By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
You’ve got Geno Smith and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
You’re coming off an Orange Bowl victory.
You’re on top of the world, right?
Dana Holgorsen isn’t so sure that coaching that West Virginia University team, which proved to be dreadfully overrated and finished 7-6 with a loss in the Pinstripe Bowl to Syracuse, wasn’t tougher than what he faces this year with all of his star players gone.
“It’s certainly made things easier from a coaching perspective; that’s for certain,” Holgorsen said on Tuesday during the Big 12’s annual post-spring football coaches’ conference call.
A year ago, the way Holgorsen saw it, he had to not only coach against what the opponents were planning but against the media.
“Last year, we did our best to put the guys on high alert and be guarded as far as what you’re listening to in the media,” he said.
The media was going to blow things out of proportion, inflate egos, make them think they were something they were not … and apparently it did because after a fast start and a victory at Texas, everything went to pieces.
Holgorsen says this year is different.
“There are no expectations whatsoever. We’re coming off a disappointing bowl loss. Offensively, we’re the unit that has no experience coming back. We’ve got two guys that started at offensive tackle, and that’s it for the entire offense,” he said.
There’s no record-shattering quarterback, no spectacular receivers. Two tackles, that’s it.
In a way, Holgorsen is facing a similar problem that Mack Brown of Texas faced last year, while Brown is facing the problem Holgorsen faced.
Brown a year ago was trying to get back to the top of the Big 12, and he believes that’s easier as a coach than staying at the top, which was the lesson Holgorsen learned last year.
“We had that run of nine or 10 years with 10-plus wins and a chance to win two national titles,” Brown said. “We even lost another game with 10 seconds left that might have given us a shot at a third national title.”
Staying at the top becomes an all-consuming effort as you are on everyone’s radar. The opponents are the ones with the psychological advantage.
But when it slips away you become the underdog, overlooked. You have an opportunity to put the pieces back together, and that is just what Brown has done and now he’s expected to win again. They have a couple of quarterbacks in a conference that is inexperienced at the position; they have receivers and depth on defense.
“The players understand the last three years were not acceptable. We want to go back and win the conference championship and go for the national championship. They understand they did not come to Texas to win nine games,” Brown said.
Holgorsen believes the exact opposite works for him now. By doing so badly last year, especially at the end, he can mold his team the way he wants to mold it without their egos or media praise getting in the way.
“Everybody likes to be patted on the back, so they’re probably missing the fact they got patted on the back all the time,” Holgorsen said.
And certainly they haven’t been. He went out of his way to see that he and his assistant coaches said almost nothing good about anyone and put the media in a position that it couldn’t heap praise on anyone because he wouldn’t let them talk.
His feeling is that’s the way it has to be.
“Welcome to the Big 12,” he said. “There were nine teams that went to bowls in the Big 12, eight opponents that went to bowls in the Big 12. It’s a competitive situation. Everybody in the Big 12 is going to be tough. It’s something that we had to go through, from a players’ standpoint, an administrative standpoint, a fan base standpoint, it’s something we had to go through to truly understand it.
“I’m sure they miss the pats on the back, but with that said, I think we’ve got a bunch of guys that like to play football, a bunch of guys that are motivated to get better, a bunch of guys that are excited about where we’re at from a conference standpoint.
“So we’ve got their attention. We had a great 14 weeks since the bowl game got over, and we expect to get a lot better in the next 14 weeks leading into camp.”
We’ll see. Personally, I’d rather have Geno Smith throwing and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey catching.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.