The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

June 14, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - For coaches, great rookie year not norm

MORGANTOWN — MORGANTOWN — Call this, if you will, a warning.

That may be a bit dramatic. Make it more of a heads-up, instead.

Simply put, now that the coaching change at West Virginia has been made and Dana Holgorsen is in full control of the football team, we just want to let you know it in no way means WVU will become a national power immediately.

History, in fact, tells us the exact opposite is true.

See, this being a first-year head coach is not an easy thing … and it doesn’t really matter how well you are prepared or how good a coach you eventually are going to be.

A rookie is a rookie and being a good coordinator, offensive or defensive, doesn’t mean diddly-squat.

We took a look at some College Football Hall of Fame coaches to see how they did in the first year of their first coaching assignments to verify what we suspected.


Barry Alvarez of Wisconsin just went into the Hall of Fame. How many votes do you think he would have gotten after he went 1-10 in his first year … or after he went 5-6 in each of his next two years?

That’s 11 and 22 in three years.

Think Dana Holgorsen will be a very popular coach if he’s 11-22 after following Bill Stewart's 28-9 for three years?

There are, of course, other examples. Joe Paterno, the winningest coach of all-time, was just 5-5 in his first season at Penn State.

Bear Bryant, perhaps the most famous coach of all-time, broke in at Maryland and was 6-2-1, then went 7-3 in his first year at Kentucky, 1-9 in his first season at Texas A&M and 5-4-1 in his first Alabama season, showing that it almost doesn’t matter how much experience a coach has, that first year at a school is a tough one.

Woody Hayes, the coach probably most often compared with Bryant and recently in the news due to the Ohio State scandal under Jim Tressell, was 4-3-2 in his first season at Ohio State. That came after debuting as a head coach at Dennison with a 2-6 record and moving to Miami of Ohio, where he was 5-4 in his first season.

This is pretty typical. First-year coaches are just not the coach they will become when they learn what they are doing, learn their personnel, learn the league and fully install the system in which they believe.

Darryl Royal was another, going 6-4 at Mississippi State as a rookie coach, 5-5 at Washington his first year there and 6-4-1 at Texas. Bo Schembechler, the Michigan Hall of Famer, was 5-3-2 and 6-3-1 in his two years at Miami.

It’s no different here at West Virginia. Remember Rich Rodriguez? At WVU he was 3-8 his first year, but you had to expect that because his first year at Salem he was 2-8 and his first year at Glenville he was 1-7-1. Heck, that 3-8 year at WVU could be considered a good one.

At Michigan it was no different, going 3-9 his first season. In fact, you put together Rodriguez’s first year record at each school where he was head coach and you have 9-32-1.

Even the man he replaced, Hall of Famer Don Nehlen, was just 6-6 in his first season at WVU.

Nehlen seemed the perfect man to speak to what a first-year coach faces as he begins to learn his trade.

He was only 31 when he was named the head coach at Bowling Green and had a lot of things to do once he eventually got to WVU, something he’s not sure he would have succeeded at had he not had that previous head coaching time at BGSU.

“There was a lack of confidence when I came here. No one thought we could win, including the fans. My job was to convince the kids they could win. Not a one of them had played on a winning team. My first meeting, the kids didn’t look at me. They didn’t think a lot of themselves,” Nehlen said.

“I worked from their chin up that first summer, hardly coaching any football.”

Head coaching is a different world. Holgorsen is a genius when it comes to x’s and o’s on the offensive side of the ball. Nehlen says that is great … if you are an assistant.

“The toughest part of becoming a head football coach is that the thing you love to do is something you don’t get near as much time to do as you did,” he said. “I had Gary Tranquil on my staff and he loved to go in a room and look at film, and he’d advise me. Well, he got the Navy job and in 30 days he called me and said, ‘This job sucks.’ He hadn’t had a chance to look at any film.

“As an assistant you work on football all day. There’s no press conference, no mail to answer, you don’t have to prepare team meetings, speak to the alumni. You’re in charge of the morale of all those kids, coaches, their wives. You almost don’t do any x’s and o’s.”

The truth is, you have to learn to coach all over, to do the p.r. things, the family things, the recruiting, the fund-raising. It takes time to find the time to do what must be done, and this may be especially difficult on a man like Holgorsen, whose reputation is late to bed and late to rise.

Email Bob Hertzel at

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