By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Dana Holgorsen never met Knute Rockne, or for that matter, Ronald Reagan.
If he had, he might not have said what he said the other day in his Monday press briefing for Friday’s 3:30 p.m. game against Iowa State, a crucial game to WVU’s postseason status.
See, his Mountaineers were coming off an inspired performance against No. 12 Oklahoma, a game in which they went down to the final seconds, a game in which they tore apart a proud pass defense and turned Tavon Austin loose to run around it and through it.
That it ended up the fifth straight loss could almost be excused and, if one were to look where all the inspiration came from, it might have been the fact that Holgorsen had brought back a number of former star players, from quarterback Jeff Hostetler to quarterback Pat White, from nose guard Chris Neild to defensive end Bruce Irvin.
The word was that pregame they were going to address the team and so it was that someone asked Holgorsen during that press briefing if indeed they had and what effect that might have had.
He never really answered the question, instead offering a Grinch That Stole Christmas answer that threw cold water all over the lore of college football.
“People have asked me about that,” he began. “If motivational speaking was the way to coach a football team, there would be a whole lot of motivational speaking football coaches.
“Their presence is appreciated, but if you think a few of their words are going to change the outlook of a football team, you are off your rocker. We appreciated their support, and those guys are important to the program. Motivational speaking is not the answer when it comes to a well prepared football team.”
Somewhere, Bill Stewart rolled over in his grave.
See, the last time West Virginia met Oklahoma, his pregame speech was credited with changing the history of the school’s football program, of bringing a beaten team up to the point that it would stun the same Oklahoma that Holgorsen did not beat.
“Never give up!” Stewart shouted to his troops, and they never did.
In that game they did not “leave their wingman,” as he asked them not to, and they went out and ran circles around Oklahoma.
Changed history? Had Stewart not made that speech, had he not gotten the job and kept the program afloat at a time when it could have crashed and burned in the absence of Rich Rodriguez, Dana Holgorsen probably never would have thought about taking the West Virginia job when it came along.
Go back to 1928, to the Notre Dame locker room at halftime of the Army game. Go back to Knute Rockne, trying to salvage his worst season as coach at Notre Dame and to the story he told that team of George Gipp, “The Gipper.”
Ronald Reagan would come to be “The Gipper” in the 1940 movie, “Knute Rockne: All-American,” with Pat O’Brien playing the title role.
The movie version as reported on the Notre Dame website has Rockne wheeled into the locker room with a seemingly beaten Notre Dame team sitting dejectedly, blankets over their shoulders:
ROCKNE: Well, boys ... I haven’t a thing to say. Played a great game ... all of you. Great game. (He tries to smile.) I guess we just can’t expect to win ’em all. (Rockne pauses and says quietly) I’m going to tell you something I’ve kept to myself for years — none of you ever knew George Gipp. It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame ...
(There is a gentle, faraway look in his eyes as he recalls the boy’s words). And the last thing he said to me — “Rock,” he said — “sometime, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper ...
(Knute’s eyes become misty and his voice is unsteady as he finishes). “I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock”, he said “but I’ll know about it and I’ll be happy.”
There is a hushed stillness as Rockne and the crowd of boys look at each other. In the midst of this tense silence, Rockne quietly says, “All right,” to the men beside him, and his chair is wheeled slowly out of the dressing room.
PLAYER No. 12: Well, what are we waiting for?
With a single roar, the players throw off their blankets and rush through the doorway.
You know they won the game.
Can talk win games? Ask Bobby Knight. Ask Vince Lombardi.
See, it isn’t just stuff movies are made from. It’s stuff championships are made from.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.