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Holgorsen Leaves Mixed Legacy

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Legacies can’t always be written immediately. For presidents, inventors, executives, and even football coaches, it sometimes takes years for their lives’ work to make its impact on the world.

In the case of former West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, simply put, he had as many disappointing failures as he did exhilarating successes. After eight seasons at the helm of the program, his legacy will be one that takes better shape, following the third or fourth year of the next head coach’s tenure.

If the next head football coach drives West Virginia to the basement of the Big 12 Conference, then Holgorsen should be revered as the coach who was on the same course as the school’s best coach in its history, Don Nehlen. But, if the next coach is finally able to get the Mountaineers to the promised land of a Big 12 title, then Holgorsen’s legacy will be viewed more negatively and as one that is more in line with the sect of fans who wanted to see him run out of town after he fell short of that goal with the best team he’s had in Morgantown.

It should be noted that former Athletic Director Oliver Luck set unfair expectations on Holgorsen since the day he was hired, and those expectations hung over him every day through eight years. After firing the late Bill Stewart and hiring Holgorsen, Luck made it known that nine wins or fewer and falling short of a conference title was flatly unacceptable. It was pretty obvious during West Virginia’s transition from the Big East to the Big 12, that this was much easier said than done. The football program, the university and even the city of Morgantown itself needed an overdue face-lift if West Virginia was going to become an Oklahoma or Texas.

The 2012 Orange Bowl victory was a blessing and a curse for Holgorsen. On one hand, it was arguably the most impressive win in program history. The blowout victory over Clemson sent a euphoria throughout Mountaineer Nation. But, fans will be quick to forget that West Virginia had to receive help to even earn the Orange Bowl bid that year, and had it not been for a game-changing fumble recovery for a touchdown by Darwin Cook, who knows if the Mountaineer defense could’ve contained a two-dimensional Clemson offense for four quarters. Plus, those were all Stewart’s players.

Holgorsen’s Negatives

Holgorsen was hired because he garnered the national reputation as an offensive guru, but, as he quickly learned in 2012, winning shootouts on a weekly basis wasn’t a formula for success. He had a hands-off approach to coaching the defense and special teams. And like Stewart trusted an incompetent Jeff Mullen, Holgorsen made the mistake in his early years of letting Keith Patterson unsuccessfully change the 3-3-5 to a 3-4 and Joe DeForest be on the staff. By the end of 2013, fans’ infatuation with Holgorsen was over. 

Arguably one of Holgorsen’s worst in-game coaching gaffs was kicking to Kansas State’s dangerous return man Morgan Burns, who, in the fourth quarter of a one-score game, ran back a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown when K State was playing with a wide receiver at quarterback. WVU lost 24-23, finishing the 2015 regular season at 7-5 instead of 8-4.

Holgorsen was also never able to recruit and develop “his guy” at quarterback, which, for an offensive guru, should have been his forté. While he raised the play of Smith, Clint Trickett, Skyler Howard and Will Grier in their second years compared to their firsts, he never was able to make anything of Ford Childress and William Crest Jr., two four-star, nationally-ranked recruits who were supposed to be starters. Instead, West Virginia became “Transfer U” for quarterbacks. He looked for foreign stop-gaps instead of recruiting and developing his own signal callers.

Above all else, Holgorsen struggled to win the big games, especially on the road. He went winless against Oklahoma. He started to develop a losing trend against Oklahoma State, too. One could rank the most painful Holgorsen losses further than one could stack the most joyous Holgorsen wins. 

Holgorsen made some bad coaching decisions in losses in 2014-15, yet the Shane Lyons-led administration continued to stick by his side in support. Holgorsen was unable to compliment a great offense with a good defense and vice-versa in any given year he was here. In 2016-2017, Holgorsen’s shortcomings in recruiting led to two underwhelming years. In 2016, West Virginia didn’t have the offensive weapons to challenge the top of the Big 12. In 2017, the defense had too many holes in the front seven to even contain Kansas’s running game.

Most important, this year, the team underachieved with arguably the school’s best quarterback under center and potentially six-or-seven NFL draftees on the team. Were Grier’s fumbles against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma Holgorsen’s fault? No, but failing to motivate the team and getting out-coached by Iowa State surely was, and who knows what would’ve happened had Texas Tech had another offensive series. Last but not least, Holgorsen went 2-5 in bowl games.

Holgorsen’s Positives

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Holgorsen coached three of the best wide receivers to ever play at West Virginia in Stedman Bailey (top left), Kevin White (right) and David Sills V (bottom left).

At face value, Holgorsen will finish his tenure at West Virginia as the school’s second-winningest head coach. His .598 winning percentage is just six points less than Nehlen’s. If seven players end up getting drafted this year, then he will have put 27 players in the NFL in eight years. That’s sensational, especially for a program with as small of an in-state recruiting base as West Virginia. Nehlen got 22 players to the NFL in 20 years. There are stark comparisons between the two.

Undoubtedly, Holgorsen raised the team’s overall talent level, but whether that was just the effect of West Virginia upgrading from the Big East to the Big 12 is up for debate. He developed a handful of the best players in school history at their respective positions. Those stars will never be forgotten, and every big play that one of them makes in the NFL gives West Virginia and the coaching staff more credence that there is a way from Morgantown to the NFL.

There is something to be said in today’s world of college football that the program was never marred in any scandal. It is also respectable that the team’s overall grade point average was at its highest in program history this season. Holgorsen was the man in charge during the revitalization of the football facilities, so by association, he should receive some credit. He developed a brand as a cagey, go-for-it-all kind of coach following the Texas win. Stewart could never garner that kind of faith from the fanbase, but maybe he was correct in his assessment of Holgorsen’s future loyalty to WVU.

In Summary

It’s worth begging the questions that if Dana Holgorsen couldn’t win a Big 12 title this year, then, would he ever, and had the program become stagnant under him? Maybe Holgorsen realized he couldn’t ever win a Big 12 title by out-coaching Lincoln Riley or Mike Gundy and opted for an “easier” life in the Group of Five. Yes, making more money and having job security is important, but there’s no doubt Holgorsen is taking a step down by becoming Houston’s new head coach, and it’s puzzling why a Power Five head coach would do so unless he’s looking to use Houston as a stepping stone elsewhere. The move also shows the confidence he has in himself to coach up and win with Jack Allison and/or Trey Lowe III and a roster of players he and his staff recruited, many of whom gained valuable playing experience this and last year.

It’s commendable that the administration stood its ground in regards to Holgorsen’s recent contract negotiations. He didn’t have leverage, based on what’s happened on-the-field this year, and to continue to play hardball with an administration that has stuck with him through hard times shows he wasn’t the kind of coach that found an affinity for Morgantown, West Virginia University and the state like many of the others in the athletic department. 

Deep in the heart of Texas is far from the country roads of West Virginia, yet Holgorsen was able to bring both worlds together and do some great things here. Unfortunately, at least in the short term, Holgorsen will be remembered as a guy who continuously came up just short in so many different areas. Rodriguez left because he thought there was more to be had at Michigan and West Virginia wasn’t good enough for him. Holgorsen left because he believed the challenge to be too great to win in Morgantown, and Mountaineer Nation doesn’t accept that attitude.

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