By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It has seemed like an eternity, really, since West Virginia University came roaring down the stretch when seemingly buried out of contention in the Big East to earn the league’s bid to the Orange Bowl.
It was all the way back on Nov. 5 when the world seemed to slip from the Mountaineers’ grasp, losing a game to Louisville that they know they never should have lost. To earn so much as a share of the Big East championship and a chance to earn the BCS bid they had to win three straight and get all kinds of outside help.
They did their part, arching their back and finding a way to beat Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and South Florida — two of them road games — to pull off nothing short of a miracle.
“We have winners,” quarterback Geno Smith said on Tuesday night as the team went through its final media session before heading home for the holidays and then on to Florida for final preparations to face ACC champion Clemson on Jan. 4.
“We have tremendous character,” Smith continued. “We had to look at ourselves in the mirror and go out and get it done.”
It was an amazing accomplishment for a team that had known very little but turmoil all season. It can not be forgotten the head coach in the spring was Bill Stewart, looking over his shoulder at a coach-in-waiting (but not for long) in Dana Holgorsen.
The entire program was a mess anyway, with Holgorsen running the offense and Stewart’s former defensive staff running the defense and no one knowing what Stewart was running until he eventually was elbowed aside and the team given to Holgorsen.
That anything good could come of that was a credit to something, although it is hard to say who, for it really has been bordering on insanity.
That Holgorsen held it together, that his players accepted the changes and did their best to learn the new system — and that is new system on the field and in the locker room — says something about the resiliency of this team.
It was a difficult, not an easy, year.
There were injuries and jobs to be won and lost and new schemes to learn and all kinds of rumors of internal problems among the holdover and new coaching staffs, which led to the precarious situation the team found itself in at the end of the year.
It also created a terribly difficult coaching situation for a first-year coach, yet Holgorsen found a way to get through it.
In truth, you might wonder if a first-year head coach could weave his way through such a maze of land mines, yet Holgorsen did it and seems to have amazing instincts for pushing his team at the right time and then easing off.
One of the great college coaches of all-time was Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech, who became Bear Bryant’s sworn enemy, in part because Bryant drove his players to the breaking point while Dodd’s approach was laid back and easy-going.
In many ways, the things Holgorsen said about his team’s preparation for this Orange Bowl were reminiscent of the Dodd approach en route to his spot in the Hall of Fame.
As they resumed workouts, he really put them through it Wednesday and will right up until he sends them home for Christmas, something they all are looking forward to. Senior Julian Miller, for example, has not been home the last two Christmases because the Mountaineers have played in minor bowl games and were in preparation for the games.
When they reconvene in Miami, Holgorsen is faced with how to handle them through the final week, and it’s really a tight rope that he has to walk.
“I’m going to allow them to enjoy themselves,” he said, sounding a lot like Dodd. “They earned a trip to a bowl game in Miami.”
But there’s a difference between enjoying themselves and going nuts on South Beach and in the art-deco bars that area offers.
“I’ll probably check rooms a few nights,” he said, but he knows that’s a tricky proposition.
“You can be too militant. Then kids get mad and up tight and try to sneak around ,,,” Holgorsen said.
He spoke as if he, himself, has had some experience in that area, and so he knows where to draw the line in the South Beach sand.
“When it’s time to go to bed, go to a meeting, get on a bus and go to practice, they better be there. It comes down to keeping everyone accountable,” he said.
Accountable, but not on a leash. In fact, he admits, he might even find a way to get away from the grind to discover the nightlife himself.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.