By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
There is a familiar saying that carries much weight around the West Virginia University football program.
“If at first you don’t succeed …”
You know it, seen in action over and over. How many athletes have failed at first, only to be granted a second chance and made the most of it.
Early failure is common. It comes, perhaps, because an athlete has not yet gained athletic maturity or has not yet gained emotional maturity.
He might not have overcome a flaw that kept him reaching his potential.
Mike Schmidt hit .196 with 136 strikeouts and 72 base hits his first season yet went on to become a Hall of Fame ballplayer. Barry Bonds batted .223 with 10 more strikeouts than hits his first season, and even the great Willie Mays cried at his locker and asked to be sent back to the minor leagues after going hitless in his first 12 major league at bats before hitting a home run off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn to get him going.
These athletes, of course, were not alone in getting second chances, nor were the reasons behind their failures anything short of not being completely ready to succeed at first. Others have required second chances because of character flaws rather than athletic flaws … and not all of them were athletes, this group ranging from pitcher Steve Howe, who fought a losing battle with drugs, to owner George Steinbrenner, who was suspended from baseball due to his own demons.
As the Mountaineers look to come back from a year in collegiate hell, the football team sliding to 7-6 after seven consecutive seasons of at least nine victories and the basketball team suffering its first losing season going back to John Beilein’s first season of 2002, one of the routes they have chosen to take is go for a quick fix, which involves granting more pardons than Franklin D. Roosevelt granted during his time in office (3,687, for the record).
Basketball coach Bob Huggins has a history of taking on recruits with a trail of problems in their past, including one this year who has a court date awaiting him on what some would consider serious charges, but he has come to learn this does not always turn out badly.
The same is true in football, where Dana Holgorsen is coach.
Bruce Irvin, for example, came to WVU with a rather shoddy background yet re-invented himself with his second chance and became a first-round draft pick, although he currently now is awaiting a third chance with a prohibited drug violation now on his record with the NFL.
At the level at which WVU wants to compete, considering that social graces are not high on the list of job requirements, coaches are going to be granting second chances on a regular basis … which is why it was not terribly shocking last week that the football program accepted back a runaway child by the name of Ivan McCartney.
As second chances go, this is not really a stretch along the lines that some of them go. While McCartney’s misuse of is God-given talents at WVU was criminal, it was not criminal in the sense that will get you put behind bars.
Out of the same high school that gave WVU Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey and out of the same family that gave the NFL Chad Johnson (Ochocinco), McCartney was blessed with big-time ability that includes NFL size and speed.
But it didn’t come out under Holgorsen, who does seem to bring the most out of skill-position players.
As a freshman he played in 12 games but caught only one pass. As a sophomore he seemed to be off and running with 34 receptions for 455 yards and three touchdowns in the first six games but tailed off and caught just 15 passes for 130 yards over the final six games.
When he caught only nine passes in the first eight games last year, he quit the team and it was assumed it would be for good.
What happened to make him quit, no one knows, although one suspects he felt a lot like the fourth wheel on a tricycle with Bailey, Tavon Austin and J.D. Woods on scene.
But all three of them are gone. McCartney’s had time to think about the way he acted, and Holgorsen, admit it or not, needed an experienced receiver with the potential to catch 100 passes the way Bailey did.
Holgorsen took him back, trying to sound tough about it but knowing deep down that he has to give him a good opportunity to prove himself.
“Second chances are few and far between,” Holgorsen said. “This kid’s got an opportunity to right the ship. Maybe he makes the best of it. Maybe he doesn’t.”
Certainly, the opportunity is there … although as we’ve seen, second chances are a bit more common than coaches would like to admit.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.