.”

Left to right: Liam Coen, 20, quarterback at the University of Massachusetts, his dad, Tim Coen, football coach at Portsmouth High School, and his grandfather, Phil Coen, who played college football at Boston College, meet at Portsmouth High School for a family photo.

The fact that Liam eventually developed into a high school and college football star came as little surprise to his father.

The coaches meeting where Liam drew a perfect wishbone formation was just one of many signs he was destined to build his life around the game.

On nights when Tim would watch television, Liam would demand his dad throw him a football as he ran routes across the living room and dove on the ground. The father and son would spend hours in the backyard throwing passes to each other, teaching Liam how to lead a receiver and throw on the move.

“It’s just what he wanted to do,” Tim said. “Instead of watching Winnie the Pooh like all his buddies, he would watch my team’s high school film. You’d hear him in the other room (calling plays) … Almost like even before it would even happen he knew it was coming, because he’d watched the film so many times.”

As a sophomore, Liam led UMass to the I-AA national championship game. He entered his senior season with dreams of making the unlikely jump from college football’s second tier to the NFL, but an elbow injury as a senior prevented him from throwing regularly.

Despite projections that he might be taken by an NFL team in the late rounds of the 2009 NFL draft, Coen did not even receive any free agent contract offers. Word about his injury had gotten out, and his playing career was finished.

Football was not done with Liam, though. In 2010, he was hired as quarterbacks coach at Brown. He spent three seasons there, sandwiched around one season at Rhode Island, before returning to UMass as passing game coordinator.

In 2016, Coen was hired as offensive coordinator at Maine. Two years later, he finally made that jump from small college football to the NFL — but as a coach, not a player.

“To get the opportunity with the Rams was just like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is phenomenal,’” Liam said. “Now coming to the top conference in college football at a place like Kentucky, it’s just a dream come true.”

A college coach at heart

Tim, who Liam calls his best friend, was there for support at every stop on the unusual journey up the coaching ladder.

The father now spends many of his days enjoying retirement on the golf course in Florida, but he has remained plugged into his son’s career. Reached by phone over the weekend, Tim had clearly spent time studying film of his son’s new team, rattling off jersey numbers of the tight ends he was already impressed with on Kentucky’s roster.

Tim’s prolific coaching career provides Liam a constant sounding board for his own ideas, but he is not shy about voicing his opinion about some of the shortcomings of the pass-happy offenses taking over football.

“I’m not a huge fan. I’m a big proponent of keeping things balanced. I like to throw — that’s fine — but I like play-action stuff more than anything else," he said with a laugh before launching into a recitation of a typical conversation with his son. 

"When you guys run the ball and play-action, that’s when you’re the best," Tim says.

“But Dad, when it’s third-and-long, you’ve got to get in the shotgun, you’ve got to throw the ball," Liam counters.

"I know, I know," Tim concedes. "But I don’t like it. I just don’t like it. I don’t like it because it tells the defense, ‘Here we come,' and they can come after your quarterback."

Tim is excited for Liam’s move from Los Angeles to Lexington, in part because the Bluegrass State is more suited to Tim’s small-town comfort zone. He is already impressed with the culture Stoops has built in Lexington, comparing it to the environment McVay has fostered with the Rams.

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Even Tim has to take a moment to sigh in awe when he thinks about Liam’s journey from Rhode Island to Kentucky, but Liam’s connections to the Wildcats are more prevalent than one might expect.

In the fall of 1997, an 11-year-old Liam served as a ball boy for the Boston Celtics during Rick Pitino’s first preseason camp in Newport, Rhode Island. Pitino had just left Kentucky and had stacked his first Celtics roster with former UK stars.

Liam Coen takes a break during a practice at La Salle Academy, where he was coached by his father, Tim Coen.

Liam arrived at La Salle Academy shortly after the graduation of fellow Rhode Island football star Brad White from rival Bishop Hendricken. White went on to play linebacker for Wake Forest before embarking on a coaching career that eventually brought him to Stoops’ Kentucky staff as defensive coordinator.

At UMass, Liam was a contemporary of John Calipari’s daughter, Erin, who played for the women’s basketball team while Coen starred for the football team. His college program connected him with former UK player and offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who spent the last two seasons of his playing career at UMass and served as a graduate assistant for the Minutemen while coach Mark Whipple was recruiting Liam.

“I grew up watching college football and football in general,” Liam said. “I’ve read all of Mike Leach’s books. Hal Mumme, Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen, some of these guys I’ve watched. I’ve emulated Tim Couch. I wanted to be Tim Couch.”

Even while coaching in a Super Bowl with the Rams, Liam suspected his career would one day take him back to the college ranks.

He missed the ability to connect with players before the glitz and glamor of professional football had taken control.

“I love the X’s and O’s. I love football, but I do miss some of those relationships, true relationships of impacting 18-22-year-old kids that are at such an important point in their lives, that need some of that mentorship and guidance,” Liam said. “Just being a friend and being somebody that can be there for them.”

Like the rest of his love for football, Liam can attribute the desire to be a mentor to all those years watching his father.

While no one will mistake the offense Liam runs at Kentucky with Tim’s wishbone attack, the coaches in the South Kingstown High School meeting room that day in 1989 learned then what would lead Liam to one day coach in the NFL and SEC.

“I loved football, and football was my life,” Tim said. “My dad was a captain at Boston College. He was an (offensive) guard, and he loved football. … Liam kind of followed in the footsteps and stepped by us all. He’s going right by us.”

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ