By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
As his first season as West Virginia’s head football coach comes to a conclusion, Dana Holgorsen remains something of a mystery man.
He has overcome what threatened to be a bad image in his early days on the job, a job he attained in controversy that threatened to shatter all the prestige West Virginia had built since the days of Don Nehlen, yet he has somehow avoided replacing it with any kind of image at all.
It’s safe to say that no one really knows what the man likes to eat, if he is dating any young ladies, in town or out, the names of his children or, for that matter, what his hobbies are.
He has neither cultivated the media nor alienated it. He has done what has been asked of him media-wise, but has not gone beyond. His press conferences offer little in the way of real information and he is terribly hesitant to talk about himself.
He has avoided wearing blue and gold as much as he can, preferring a black shirt and jeans or even a white shirt and jeans, to the school colors, but we don’t know if he believes they clash with his eyes or does it simply because he wants to establish his own identity.
Coaching the football team he has been fine, but hardly what you would call a magnificent success. True, there are accomplishments:
• He is the first West Virginia coach to lead his team to a Big East championship and a BCS bowl in his first season.
• He is the first WVU coach to go to a BCS bowl in his first year as a head coach.
• Under him, West Virginia is one of just three schools in the nation with a 3,500-yard passer and two 1,000-yard receivers.
• Total offense ranks No. 17 this year, up from No. 67 in 2010.
• But his record of 9-3 is no different from the record his predecessor Bill Stewart compiled heading into three straight bowl games, and if the passing yards have gone crazy, no WVU-coached team has had a rushing attack that accounted for just 1,413 yards since Frank Cignetti’s 1978 team rushed for 1,432 yards in a full season.
That, of course, falls under the heading “Different Strokes for Different Folks” and may be as much a generational thing as anything else.
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Getting started as a head coach has not been easy for Holgorsen. He, himself, has admitted that he had troubles winning over the players he had inherited from Stewart, that it wasn’t until the 10th game, having had the shock of being upset by Louisville and looking at the Big East championship and the BCS bowl bid everyone expected them to win in the weak conference slipping away.
Until then, until the urgency, until they saw that they couldn’t do it on their own, they hadn’t bought into what he was selling, he said.
They won their next three games.
“Our kids play better with their backs against the wall,” he said.
“Coming off that loss Coach Holgorsen told us we have to stop playing up and down and being content when we win,” senior linebacker Najee Goode recalled. “After those three wins at the end of the season it established us as being a team that can pull out a win in tough situations.”
Holgorsen recently gave Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com a look into what he was thinking about the mid-season losses to Syracuse and Louisville that kept his first season from being really special.
“I could pinpoint about 100 ideas about why all that happened, which bottom line is this — all those are just excuses,” Holgorsen said. “So whether it was a new coaching staff learning to coach together, a new feel with the head coach. Based on changing things in June, I don’t think we were very familiar with each other.
“Sometimes it takes longer than others to figure out what kind of team you’ve got. We just identified a group of guys that needed to be held accountable for what they’re doing and part of that is what they’re doing on the sidelines, whether we thought we were good enough to just show up and beat Syracuse and Louisville, being patted on the back probably has something to do with it, being picked to win the conference, that probably had something to do with it, just feeling you can show up and win.”
It is understandable why they wouldn’t buy in right away, for he was a different breed being thrust upon them than they had been accustomed to, neither Don Nehlen, Rich Rodriguez nor Bill Stewart.
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His career started as too many others have ended, with a run-in with the police. It was May and he wasn’t head coach yet.
In truth, it really was much ado about nothing, a 40-year-old man at a casino after a function at which he may have overindulged, but considering the scandals college coaches seem to be getting themselves into these days, it was more a misstep than a freefall.
That would come later, right after Stewart had been dismissed and Holgorsen took over as head coach.
On that day, Holgorsen figuratively was on the edge of a cliff, about to go over ... or at least take a symbolically huge leap into this game of head coaching.
He took a two-day break ... and jumped out of an airplane for the first time ever. Holgorsen was part of a tandem jump with a Golden Eagle parachutist who pulled the rip cord.
“We went up about 10,000 feet and then we jumped out of an airplane,” Holgorsen said then. “It was an amazing view. You could see for miles and miles, just beautiful countryside.
“Then we came in and we were trying to land on a beach, obviously a small beach. It was pretty windy and we came up short and had kind of a crash landing. It resembled something like Bruce Irvin tackling a quarterback.”
He had gone into the season feet first, so to speak, and it took a while for him to learn, mostly in the area of budgeting his time.
As a position coach you have time to ... well, study film most whenever you want. As a head coach there’s media, meetings with players, with the athletic director, with important alumni, public appearances ... things he accepted as part of the job but constantly seemed like a burr under his saddle.
In the end, when the offense stumbled down the stretch, his season was rescued because the defense held firm, coming to the rescue at every key moment as the Mountaineers closed out by beating Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and South Florida down the stretch.
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His quarterback, Geno Smith, had to buy in along with everyone else.
He had enjoyed working under Stewart and his offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen and had an attitude that Holgorsen had to alter.
“I thought I knew it all but I learned pretty quickly that I didn’t know anything,” Smith said. “It’s just a steady process, learning this offense. I try to pick Coach Holgorsen’s brain and figure out exactly what he wants.
“He’s one of those guys you’re never going to figure out. He always wants perfection. You want that from your coach. It has trickled down to this offense. We are now policing ourselves and I’m sure that takes some of the pressure off the coaches.”
Now, Holgorsen coaches in the Orange Bowl. Interestingly, it is not the biggest game in which he has ever been the head coach, for win or lose his season already has been defined. Far more to his credit was the way he was able to patch his team back together for the stretch run to get to this meeting with Clemson, a game that may be the last of the year but the launching pad for his career.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.