The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

College Sports

September 25, 2013

Mountaineer fans have gone mad over struggles

— I wanted to wait another game or two before I put in my two cents about what’s happening with the West Virginia football program. The Mountaineers have played only one Big 12 game, so it’s really too early to judge. But a simple check of my phone told me there was no time to wait.

One text message I received from a Nebraska fan who married into a WVU family and is learning to love the Mountaineers got me thinking. It read simply, “Is it safe to say that interest in WVU football is the lowest it’s been in a decade?” A call from a reader in Oak Hill asked, “Is there any chance of getting out of the Big 12 before it’s too late?” An e-mail from a longtime Mountaineer fan questioned if this could be the worst WVU team in 40 years, and I’ve received several e-mails from readers simply voicing their frustration with what’s happening and wondering whether it’s time to hand third-year head coach Dana Holgorsen a new suitcase and a ticket out of the Mountain State.

So instead of spending my evening answering these questions one by one, I decided this was as good a spot as any.

First, I saw the same thing most Mountaineer fans saw Saturday against Maryland. I saw a team that was unprepared. I saw a team that was unmotivated, and I saw a team that folded faster than the XFL when it faced a little adversity.

It’s something of which I’ve seen a lot over the last two years.

The big picture, though, was the larger issue. In that portrait, perfect for a nightmarish Halloween party, is a program on the decline.

In its last 10 games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams, the Mountaineers have seven losses. In eight quarters against schools in “power conferences” this season, WVU has exactly one touchdown drive.

It’s because of the new conference, right?

Syracuse isn’t in the Big 12. When WVU met the Orange in the 2012 New Era Pinstripe Bowl, in fact, its was a middle of the pack Big East team. And SU embarrassed the Mountaineers with a 38-14 drubbing.

Maryland isn’t in the Big 12, either. The Terrapins are struggling to compete on their way out of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Terps won six games in two seasons under Randy Edsall before this year. They’re 4-0 now, but they’re nowhere close to a top-notch team. And the Terps handed the Mountaineers their first shutout since 2001 in a 37-0 thumping on Saturday.

That, football fans, is the definition of a program headed down the wrong path. The WVU football program was miles ahead of both Syracuse and Maryland just a few short years ago, and now those programs have apparently passed the Mountaineers, at least in the short term. A downward trend was the exact reasoning used when athletic director Oliver Luck hired Holgorsen to replace Bill Stewart.

That doesn’t mean it’s time to can the coach. But something needs to change, and it needs to change soon.

Things are not going well for the Mountaineers, and fans are getting angry. I saw 45-yard line tickets  on Facebook for this weekend’s matchup with No. 11 Oklahoma State for $50 each. A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to find them for $150 for such a high profile opponent. Season ticket sales were down, and even some of those fans aren’t showing up.

On top of that, Holgorsen isn’t doing much to make any friends. He’s snapping at reporters for asking legitimate questions, like why Florida State transfer Clint Trickett — whose performance as a freshman in 2011 playing for the Seminoles against a strong Clemson squad was more impressive than anything displayed by Paul Millard or Ford Childress up to this point — hasn’t been given more than six snaps to see what he can do. He’s locked the doors to the Hall of Traditions on game days, keeping fans from seeing the multi-million dollar facility that was built to feature the history of WVU football, and he’s traded in gold and blue for black and white.

Holgorsen has continually answered questions about his offensive approach with, “It’s worked for 15 years, so I’m not going to change.”

With fans already unhappy, those things just add salt to the wounds.

So what can be done?

Leaving the Big 12 is not the answer. WVU had no choice but to make that move if it wanted to stay relevant in college football. The ACC nor the SEC wanted the Mountaineers, and the Big East, which is now the American Athletic Conference, is not going to be one of the “power conferences” moving forward. If the Mountaineers hoped to play on the biggest stage and have their program matter, the Big 12 was the only place they could go.

WVU has the money, the facilities and the passion from fans to fit right in with it’s new conference mates, and the travel costs will be offset by the increase in television revenue.

Can WVU become the new Oklahoma? It’s not likely. But it can be a competitive team in its new league and perhaps even make a run at a championship a couple of times a decade.

There’s talent in Morgantown now. Ronald Carswell and Kevin White can be big playmakers at receiver, and the running back position is as loaded as it’s ever been with Charles Sims, Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood — if they can only find a line to lead the way. The defense is much improved and will give the Mountaineers a chance if they can simply score a few points.

Now it’s about getting on the same page and responding to adversity.

It’s not time to escort Holgorsen out of town with the Mountaineer holding his musket to the coach’s backside. He knows football, and he could eventually become a good head coach. He showed in the Orange Bowl win over Clemson just how good — and entertaining — his offenses can be. He’s added some great new traditions, like the Mountaineer Mantrip, so his tenure hasn’t been all bad.

But he’s still learning on the job. He had never been a head coach before coming to Morgantown, and he’s experiencing situations that just don’t happen for an assistant.

He deserves some time. The problem is that it just can’t be too long. It takes a lot longer to build a program than it does to destroy one, and Luck and the powers that be need to be careful that the latter doesn’t happen.

If Holgorsen wants to succeed, it’s time for him to check his ego at the locked Puskar Center door. It’s time to reach out to other coaches and ask for suggestions. It’s time for him to put his stubbornness aside and try something new. Adjustments are what define good football coaches.

It’s also time for Holgorsen to embrace the fans and make them a part of the program, instead of trying to close the doors in their faces.

If changes aren’t made, the damage done could take years to repair.

— E-mail: chuffman

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