By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
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.”
WVU and the Big East
With that in place, Luck could look toward the future of football in the Big East.
“It’s a different conference because of the makeup,” Luck admitted, referring to the split between basketball and football. “It is a power conference. I will be first to admit we were weak as a conference in football last year without any teams in the Top 25. I believe we hit rock bottom, but I think the transition with new coaches in the league is under way.”
Luck was making a strong point that had been overlooked by most.
“Remember, we lost Rich (Rodriguez), and say what you will, he was a good coach,” he began. “Bobby Petrino left Louisville and Brian Kelly left Cincinnati.”
Those are high-profile, successful coaches who jumped to the NFL and to Notre Dame. It has taken a while to get the coaching back where it needed to be in the Big East.
“We’re back going in the right direction with the coaches we’re getting,” Luck said, pointing toward Charlie Strong in Louisville, Butch Jones in Cincinnati and Doug Marrone in Syracuse. He did not mention Todd Graham at Pitt, but that may come under the heading of a “Backyard Brawl” omission.
“The addition of TCU is huge,” he said, referring to the Big East expansion with national power TCU coming in for the 2012 football season.
Luck wouldn’t comment on the Villanova matter as a 10th team, but did say he thinks 10 to 12 teams would be best.
“I think bigger is better,” he said.
That would indicate he backs a conference championship game.
“I think conference championships are here to stay,” he said.
And a national championship playoff, too?
“I’m in favor of an open, intelligent, transparent discussion about it. I have a lot of respect for the bowls. It’s fun to go to bowl games. It’s fun for kids to play in them,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a hard, logical argument to make — and the Department of Justice is asking questions now — how come in 87 other sports you can have a championship and one without?”
Luck isn’t sure the sport hasn’t outgrown the bowl system, even noting that as late as the 1970s the national champion was picked by the polls before the bowl games were played.
“The whole thing has morphed. I’d like smart people, including conference commissioners and school presidents, to have an honest conversation about what’s best for the sport,” he said.
“Is a playoff system doable? Four teams, eight teams? When do you do it, what effect would it have on academics? I have a sense that debate is not happening. If it is, I’m missing it.”
The most important thing facing the Big East is its TV contract. While other conferences have negotiated new deals, the Big East’s contract doesn’t come up until September 2012.
“The biggest challenge we have is the same as all the Big East schools have, and that’s getting a TV deal. We do a good job here of raising money and paying the bills and getting the most out of what we have, but there’s a gap (between the Big East and other conferences) because we have an old TV deal,” Luck said.
“Take Washington State or Wake Forest, schools which don’t have anywhere near the legacy we have, and they are generating three and four times the money we get. Money matters.”
There has been massive expansion over the past decade at WVU ... a building for gymnastics, for wrestling, a soccer stadium and practice soccer facilities, suites at the stadium with more to come, and a $22 million basketball practice facility that was thought to be ready this year but now probably will not make that date.
“I’d like to get the team in there this year, but that’s not going to happen,” Luck said. “I’m not sure there ever was a time limit on it. I think both Coach (Bob) Huggins and (Mike) Carey are not worried. I think once they get in the season, they won’t want to move in there. The kids will shoot and use the weight room, but I don’t see them going there before the year is over.”
Is it really necessary for a school that is always fighting a money battle, that seems to be totally driven by the bottom line, to have undergone such a building craze?
“Over the years, it’s like everything else,” Luck said. “In the old days, you had one TV in your home. Now if you don’t have four, you’re not up to snuff. You rolled your window down in your car. Now if you don’t have a GPS, you are left behind.
“Ultimately, to have a successful basketball program like we want, you have to have one. You go around the country and everyone has one. In the old days, a weight room was a small room. Now they are unbelievable.”
What legacy does Oliver Luck see down the road for his administration?
“Anyone sitting in an athletic director’s chair anywhere hopes to be able to leave a program better than what you found it,” he began. “I would like to be able to, whether it’s five years or 25 years, leave our program as one that is in a power conference, and I’m not sure what that will be 25 years from now; a program that is relevant on a national level; a program that has won some national championships and a considerable number of conference championships.”
He admitted that is not a list of easily achieved goals, nor are they all he is looking toward accomplishing.
“I want it to be a program known not only for good football and men’s basketball, but for the Olympic sports as well. You have seen a renewed interest in those sports here,” he said.
And he’d like to be the man who expanded the opportunities in the athletic department.
“I’d like to have a program that has added sports,” he said, fully aware that he sits in an office that cut five sports in the past decade. He knows this is a matter of finances and Title IX, which guarantees equality among the sexes, but believes it can be worked out.
“Lacrosse is a popular sport. People are shocked when I tell them we don’t have a golf team.”
Expansion won’t come easily and perhaps not quickly.
“The question comes up fairly often, and the answer for me is always the same. I’d love to add sports. It’s a matter of money. We don’t have the excess funds right now,” he said. “The good news is with all the TV deals these other conferences have done, ours is coming up. If we do have a significant bump up, that’s something we can look at.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.