At some point today the inevitable that has been stirring for about 5 years is finally going to happen. West Virginia Football Coach Dana Holgorsen will sign a lucrative contract to be the new head football coach at the University of Houston and West Virginia’s Athletic Director Shane Lyons will be on the clock for his first major hire since taking over the Athletic Director job. Holgorsen is set to be the highest paid coach by a long shot in the so-called Group of Five with a contract worth about $4 million per year.
If it seems odd that a coach would walk away from a job in the Big-12 to take a job in the American Athletic Conference, it is – on the surface. But, it’s what has been brewing below the surface for years that makes this not such an odd move and not just a pay raise that comes with the move.
The fact is that Dana Holgorsen doesn’t fit the culture at West Virginia and never has. The fact is that the University President E. Gordon Gee, a bow tie wearing little nerd has never meshed with his head football coach and the other fact is that Lyons has been trying to find a way to get rid of Holgorsen since he arrived at WVU and his coach while largely being mediocre didn’t lose enough games to justify the pink slip and the contract buyout.
West Virginia is a unique job in College Football. As much as I believe that Virginia Tech fans annually hold unrealistic expectations about the importance of their football program on the national stage, they don’t hold a candle to West Virginia fans. There are no pro sports in West Virginia and there will never be any pro sports in West Virginia. Hell the state lost 11,000 residents in just one year and outside of the Eastern Panhandle, it’s a place that time has largely forgot. It’s a state built on passion for high school football, high school basketball (in particular the State Tournament in March), and West Virginia Football.
Having said that WVU fans annually believe that their team should be winning the Big-12 and playing in the playoffs EVERY year and that’s just not realistic. There’s no excuse for the school not playing for the conference championship at least once out of every five years, but to think that WVU is going to be an annual guest to the dinner party like Alabama and Clemson isn’t going to happen now or in the future. You can dig up Vince Lombardi to coach at WVU and it isn’t going to happen.
It’s a state that turns out very few High School Football prospects that are equipped for the rigors of Big-12 football, or frankly even Big East football at the time. There are more now than they used to have in the State and when they are there, you have to land them as the Head Coach for the state’s flagship university. Holgorsen was not. This year there are some 10 high major prospects within the State’s borders that can legitimately play Big-12 football. Holgorsen landed just one of them. As much as I hate recruiting and the geeks who specialize in it, the fact is that the teams playing for the National Title correspond almost exclusively to their recruiting rankings. If you have the best players you play and win championships. See, Alabama and Clemson.
Recruiting was just one of Holgorsen’s problems as the coach at West Virginia. He’s not a touchy-feely type of personality. He’s a coach who likes drawing plays in the dirt and coaching ball and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, in a State where WVU football is about the number one passion, you have to press the flesh with the big donors (and the school has plenty of them), kiss babies, shake hands, pose for pictures, and be the face of the State. Holgorsen isn’t that guy. He’s a reported night owl who enjoys having a good time and it was that good time personality that got him off to a rocky start at WVU. No sooner than he arrived at WVU in 2011, he was famously tossed out of the Mardi-Gras Casino in Cross Lanes. While details were never really released, Holgorsen admitted to acting “inappropriately”. I think that means he was loaded and probably playing grab ass with every woman in the place.
Holgorsen had never been a head coach when then-Athletic Director Oliver Luck hired him to be the coach in waiting in 2011 and then replace Bill Stewart as the full time head coach in 2012. Holgorsen was serving as the Offensive Coordinator at Oklahoma State at the time. He reportedly drove his boss Mike Gundy crazy at OSU. Coaches are notoriously regimented with their 7 am meetings. Holgorsen wasn’t anywhere near the office at 7 am. Granted he would stay later than most of the other coaches, but he had no desire to change his lifestyle to fit what Gundy wanted.
The theory behind his hiring at WVU made sense. Luck didn’t think that Bill Stewart – a complete corn ball who specialized in goofy phrases like “wearing the old Gold and Blue” – could lead WVU from the Big East to the Big-12. On that point he was right. Stewart should have never been hired in the first place but the euphoria over drilling Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl along with good old fashion liquor resulted in the powers that be at WVU making a decision in the early hours of the morning where nothing positive ever happens.
There was no denying Stewart’s passion for WVU, but his only previous head coaching job was at Virginia Military Institute, a tenure which ended when he referred to one of his players by the “n” word during practice one afternoon. He was in over his head in the Big East much less the Big-12.
Luck – an extremely intelligent former WVU quarterback – bungled the entire thing. Instead of just firing Stewart and letting Holgorsen take over in 2011, he tried to ease him out saying the way the team played in the last part of the 2010 season earned Stewart the right to continue coaching for one more year. Holgorsen would be the offensive coordinator and then take over. It was a disaster. Stewart wanted no part of this arrangement and encouraged several West Virginia beat writers to dig up “dirt” on Holgorsen. When news hit the fan Stewart was out and Holgorsen took over the WVU program immediately.
His first year was his best year as WVU won the Big East title and then smashed Clemson in the Orange Bowl, hanging 70 points on the Tigers. It’s not often that you hit the high point of your coaching career in your first 12 games but Holgorsen did so. Since then he’s been largely mediocre, finishing with a 61-41 record at West Virginia, and has wholly failed to achieve the purposes that Luck envisioned when he hired him in 2011. West Virginia has not won the Big-12, not played in a New Year’s Six bowl game, and not played for the Big-12 title. They finished the 2017 season by losing to Utah is something called the “Heart of Dallas Bowl” and a couple of years ago actually lost to Kansas during the regular season. This year with an NFL quarterback on the roster, the Mountaineers melted down in losing to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State which dropped them from a potential New Year’s Six Bowl Game to the Camping World Bowl against Syracuse. The best players didn’t play and WVU frankly looked like a JV team against Syracuse.
Holgorsen was smart enough to see the writing on the wall. Next year’s team on paper looks to be one of the Big-12’s worst considering that the league still has Kansas . The story is that he angled for the open job at Texas Tech and that school’s administration wanted no part of it. Having failed in that regard and seeing that next year may just give Lyons a reason to do what he’s been itching to do, Holgorsen sought a contract extension and to have the school play 100% of his contract in case he was fired instead of just a percentage. Lyons refused and Holgorsen is now going to take his toys back to a city where he reportedly still owns a home and loves.
In Houston he can recruit Texas almost exclusively. He failed at WVU in getting a pipeline from Houston to Morgantown. That won’t be an issue in Texas. What will be an issue is the level of players he can attract. Houston is not Texas, Houston is not Oklahoma and Houston isn’t Baylor for that matter. The players that come to Houston are a lower tier talent and that’s fine because maybe Holgorsen has figured out that he belongs at a lower level.
There’s nothing wrong with knowing where you belong and where you don’t. After eight years of marriage both parties figured out that it’s best to shake hands, move on and start over. Holgorsen gets to go coach in a City where the Houston Cougars aren’t exactly the number one attraction in town and Lyons gets to hire his man, someone who needs to not only fill the role Holgorsen couldn’t, but also needs to satisfy those often unrealistic expectations that come with coaching football at WVU.