The Times West Virginian

February 13, 2011

Dawson again Dana’s right-hand man

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — When athletic director Oliver Luck decided to pull the trigger, an apt phrase considering the fact that he was about to bring in a posse of gunslingers to change not only the fortunes of the West Virginia University football program but its entire culture, he turned toward Dana Holgorsen, a rising star among offensive coordinators in college football.

And when Holgorsen agreed to serve as “coach-in-waiting” for a year as Bill Stewart waddled through a lame duck season in charge of, for the most part, speech making, he went about gathering that posse of coaches to install an offense unlike any other ever seen in the dells and hollows of West Virginia, an offense where footballs will fill the fall air.

Right at the top of the list was a man with a name that sounds almost as if he could have taken it directly from the star of a sheriff who served in Tombstone territory itself — Shannon Dawson.

The two go a long way back and share much in common, beginning with having far more ability to coach quarterbacks than to play the position. You ask Holgorsen, an NAIA quarterback at Iowa Wesleyan in his playing days, about Dawson as a player and his response is short and to the point.

“He was terrible,” he answers.

He should know, for Dawson was his quarterback at Wingate in 1999 when Holgorsen was the quarterbacks and receiver coach.

A native of Louisiana who most recently spent three years as offensive coordinator at Stephen F. Austin in Texas, Dawson does not deny Holgorsen’s evaluation of the man who will coach the inside receivers but in reality coordinates the passing game.

“I’ve had that debate with a lot of guys,” Dawson admitted. “There’s no blanket statement on that. Me being an average or, as Dana put it, bad player, it probably helps me because I can relate to why kids can’t do things. I can watch a quarterback not do something right and say, ‘I can relate to that’ because that’s what I would do. I think if I was a great player I’d get frustrated with him and say, ‘That’s easy; why can’t you do that?’”

The truth is that Holgorsen and Dawson were similar as quarterbacks, Holgorsen out of NAIA, Dawson from Division II.

“He thinks he should have played bigger,” Dawson said of Holgorsen. “It wasn’t like that with me. I played right where I belonged. Division 2 was great for me. That’s why you have different divisions.

“I tell kids that all the time. If they don’t fit in with us, there’s six other schools out there for you to play at. If you really want to play football, if you are dead set on it, you can find a school.”

Dawson came out of a small high school in Louisiana and, let’s just say, recruiters were not beating a path to his door.

“OK, I went to small high school in Louisiana. I graduated with 55 kids, but we were really good. We had a coach, Marvin Holland, who was like a second dad to me. He started three different schools in Louisiana. He was an older fellow when he coached me.” Dawson said. “He coached 40 some years and never had a losing season. Basically, he retired and came home to my home town and took over this struggling little school.

“My brother was a junior; they hadn’t won a game the year before (Holland arrived). It was bad. The very next year they got beat in the state championship game. The guy probably knows as little about football as anyone around, but he knows people. I don’t know what it is about him; he’s got an air about him.

“Xs and Os, it’s bad. The bottom line is we ran every time. I started at quarterback my sophomore year, and we threw it some because I could throw. He told me he was going to open it up for me, but opening it up to him was once I got to 100 yards in a game, it was no more.

“He’d ask the stat guy, ‘He got 100 yards yet?’ If he said ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘OK, let’s run it.’ If I got 100 yards, that was huge. I thought I was a pretty good high school player. We got beat the game before the state championship game three years in a row.

“But we won a lot of games. I think I only lost five games my whole career. I rushed for 1,000 yards a season, and I passed for maybe 1,500.”

Now came the time when Dawson learned just what kind of quarterback he was. It was time for the college recruiters to come knocking on his door.

“In my opinion, I should have played at Notre Dame. I thought I was pretty good. In that small town, I was the guy. My Dad had that opinion. He still hasn’t gotten it through his head that I was a bad player.

“I think the recruiting process opened my eyes up because I thought I should have gotten more offers than I got.

 “Dana was sitting there at Wingate, the school I really and truly was concentrating on from Day 1. I went there because it was the only place I had. When I got there they had a starter that was really good. They brought in four other guys, but I ended up backing him up.

“So I wasn’t terrible. I beat some other kids out. But maybe they were just worse than me. Roger opened my eyes up. I thought he was pretty good. He could throw it and do a lot of things good.”

Dawson wound up playing a lot more wide receiver than quarterback, leading the team in receptions one year with 43 for 543 yards and seven touchdowns.

After leaving, he remained close with Holgorsen, especially after he went to Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, Texas.

“Three years ago, when I first went to Houston, he had just gotten the job at Stephen F. Austin and he would come down to Houston a lot,” Holgorsen said. “We both bounced stuff each to get a good feel of what the kid’s would understand. We changed some terminology things but always tried to match it up. When I would call him I’d mention a set and a play he’d know what it was without me having to explain anything to him.

“There’s been as much me calling him and bouncing ideas off of him as there has been him calling me and bouncing ideas off of me. We’ve been doing the same thing the same way for quite a while.”

Before you get the idea that this is quite a complicated approach and a complicated offense, the coaches swear it is anything but that.

“We’ve got about 15 or so plays that we run out of a few formations. Our philosophy is to get a guy situated into a spot, minimize what he does and then rep the heck out of it. Just get good at it,” Dawson said. “I’ve never been a guy that says it’s going to take us a year; it’s going to take us two years. My deal is it’s going to take us a week. Let’s get it done, right now. Everybody here, that’s our philosophy.

“We don’t say we’ll have it installed by X date. Our offense is a three-day package. In the spring, we go three days, the whole offense is installed. Day 4 then is Day 1 again and we just continue repping it and repping it.”

Dawson admits that the first couple of weeks of the spring are going to look ugly, but he says it will come and that the eventual idea is to put together an offense that is fun … fun to play, fun to watch, but not fun to defend.

“I think that’s the biggest selling point to these kids here. I don’t think they’re having a whole lot of fun. Right now, that’s my opinion. They need to lighten up, have fun, relax. They need to play backyard football,” Dawson said.

Dawson was asked if Stewart was on board with this, considering that he is, at least in title, head coach.

“I believe so. In my mind, fun equals win. It’s not like they did a terrible job here. Nine wins is pretty good. We’re just trying to make it a little bit better. If we make the offense a little bit better with the defense playing at the level they’re playing at …”

He didn’t finish that statement. He didn’t have to.

“Obviously, the goal is to win the national championship. To do that you have to win every game,” Dawson said.

The question becomes why throwing the football should be any more fun that running it and why it seems to capture the public’s imagination more than the old fashioned “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust” offenses.

Certainly football was fun for Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Darryl Royal when they were running the ball.

“I worked for Coach Hal Mumme for four years. He gave me my start. I was a volunteer coach for one year,” Dawson began, referring to the man who really started the offense Holgorsen is bringing to West Virginia. “This was his opinion and I’m not going to take credit for it. He said that fans like to see the football more. You can see it when you throw it. You don’t really see it when you are handing it off.

“That was his opinion, and I kind of agree.”

And what of the old theory that when you throw the ball three things can happen and two of them are bad?

“You hear that so you believe you are taking a lot of chances. In a way we are,” Dawson admitted. “Running the football is easier as far as calling the game. It’s a lot more conservative, a lot more safe.”

But …

“Two years ago I went into a game and threw it 89 times, broke the national record. We were 69 of 89,” he said.

Did he win?

“No, we got beat in overtime,” he admitted, but added, “if we would have run, we’d have been beat in regulation.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at