Oliver Luck’s first school year as athletic director at West Virginia University is over, and it was more eventful than that of any freshman to arrive this year, a year in which he took the program’s past and introduced it to its future.
Luck, a quarterback at the school in his playing days before going on to the NFL as a player and the NFL Europe as its corporate leader, sat down at the conference table that dominates his Coliseum office Friday and discussed the athletic department’s present and future.
Luck explained why he opted to make a daring change in his football coach, said he backs the Big East Conference expanding to at least 10 teams, and that he sees the conference growing stronger in football while adding that he intends to upgrade the Olympic sports.
Gambling on Holgorsen
Of all the changes during this adventurous first year that included the departure of a number of long-term coaches, a push for beer sales in Milan Puskar Stadium, ambitious construction projects and expansion plans, nothing tops the gamble he took with his football program.
Few athletic directors would push aside a coach who had strung together three consecutive 9-3 seasons and replaced him with a coach who never has served in the head-coaching capacity, awarding him a multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract.
“In any organization, when someone new comes in, you have a fresh set of eyes. It’s natural when a leader comes in — and for good or for bad, I’m the leader of this department — there are certain things you think you can do better or more efficiently to be more competitive,” Luck said, beginning to explain why and how he plucked Dana Holgorsen away from Oklahoma State to serve as offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting for a season.
“I guess, as a quarterback, you have to learn to do things. You can’t just sit and let things happen. It’s the nature of the position. You have to throw a pass. Sometimes it’s complete; sometimes it’s not. Some psychoanalyst would examine me and say that comes from being a quarterback for so many years. I’ve never been shy about making a decision,” the one-time quarterback continued.
“I try to make a good decision, to think about it, be deliberate, be rational and not be emotional. But you analyze it. Not every decision is going to be a good one, but most will be.”
He understands the football coaching move will define his stay as WVU athletic director. He is directly tied to it, and his reputation is staked on its success.
“That doesn’t really bother me” he said. “Any athletic director is being disingenuous if he doesn’t admit that your two most important decisions are your football coach and your men’s basketball coach.
“It’s always amazed me that there are these search companies out there and a lot of A.D.’s will delegate the responsibility to a research firm. To me, that’s the most important decision you make. That’s what drives the money.
“It’s one thing to have background information and all that. But I wouldn’t want to delegate that decision to anyone. If that’s my legacy, for good or for bad, I want it to be my legacy, not someone else’s. I’m more than willing to accept responsibility.”
He was asked if it wasn’t a scary decision to make, without a head coaching record from Holgorsen to go on.
“Scary is not the right word,” he said. “I had sort of a two-step decision as I realized we were struggling. There was enough in the body of work of Coach (Jeff) Mullen (former offensive coordinator) to know what we had. I saw we needed help offensively.”
Once the decision was made to improve the offense, the search began.
“The second part was I wanted to bring someone in here, but I was only going to get the best guy. I needed an offensive coordinator to jump start our offense. At the same time, I needed someone I believed was head-coaching material.”
Because one is a good coordinator does not mean he will be a good head coach.
“The more I talked with Dana and those who coached with him or coached against him, the more I thought in my own mind this guy had the capability of being a very good head coach,” Luck said. “I understand being a head coach is different than being a coordinator, but I didn’t want to overestimate how different it is. There are plenty of examples of people who flopped at it, but there’s plenty of people who were successful.”
And so he pulled the trigger, giving out the long-term, big-money contract, not knowing if the gun was aimed at his opponent’s or his own head.
“That’s the business,” he said. “No one signs up for a one-year deal or two-year deal. I think Coach Holgorsen is our guy, and you kind of want to sign him up long term. Will he be here 20 years from now? Who knows. But you want him to feel this is home.”