By Cliff Nichols
Times West Virginian
NEW YORK —
The year was 1986, Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen’s seventh season leading the football program at West Virginia University.
WVU finished the year at Mountaineer Field with a 34-23 loss to Syracuse. The record that season was 4-7, the first losing season at WVU under Nehlen after five straight years with seven or more wins and three bowl victories in four trips.
In the wake of that loss to the Orange, Nehlen stressed that there must be a heavier price to pay to be a member of the WVU football team.
The following spring, Major Harris emerged as WVU’s quarterback. In 1988, West Virginia had the first undefeated, untied regular-season record in school history and played Notre Dame for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl.
The 2012 Mountaineers, in the second season under coach Dana Holgorsen, didn’t have a losing record — finishing 7-6 after last Saturday’s 38-14 loss to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. It was a campaign, though, that fell far, far below expectations in WVU’s first season in the Big 12.
Less than a year ago, WVU smashed Clemson in the Orange Bowl in warm south Florida, 70-33, to cap a 10-3 campaign highlighted by comeback victory after comeback victory.
“I can’t imagine it being any brighter than it is right now,” Holgorsen said at the time. “The future is pretty bright for West Virginia.”
Now, after six losses in eight games after a 5-0 start, WVU has endured its poorest season since the Mountaineers went 3-8 in 2001, Rich Rodriguez’s first as coach at the school before he got the program rolling.
In the cold and snow against Syracuse in the 2012 finale, the Mountaineers simply couldn’t respond offensively or defensively as the Orange turned the game into a rout in the third quarter.
It’s rather pointless to compare eras of football, but the lessons of history are clear. High expectations can be absolutely meaningless, as the 2012 campaign proved, and programs can get going again rather quickly following disappointments.
The latter is the challenge Holgorsen, his staff and players — current and future — are now facing.
The coach, of course, will be doing plenty of evaluation, and not just because of the loss to Syracuse.
“A lot of stuff that we did tonight didn’t work,” Holgorsen said moments after the game. “Why is that? Probably a lot of different variables. I’m not going to sit here and pinpoint one person or one thing, (say) all of a sudden our scheme is not very good or any of that. We just did a poor job of executing, which is overcoming adversity, which is a good defense. Syracuse has got a great defense. They do a good job.
“Basically, they guard the perimeter. They were motivated to play. Bottom line is, our team didn’t overcome a lot of things and didn’t do enough to keep us in the game.”
After a few days off, WVU’s coaches will initially focus on recruiting, “which is going to eat up 90 percent of our time, 95 percent of our time over the next month,” Holgorsen said.
“Then we’ll have some time to sit back and start working on 2013.”
These coming months, make no mistake, will be crucial. It’s essential, for the health of not only WVU’s football program but the entire athletic department, that the struggles of 2012 be a blip in the history of WVU football and not the start of a downward trend.
Email Cliff Nichols at email@example.com.