The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 19, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - Differing starts for new coaches

MORGANTOWN — In the 1970s there was a coach who became something of a folk hero out of Texas, one who would wear his cowboy boots and a 10-gallon Stetson hat as trademarks and who talked in an accent that you’d imagine came straight from Pecos Bill.

His name is Bum Phillips, and he understood a whole lot about this coaching business.

For example, he was smart enough to get himself a running back named Earl Campbell, who, with Paul Hornung and O.J. Simpson, is one of only three people to have won the Heisman Trophy, were the first pick in the NFL draft and went on to become members of both the Pro Football and the College Football halls of fame.

Bum started his career back in the 1950s working for a coach named Paul Bryant, and he once made a keen observation about the man they called  “Bear.”

“He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”

We bring this up now because there is something very strange going on in this neck of the college football woods involving two coaches who have their own axes to grind.

It is rapidly becoming obvious that Dana Holgorsen “can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”

He’s done it three times now — at Houston, at Oklahoma State and at West Virginia.

You have to understand, this just doesn’t happen, especially when the system you are importing takes certain skills to play ... or so it would seem. You need speedy, sure-handed receivers, offensive linemen who are agile as well as strong, and a quarterback of exceptional skill at not only throwing the ball, but reading the defense.

You saw when Rich Rodriguez, who would go on to prove himself not only one of the nation’s top coaches but one who could adapt, came to Morgantown and fought through really rough times while he put his system in place.

For Holgorsen, this was not a problem ... not here, not in Houston, not in Oklahoma State.

It is almost as if the system he took out of his days at Texas Tech with Mike Leach is built for almost anyone to run.

This August, new assistant coach Daron Roberts, who is pretty good at learning considering he possesses a couple of Ivy League law degrees, talked about it.

“It really is easy to learn,” Roberts said. “I tell (the wide receivers), ‘If you can’t get this then you’re going to have some issues in life.’”

Now it might not be as uncomplicated an offense as people say, some claiming it has only seven base plays, but it is player-friendly.

“I think that’s always been an exaggeration,” Holgorsen said during the preseason. “We have more than seven plays, but you don’t want to have too much.”

Which brings us to the Pitt Panthers, an ACC team in waiting. Like West Virginia, Pitt went and got themselves a new coach this year in former Mountaineer assistant Todd Graham. Graham had made a name for himself with what he claimed was a “high octane”

offense at Tulsa, setting records just as Holgorsen had, only he never could beat Holgorsen offenses.

There was, in fact, some animosity that grew between the two, wetting things up for an interesting new era for “The Backyard Brawl” rivalry.

At his introductory press conference, Graham made some strong statements about his offense.

“We’ll be the most explosive team in the country,” he said. “We’re built around speed, speed, speed and explosive power. We’ll be fast, efficient, explosive. The fans at Heinz Field — they won’t want to sit down with the type of football we play.”

He was right there. With the type of football they have been playing the fans will be standing and heading for the exits.

While Holgorsen’s offense has carried WVU to a No. 11 ranking while shattering school passing records and threatening to do the same on the ground if someone forces them to, Graham has come under heavy criticism as his team has staggered in at 3-4, losing two straight and being completely inept on offense the last two times out.

The offense mustered 120 total yards against Utah in the last game. Quarterbacks Tino Sunseri and Trey Anderson combined to go 9 of 30 for 50 yards and two interceptions.

During the two-game losing streak, Pitt’s quarterbacks are 25 of 63 for 181 yards with six interceptions and no touchdowns.

The offensive line has allowed 34 sacks while no one else in the country has allowed more than 25.

Why has Holgorsen succeeded so rapidly while Graham’s offense has not clicked? Maybe the answer was found in a quote after his opening game when the offense sputtered.

“We made mistakes we hadn’t made in camp,” Graham said. “I wasn’t surprised by some of the things. I told them, ‘You guys are infants in this scheme.’ The thing we have to be constantly working toward is knowledge, and that takes time, it takes studying, it takes that voluntary extra time to do that.”

Translated, that isn’t exactly the same as Roberts’ comment about the WVU offense ... “if you can’t get this, then you are going to have some issues in life.”

The difference, perhaps, can be best seen at quarterback. Ask Doug Marrone, the Syracuse coach who is readying his team to face WVU on Friday, the difference in this year’s team and the one he beat last year, and he points to Geno Smith.

“If someone were to ask me the difference, I’d say Geno Smith,” Marrone said. “I don’t know what they are teaching and coaching but I can tell you this, the quarterback has been outstanding. He is much more mature, he stays in the pocket, knows where he’s going with the football. His decision-making  process is so much quicker now.”

While Holgorsen has been able to bring Smith along, Graham has not gotten through to his quarterback, Tino Sunseri, and forced him to experiment with a freshman quarterback as well.

“Obviously, we have had very inconsistent play (at quarterback) and that has caused us to do some things and make some decisions I wouldn’t normally make,” Graham said. “Tino far and away has the biggest grasp on what we are doing from his experience in the spring and fall. We have to get it out of him.”

It’s an interesting study, these two coaches, each with the same objective, each taking a different approach, heading for a showdown the day after Thanksgiving.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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