The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

June 28, 2014

Luck wants ‘improvement’ with football

MORGANTOWN — The problem with sports bars is that when you are frequenting them the people around you want to talk sports, which is a nice diversion for someone working a 9 to 5 job. But when you are a sports writer, you tend to do enough sports talking during normal working hours.

So it was the other day that at a moment which was supposed to be meant for relaxation while enjoying some fermented grapes from a California vineyard, a friend wanted to talk West Virginia University football.

Sports, in this town, you see is a synonym West Virginia football.

World Cup soccer may be on the television screen, but WVU football is always on someone’s mind, and these days the most pressing question, of course, is if WVU can turn around its downward slide over the past year and a half in the coming season.

And that was how the conversation started, as if writing sports gives you some magical power to look into the future.

As the conversation developed, it became apparent that what this person really wanted to know was more the future of coach Dana Holgorsen than of the program, for he eventually got to his point and proclaimed, “Well, at least, if the team has a bad year, Holgorsen will be gone. Right?”

Right? Wrong? I had to tell him I wasn’t sure either way, for certainly consecutive 4-8 seasons could seal a coach’s fate, but there was always this to consider … Dana Holgorsen is athletic director Oliver Luck’s main hire, his reputation and legacy being tied to Holgorsen’s success.

With that in mind, you must believe Luck would give Holgorsen every chance to prove Luck right, rather than have him pull the plug … but no one really was sure what Luck did have in mind as the season drew nearer.

So it was that I promised my friend that, having a late-week interview with Luck already scheduled, I would ask him for his thoughts on Holgorsen.

And I did ask him if he were to have another down season would it be his last, knowing full well that Luck would never issue a win-or-else ultimatum.

“What I want to see this year is improvement in all of the areas that you have in a football program, and Dana and the staff know that,” was the answer Luck came up with, the words chosen.

The point is that a losing season can’t always be pinned upon a coach, and that goes back to last season’s disaster, for the quarterback he was counting on arrived late and then was injured, leaving the a quarterback-centric offense without the quarterback it needed.

Toss in vast inexperience at almost all the key positions and a move to a conference that at the moment was stronger than was WVU, and it was all the Mountaineers could do to play themselves into a position to win, without the depth or savvy to pull such games out.

Luck understands that this year Holgorsen again has thrown his eggs into an unproven quarterback’s hands, Clint Trickett trying to come back from shoulder surgery, a player surrounded by many of the same players from a year ago whom he is hoping have learned the lessons of defeat.

“Dana and the staff are excited about the season,” Luck said. “I’m excited about it. It’s good to get in the summer months knowing the season is approaching.”

But as for that “win-or-else” proclamation or a statement fully backing Holgorsen, neither was forthcoming.

“We’ll see how it plays out, but it’s inappropriate to comment on it now,” Luck said, about to add one final hint that Holgorsen does not have a guarantee of coaching beyond this season.

“Certainly I and people on our staff and our fan base wants to see improvement,” Luck said. “It’s obviously an important year for Dana and the coaching staff … but every year is important.”

Luck’s track record once he decided a coach wasn’t right for the position was to move swiftly and he has not been hesitant to fire coaches, although almost of them were holdovers from the previous athletic administration.

Many of his moves were done without grace and were contested, none more than his removal of football coach Bill Stewart after a trio of 9-4 seasons when the program could have come completely apart following the departure of Rich Rodriguez, and long-time wrestling coach Craig Turnbull, who asked for a year to wrap up his career but was denied.

Luck understands that firing someone is a difficult task for any manager.

“It’s obviously a person’s livelihood and you never want to be in that position. It can hurt an individual, and we want to avoid that,” he said.

But in most cases, that time does come.

“There’s always a gray area in no matter what you do, but athletics is more in black and white than most things in life because you have a season every year; you have a record; you have your statistics in terms of student-athletes graduating,” Luck explained.

“Those are all important things. In the NCAA trial they dragged out that Arkansas has a 6 percent graduation rate in its basketball program. Those are not good statistics.”

Luck believes once he makes his decision, he has to move forward with it.

“I try to be upfront and honest with people. Nobody wants to be fired,” he said. “How do I approach it? I try to be honest with people. It’s hard to do, but my job is not Mr. Nice Guy. As a manager of a $75 million business, you have to make tough decisions. I make those decisions on what I think is in the best interest of WVU.”

And, in the end, that is how it is going to be in the football program … but as of this moment Luck is willing to give Holgorsen the full season to turn matters around.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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