By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The occasion was a celebratory one, for just minutes earlier, following West Virginia University’s morning football practice, coach Dana Holgorsen and athletic director Oliver Luck sneaked off into a quiet office and repeated their wedding vows.
Torn up and tossed aside was the terms of agreement that Holgorsen had signed 18-plus months back when he took over as head football coach of the Mountaineers, an agreement that was supposed to be finalized via a formal contract but never was.
In its place now was a six-year agreement that paid the native of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a town of 8,668 that was founded in 1835 by pioneer Presley Saunders and that serves as county seat of Henry County, more money than he ever imagined.
His annual salary gives him $2.5 million per year as a base, but it can be enriched by who knows how much through retention bonuses and performance bonuses, to say nothing of $200,000-a-year raises in year 2 and 3, $100,000 in year four and five.
The contract calls for no raise in year 6, perhaps because everyone knows it will be renegotiated by then or Holgorsen will be gone, either by his choice or the administration’s.
Since it now appears more certain than ever that Holgorsen will be among us for more than just a year or two, perhaps it is time to find out just what this man is really like and what makes him tick, for he is surely more than just a football coach.
Some of it, of course, is obvious. You see him with his children – McClayne, Logan and Karlyn – and you know that the coach is a loving father who enjoys his moments with them.
Mostly, though, Holgorsen keeps the public at an arm’s length, perhaps symbolized by the locked doors at the Puskar Center that always previously were left open, as if to say to the state the football program represents that this is their team, too.
His public persona seldom allows glances into the real person, so to find out just what Holgorsen really is like, about what makes him tick, his trusted assistant, Shannon Dawson, was pulled off to the side on Wednesday.
Dawson played for Holgorsen when he was a young assistant coach at Wingate University at the turn of the century and rejoined him here at WVU, becoming offensive coordinator in his second season at WVU.
He has a feel for the man and understands how he works both as a coach and a person.
“I think he relates well to people,” Dawson began, explaining that he played for him and that he was the reason he became a coach.
“I was actually going down a different career path at that point,” he said. “Up to that point, practice was real drudgery. He made practice fun; he made the environment fun. We had high morale.”
This, Dawson believes, has much to do with why Holgorsen has had such success as a coach.
“The kids want to have fun. They don’t want it to be a deal where they come over to the field, see us and want to walk the other way,” he said. “Everything about a coach in my opinion should be to make a place where a kid wants to come. Dana creates that environment.
“Everything he has done since he’s been here has been to make this a place that is their place. They feel it is good, and they want to be here.”
And he does the same with his assistants, too, creating a work environment that a coach enjoys and can thrive in.
“He probably treats us different than other coaches treat their assistants,” Dawson said.
There is little dispute that Holgorsen’s staff breaks away from the traditional approach to working in football. All too often you hear of coaches who meet far into the morning hours, coaches who sleep on a couch in their office rather than go home.
It becomes more than a profession. It becomes an obsession.
“We work smart,” Dawson said. “All that stuff about staffs that are up here at 3 o’clock in the morning and who come in at 5 o’clock in the morning, what are they doing? It’s football. I’d like to sit down with those guys who stay here all day and all night and find out what they’re doing. They’re making it too complicated; that’s what they’re doing.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Dawson said. “People confuse activity with achievement. It’s like a badge of honor – ‘I was up here for 13 hours today.’ Well, guess what. I was up here for two hours and I got more accomplished than you did. We’re not trying to compete in the hours we stay in the office.”
Holgorsen is not dictatorial with his staff, either, and that makes working for him feel like you are contributing.
“It’s a collaboration. Before he came back from doing some of the things head coaches have to do (like going to Big 12 media day), the rest of the offensive staff got together and went through the whole offense and gave him about five sheets of proposed basic things we want to do,” Dawson said.
“He OK’d every one of them. He’s got the final say so; he’s the head coach; he’s the boss … but he will take advice. He’ll take advice within the games. He’ll take advice within the practice. He’ll take advice during meetings,” Dawson continued.
“He’s not one of those people you hear about; it’s their way or no way. That’s not the case. He hired us for a reason, in my opinion, because he trusts that we know what we’re doing. So we’re going to give him advice, and he’ll use it or he won’t use it; that’s up to him.”
Holgorsen likes to have a good time, and so does his staff. As the public came to learn early in his career, sometimes that may cross the line, but football coaching is a pressure-packed profession, and you will live longer and happier if there is a release, a time to get away from it all.
But he proved in the first year that when it came time to work, he moved things in the right direction and put the Mountaineers in position to be competitive as they move into the Big 12.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.