By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Oliver Luck, the athletic director who has been the driving force between West Virginia University’s move from the disintegrating Big East Conference to the Big 12, does not pull any punches when looking at what lies ahead for his athletic programs, beginning with the showcase football team, which staggered through a disastrous inaugural season in the new league.
“It’s going to be arguably one of the most important offseasons we’ve had in a while,” Luck said, a statement that never could have crossed his mind a year ago in what certainly was the most important offseason in decades with the tangled web of conference affiliation.
Certainly, the road was laid out before Luck without any optional U-turns or detours and because of that second-guessing the jump to the Big 12 is a futile exercise.
The Big East was falling apart. The ACC didn’t want West Virginia, and that left the Big 12, which had a lot of geographic and cultural obstacles but which was the only option.
And WVU opted to do it immediately, even obligate itself to a $20 million penalty rather than hang around as Pitt, Syracuse, Rutgers and Louisville left, the seven Catholic basketball schools withdrew to form their own league and then as Boise State backed out on its obligation to give the football conference some creditability.
“We jumped right into it, which in retrospect was the right decision,” Luck said. “I had a long chat at the Pinstripe Bowl with my counterpart at Syracuse, which had time to prepare for a transition. Looking at it, we’d do it that way again in a New York minute, no pun intended.”
Certainly, the transition wasn’t as easy as thought, the football program in particular picked to finish second and winding up winning only four Big 12 games, while setting records for defensive futility.
“I don’t know if it was tougher than we thought, or if we made it tougher. It was clearly a transition, a challenge for our team. We did some good things and some not-so-good things,” said Luck.
He takes it as a learning experience rather than as a setback.
“This season we really should have a little better understanding of what we need to do in the offseason, of the depth we need at certain positions, the strength, the speed. That experience the past year should really help us as we go forward,” he said.
“The good thing, I told the coaches, is that yes, we came out of the season disappointed, as we should be, but also with some highlights … going to Texas and beating them there, beating Baylor by scoring a bunch of points, but that doesn’t mask the defensive problems.”
Luck senses the WVU football team, while certainly overmatched on the defensive side of the ball either in coaching, schemes or talent, never felt overmatched by Big 12 competition.
“I think our kids have the feeling they can be competitive, because we were,” he said. “You can take out the Kansas State game and the Texas Tech game, where we went to sleep for a two-week period, we could have won a game here or there with a play or two or lost a game here or there with a play here or there.
“We showed we could be competitive, but it also showed us all the things we need to do so we can get better and win eight or nine games in the conference.”
There have already been reactions. Cornerback coach Daron Roberts was fired after his players failed to stop anyone’s passing attack and never showed any improvement as the season went on.
More importantly, head coach Dana Holgorsen replaced Joe DeForest, who was the defensive coordinator throughout the regular season while setting all sorts of records for points and yardage allowed, with co-coordinator Keith Patterson, a man with some experience in the role of coordinator.
Not much improvement was showed under Patterson in the Pinstripe Bowl and there are certainly more changes on the defensive staff expected after the American Football Coaches Associations meetings this weekend.
Luck admits there is no getting around the depths to which defensive football at West Virginia fell last season.
“No question (major adjustments will have to be made),” the athletic director said. “The facts are the facts. No one could be proud of the defensive performance as a unit over the course of the year.”
Luck says there were, however, items to build upon.
“I’m proud of what Karl Joseph, as a true freshman, was able to do. Isiaah Bruce, what he did as a freshman,” Luck noted. “But as a unit, I don’t think anyone could be proud of what was done.
“We recognize it, and there have been long conversations with Dana about upgrading that. We have to upgrade our offseason workouts. We have to upgrade our recruiting. We need to do a lot on the defensive side of the ball.
“Yes, we did play one of the toughest schedules in Mountaineer history and it’s a passing league. You can score points much quicker than 30 years ago. But all of that aside, it’s obvious to me, to our coaches what we need to work on.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.