By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
In his days quarterbacking West Virginia University’s offensive football team, Oliver Luck made a name for himself, not only for igniting new coach Don Nehlen’s program into national prominence, but also because he was cerebral enough to qualify as a Rhodes Scholar candidate.
It was a rare match of football talent and intelligence that allowed him to not only become a National Football League quarterback, but to also reach heights as an executive in businesses that required a sports background and Ph.D.-quality intelligence.
So it was really no surprise that when the university’s president James D. Clements reached out for a new athletic director, the name Oliver Luck soon came to the top of the list. The two men, it turned out, shared a vision, that being moving the state’s flagship university into contention for a national title.
Luck had a vision of the man he wanted to accomplish that feat. He was young, 40 and vibrant, offensive-minded and hungry.
He envisioned Dana Holgorsen, the man he eventually hired and turned his football team over to in quest of that national championship WVU has never won.
Holgorsen was just beginning to become known nationally as an assistant coach, but to Luck he was something of a household name because he was doing things no one else was doing, first in Luck’s hometown of Houston, Texas, then at Oklahoma State.
When he first sat down for a face-to-face interview — they had never met previously — Luck was sold on the football strategy and system he had seen. He wanted to know about the man.
“What impressed me? I didn’t really talk to him about his offensive strategy. He’s got the resume. Results matter, and he’s got results,” Luck said.
“My focus was on getting to know him as a person,” Luck explained. “What kind of person is he? What’s his attitude? What’s his approach? How would that work with him as a head coach?”
And what did he find?
“What I like is he’s not a second-guesser. He knows what he wants. He’s a pretty direct guy. He doesn’t beat around the bush,” Luck said.
“He’s also an Iowa guy,” Luck continued, referring to his roots and upbringing in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a town of about 7,000. “Even though he spent a good deal of his time down in Texas (he had coached at Texas Tech for a decade), at the end of the day he’s a Midwestern straight-shooter. He reminded me a lot of Don Nehlen, and I remember Don when he was young. I remember him as straight forward, just tell you, ‘Guys, this is what we’re going to do.’”
As you can guess for a man who was nearly a Rhodes Scholar, Luck did his homework on Holgorsen and was so sure of his character that he was unfazed when he had an unfortunate off-season run-in with authorities at a West Virginia casino in the early-morning hours at the end of a long day on the Mountaineer Athletic Club fundraising caravan.
Certainly Luck realized when he hired an unproven head coach that there was a certain amount of risk in the hire.
“Any athletic director stakes himself to your football and basketball coach. It’s the two most important entities you have. It’s what drives the athletic department,” Luck said. “The success of the athletic department to a degree is tied to Dana and Coach (Bob) Huggins. I’m happy as an athletic director to say my success is tied to Dana and, to a lesser degree (because it’s basketball), Coach Huggins.”
There was a safer route available to Luck, but he opted to walk down a path lined with landmines, secure that his map was accurate.
Holgorsen, for his part, did his homework, too, and knew that while he was moving into a prime job — seldom does a coach take over a team that has won 60 games in six years, including nine in each of the last three, especially as his first head coaching job — he saw there was a downside, too.
He wasn’t facing a honeymoon rebuilding program. Anything less than nine victories would be viewed as a step back. He had to take the team forward and believed deeply in his heart he was ready for the challenge.
“Coming to West Virginia I understand 60 wins in six years,” he said, while shrugging it off as just a matter of reality. “From a program standpoint there’s a whole lot of areas we can make better to the point where we can win a national championship.”
Imagine, if you will, a first-year coach talking in terms of winning a national championship at a school that did not so much as win the Big East championship the previous season and never in its more than 100-year history had won the national title.
But he believes he has all it takes to get there, beginning with an administration that will fully support him.
Already there have been indications of things moving forward. The Mountaineer Athletic Club had a record fundraising year and revenues seem ready to soar even higher. Beer sales were approved for Mountaineer Field, which they hope will bring money out of the parking lots and into the stadiums, and the schedule has been nationalized with neutral-site games set up in both Baltimore and Washington, D.C., over the next five years.
Holgorsen knew all this was there, which is why he was firm in his stance of being allowed to bring in an offensive staff of his choosing. Luck let him gather a group of cronies — for lack of a better word — who have roots with him and his offense.
Holgorsen understands that there is a huge difference between being an offensive coordinator and a head coach, that as a coordinator you do nothing but coordinate the offense. A head coach is part TV performer, part fundraiser, part politician, father and mother to his team ... oh, and coaches games on Saturdays, too.
“That’s why when I took this job, it was important to bring in guys who understood how I do things offensively,” he said during a summer interview. “They are down there meeting right now, and I’m here. I knew I would not be in those meetings, and I didn’t want to have to coach coaches. I knew I had other things to do.”
If a national championship is to come to West Virginia, it will do so through the air and on offense. Holgorsen has devised a unique offense for West Virginia, one unlike anyone has seen in these parts.
This is part of the Luck vision.
“There were two things that led me to believe he would create the platform, improve the foundation to win a national championship. One, he’s an offensive guy. I believe college football is changing. It’s become much more of an offensive game than in years past. Obviously, you need defense to win championships and Jeff (Casteel) has been great there. But No. 1 was his offensive knowledge and his ability to implement offenses relatively quickly,” Luck said.
“The game has changed. The Baltimore Ravens do not exist in college football ... and that’s a good thing. That’s one of the reasons college football has become so popular. Fans see points. They see good quarterback play. They see good receiver play.”
It is almost the way it was way, way back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when the Southwest became very eastern with the success in movie theaters of cowboys Gene Autry, Roy Rodgers and Tom Mix.
“The country is catching up,” Holgorsen said “It’s a west-to-east movement, so to speak. The culture in the Big East and the ACC is gradually changing to what the Big 12 and Conference USA did about 12 years ago.
“Back in 2000 when I came into the league you had Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Texas A&M, Texas ... all those guys were power teams. What you see with Syracuse, Pitt, South Florida, West Virginia is what I saw in the Big 12 when I first got there.
“Now everyone in the Big 12 is spreading it and throwing it a lot. The game is changing into more of a perimeter game and using more space as opposed to playing in the box and making them cover one receiver. I think you will see that change in the Big East over the next few years.”
Holgorsen is focused on improvement.
“If you look at my previous three jobs over the last 11 years, you’ll find they had winning records and went to bowl games, some more than others. When we took over the offense at Texas Tech they had been to a bowl game for 10 straight years. We continued that and made the program better every year,” Holgorsen said.
“Now, did the record get better every year? No. Sometimes we’d win 8, sometimes 7, sometimes 9 ... but the goal was to make the program better. When I left in 2008 it was clearly getting better from a facilities standpoint to a recruiting standpoint to an academic standpoint.”
Houston was next for Holgorsen.
“They had gone to four or five straight bowl games. They had done a good job of bringing the program back. They were coming off a couple of conference championships. The two years I was at Houston we still did some things they hadn’t done in a while,” Holgorsen said, noting they became a Top 20 team, beat five top-ranked opponents and improved the program.
“Going into Oklahoma State they had had back-to-back nine-win seasons and had five straight bowl games. They were pretty good, and we took that team and made it a little bit better to the point it won 11 games,” he said.
It is almost a mirror image of what he faces here at West Virginia, only now he’s running the entire show.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.