By Cam Huffman
Critics of former West Virginia University athletic director Ed Pastilong pointed to the decision to hire Bill Stewart as a mistake equal to tearing down the weight room and replacing it with a room full of shake weights.
It wasn’t that Stewart was such a bad hire — he was a football lifer more loyal to West Virginia than any coach to ever perform his craft within its borders. The problem most had was that the decision was made not after a careful interview process and weeks of evaluation but in the euphoria of a Fiesta Bowl win against Oklahoma — during which Stewart served as interim head coach and helped keep the Mountaineers focused against nearly impossible odds — that was only slightly less shocking than Pitt’s win over WVU in the game prior to the bowl trip.
Throughout Stewart’s three-year tenure as head coach — during which he finished 9-4 each season — critics continually pointed to the rushed decision every time something went wrong. “That’s what you get when you hire a coach in the middle of the night,” they said.
When Oliver Luck was hired to replace Pastilong on June 9, 2010, one of the first major moves he made was to relieve Stewart — who was 28-12 at WVU — of his duties, bringing in Dana Holgorsen from Oklahoma State to lead the Mountaineers. At the time, Luck said he wanted a coach who could bring a national championship to the Mountain State.
“Finally,” the critics shouted, “WVU has a leader that makes thoughtful decisions and understands what it takes to win.”
A little more than a year after Holgorsen moved to Morgantown in December of 2010 — he was first supposed to be the offensive coordinator and the coach-in-waiting, but the in-waiting tag was soon removed — Holgorsen was celebrating a record-setting 70-33 Orange Bowl victory over Clemson.
Seven months later, before Holgorsen had even coached a single game in his second season at WVU — his first in the Big 12 — or seen any of his own recruits take the field, Holgorsen received a new six-year contract.
On the surface, Luck’s decision was nothing like the one made by Pastilong in the desert in Arizona a few years earlier. For starters, he wasn’t hiring an unproven coach, he was rewarding one who had proved his worth. And he didn’t do it hours after a BCS win. He waited half a year.
But in reality the decisions were about as different as oranges and tangerines. Luck gave Holgorsen a new deal — with no way out for WVU but to pay the entire contract — as a result of one win, the Orange Bowl. It couldn’t have been a reward for the 9-3 regular season as a Big East member. After all, that’s the same record Stewart produced in his last two years at the helm. That, Luck said when he was making a move, wasn’t good enough. So why would it have been any different with the new coach?
The only difference was the Orange Bowl, and Luck, filled with excitement about how well his big hire was panning out, made a decision based on that one win against a Clemson team famous for folding on the biggest stages.
It’s a decision that’s now coming back to bite the former Mountaineer quarterback.
Holgorsen has won just six of his last 19 games on the WVU sideline, and he’s blowing leads faster than Cecil Fielder blows money at a casino. The crowd of 33,735 that watched WVU blow a 31-7 lead in a triple-overtime loss to Iowa State Saturday was the third-lowest in the stadium’s history, and while Holgorsen and his staff continually point to the challenges of Big 12 football, the Mountaineers are losing to teams like Kansas, Iowa State and Maryland that would be bad in any conference.
Is it time to make a switch? I’m not ready to say yes or no. I’m usually one that prefers to give a coach time, but I think there are problems deeper than a tougher conference and some depth issues, and I’m not confident that things won’t get worse before it gets better.
But no matter where Luck and his staff stand in that debate — one that’s being discussed at every barber shop and water cooler around the state — it sure would benefit WVU to have some options. Instead, Luck’s stuck in a position where he can either hang on to Holgorsen, and hope something will change, or let him go and eat the nearly $12 million he’s owed on his contract and let him go.
The problem is that WVU’s not Oregon or Texas. Money isn’t falling out of the walls of the Puskar Center. Paying Holgorsen that type of money to get out of town could possibly limit the options for bringing in a new coach to return the Mountaineers to glory.
So it seems as though the only option for Luck — unless he can find a loophole that would give his son, Andrew, a year of eligibility in a Mountaineer uniform — is to cross his fingers, put a four-leaf clover in his shoe and wait.
That’s what happens when you extend a contract based on one win.
— E-mail: chuffman@
register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.