It was only three weeks ago that West Virginia was coming off a 45-6 thrashing of Maryland and Mountaineer football fans were cautiously chattering about a potential Big 12 title run.
Today, after an 0-3 start to Big 12 play and a road trip to No. 4 TCU looming on the schedule on Oct. 29, most of the whispers seem to be about the future of head coach Dana Holgorsen.
Although I’m usually one to laugh off fans’ knee-jerk response to send the coach packing every time a kicker misses a field goal or a quarterback throws an interception, there’s plenty of reason, in this case, to at least be pondering the future of the coach who rode into town on a Red Bull can five years ago promising big offensive numbers and a new era of Mountaineer football.
There are still six games remaining for the 3-3 WVU squad, so first-year athletic director Shane Lyons is making the right move when refusing to evaluate the program or make any public comments before the end of the season. Obviously, if the Mountaineers find a way to go on an amazing run and win the final six — or even five of them — that would greatly change the conversation. So Lyons should take a wait-and-see approach.
But I’m not the athletic director, and neither are the readers who leave me emails, voice messages or Twitter messages. They want to talk about Holgorsen now, and I’m game.
There are two years remaining on Holgorsen’s current WVU contract, so technically Lyons could wait another year or so before making a decision. But that’s not the way it usually works. Coaches complain more than the guy in the fifth row with a beer in each hand and a flag on the field about not having at least three or four years left on a contract. Selling recruits to come to a school, they say, is tougher than crowd surfing the WVU student section wearing a Pitt T-shirt if they can’t show the prospect a piece of paper that promises that he’ll be at the school for several years to come.
Therefore, Lyons has a decision to make sometime over the course of the next two or three months. Does he cut loose Oliver Luck’s man, Holgorsen, and go find his own, or does he extend the contract to give Holgorsen a little more time to try to get WVU to a position where it is competing for the Big 12 prize?
Truthfully, the decision is not an easy one.
There are reasons to believe the WVU program might be heading in the right direction.
• The staff of assistant coaches Holgorsen now has in place is as good as it’s been in a long while.
Tony Gibson and Ron Crook are West Virginia guys who love the state and the program and can pass on some knowledge of the passion that this state has for the football team and the history of what it means to be a Mountaineer. Damon Cogdell and Ja’Juan Seider are former players who can do the same, and Lonnie Galloway and Bruce Tall are back for a second stint in Morgantown, proving that they have a special place in their heart for the school and the state, as well, even if they didn’t have prior connections.
Galloway, Gibson, Seider and Cogdell are as good in recruiting as any coaches WVU has had. Gibson has helped turn around the Mountaineer defense, and Galloway turns out NFL-caliber wide receivers faster than the Country Club Bakery turns out pepperoni rolls.
Brian Mitchell is a respected cornerbacks coach, and Mark Scott seems to be fixing some of the special teams issues.
• Holgorsen and crew are assimilating some great talent.
When the 2006 Sugar Bowl champion Mountaineers were honored during the Oklahoma State game a couple weeks ago, I looked out on the field and saw some of the most talented players to ever wear a WVU uniform — Pat White, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, Eric Wicks, Pat McAfee, etc. — but there were also a number of average players who just played hard and maximized their talent.
This year’s team might not have a White or a Slaton, but the talent from top to bottom is deeper than it’s ever been. There are players on the second string just as talented as some who started on that 2005 squad, one of the best in Mountaineer history.
But then there’s the other side of the coin, the reason to question Holgorsen as the leader.
• Holgorsen hasn’t been the offensive genius that most expected.
Holgorsen came to WVU in 2011, after one of the sloppiest hires you’ll ever see, having rewritten the record books in his one season at Oklahoma State as the offensive coordinator. The Cowboys put up 6,451 yards of total offense, scored 539 points, threw for 4,256 yards and completed 332 passes in 2010, all school records.
But in his first season at the WVU helm, that offense went missing, at times. Everybody remembers the 70-33 beatdown of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, but many forget the 24-21 win over Cincinnati, the 21-20 struggle over Pitt and the 30-27 nailbiter over South Florida in the last three games of the regular season. If Jeff Casteel’s defense hadn’t performed well in those contests, there would have been no Orange Bowl or Big East championship.
In 2012, the WVU offense was again loaded with talent with guys like Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Mark Glowinski, who are now playing in the NFL. That team also had its moments, like the 70 it put on Baylor, 48 at Texas and 49 against Oklahoma, but it also had 14-point performances against Texas Tech and Kansas State and a disastrous 14-point showing against a very average Syracuse team in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The 2013 offense was simply awful, and the 2014 club lost its way in the second half against TCU, and it posted just 36 total points in the next two games, losses to Texas and Kansas State, before it could recover.
That history of offensive struggles is what has so many fans worrying about seeing many of the same things this season.
• Holgorsen has largely underachieved.
His first season worked out well. Nobody can argue with a Big East championship and an Orange Bowl win. But since then?
In 2012, WVU was picked by many to win the Big 12 in its first season and rose as high as No. 5 in the country after a 5-0 start. But it lost six of the final eight games and ended with a dud in the Pinstripe Bowl. The championship expectations may have been unfair, but the team had too much talent for a 7-6 finish.
The 2013 team wasn’t very good. But it was better than Kansas and Iowa State. Still, it found ways to lose both those games and finish with a 4-8 record.
Last year’s squad? It was good enough to compete with Alabama to the wire, beat No. 4 Baylor and have No. 10 TCU on the ropes. Yet it couldn’t handle a 6-7 Texas team, lost again to Kansas State and ended the season with four losses in five games. A 7-6 finish wasn’t indicative of how good that team was.
And so far this year, the team that Holgorsen called his deepest and most experienced hasn’t won a Big 12 game.
Expecting a team — especially one with some of the disadvantages WVU has — to compete for a championship every year isn’t fair. But if it can’t meet more realistic expectations, there’s a problem.
That’s the situation Lyons faces as the season progresses and the offseason approaches. It’s not an easy one. Canning the head coach probably means WVU will lose some quality assistants, and a new coach will have to start back at the beginning to try to build a winner.
But an extension? That would be a reward for four seasons of underachieving, and I’m not sure if that’s the message Lyons wants to send.
— Email: chuffman@
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