The Times West Virginian

December 17, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: Holgorsen hire will define Luck

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Oliver Luck’s bold move to remove Bill Stewart as head football coach at West Virginia University after three consecutive nine-victory seasons, two triumphs over arch-rival Pitt and the landmark bowl dismantling of Oklahoma will define his term as athletic director in Mountaineer history.

He stated his goal for the football program at nothing less than winning the national championship, something the school has never accomplished, and to reach that goal he has brought in a dynamic, young offensive coordinator out of Oklahoma State named Dana Holgorsen.

The only fly in that ointment is that that Holgorsen has never served as a head coach and translating from an offensive genius into running a football program with all its distractions, social obligations and diplomatic skills is risky business.

But Luck was certain about one thing when he met with Stewart on Nov. 14 and told him that he was going to make a change, the only thing to be decided being when.

“I didn’t believe we had an opportunity to win a national championship with the direction of the program,” Luck said.

When he found he could land Holgorsen, as if a six-year deal, five of the years paying upwards of $1.4 million wasn’t bait enough for a 39-year-old assistant, he felt he had to make the move.

That allowed him to pair the coach who had the nation’s top ranked offense, Holgorsen, with the coach who had the nation’s second-ranked defense, the Mountaineers’ Jeff Casteel.

“The combination of this high powered, high octane offense along with what I think is one of the great defensive staffs in the country puts us in a remarkable position,” Luck explained.

Luck saw this as an absolute necessity to stay on the right path, even if it smells a whole lot like the move to Rich Rodriguez replacing Don Nehlen in 2001, which ended with Rodriguez jumping to Michigan in the middle of his contract, creating the situation that is now being addressed.

“I want and expect us to compete at the highest level and the ultimate goal is to win the national championship,” Luck said. “In order to do that, we must win the Big East championship. As I look out on the horizon what I see is a rapidly improving Big East, by in large because of the addition of Texas Christian University in 2012.

“TCU has a tremendous program, ranked No. 3 in the country, playing in the Rose Bowl against the Wisconsin Badgers. I think the addition of TCU is going to raise the bar for all of us and we need to respond to that and prepare ourselves. I believe eventually the road to the Big East championship will go through Fort Worth and we must be prepared to go on the road and beat TCU to win the Big East Championship and get to national championship consideration.”

The question is whether or not that is a knee-jerk reaction to the Big East expansion, for who knows if TCU can remain at the same level playing in the Big East, which is not viewed very strongly in Texas, or the result of Luck being a visionary in a college football world where he is still in just his first season as an administrator.

There are those who have said that Luck was bowing to pressure from a group of large donors, many of them in the Charleston area, and including Ken Kendrick, the Arizona Diamondbacks owner who was critical of the hiring of Stewart in the first place.

“I have a responsibility for this athletic department. The president of the university has entrusted me with the department and he’s my direct report. He’s the guy I talk to and I do have conversations with a variety of people,” Luck said.

“I’m not sure what a big donor is; a lot of people contribute to the Mountaineer Athletic Club, whether it’s a seven-figure sum or a three-figure sum. I do talk to a lot of these people. But at the end of the day, I can tell you that I make the decisions that I feel are the best for this program and the university.”

Luck did admit that decision to end Stewart’s coaching tenure wasn’t driven only by the ultimate goal of winning a national championship. As in everything in athletics, there was an element found in the cash register.

“At the end of the day, results matter. We weren’t getting the results. There’s also a financial component to this. Our season ticket base has declined from Stewart’s first year to the present time. We’ve had only two crowds since 2004 under 50,000 and both of those took place in the last couple of years. That to me is an indication that our fans aren’t satisfied with the product, and that factors in as well,” he said.

The first year will be a transition period, which is a terribly difficult arrangement as Holgorsen will be the offensive coordinator but looking toward taking over the team while Stewart will be in his last year and have totally different goals.

Luck said they used two models to base their transition on, but neither really fit. He took Wisconsin, where Barry Alvarez was leaving and becoming athletic director, as one case and Oregon, where Mike Bellotti was a successful coach, who also left to be athletic director.

In both cases the two were highly successful coaches who were moving into positions where they would still be holding positions over the coach. In Stewart’s case, he was lame duck who does not have the same aura that Alvarez and Bellotti have and is being moved to an as yet undetermined job in the athletic department.

The relationships during the transition year on the staff and with the players is dangerous, especially if things should not go well on the field.

But in the end, this will not reflect upon either Stewart or Holgorsen, for this one is Luck’s baby.

Win that national championship, and he’s the next president of West Virginia University.

Have Holgorsen be a bust and he’ll have trouble getting a ticket to a volleyball game.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.