West Virginia takes bold, odd step forward

December, 15, 2010
12/15/10
7:19
PM ET
First, let's talk about what every West Virginia fan is dreaming about right now: Dana Holgorsen at the reins of the Mountaineers' offense.

[+] EnlargeDana Holgorsen
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiAfter successful stints at Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Houston, Dana Holgorsen will take over the West Virginia offense this season.
West Virginia has always recruited as much or more speed at the skill positions than any team in the Big East, and fans quickly grew accustomed to Rich Rodriguez's explosive 40-plus-points-per-game attack. Holgorsen's offenses at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State (as documented here) routinely finished among the nation's best while shattering records. The thought of his playcalling skills mixed with players like Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Ivan McCartney should cause shudders among other league defensive coordinators.

Clearly, first-year athletic director Oliver Luck knew what the fan base wanted and knew what would generate even more interest among the rabid Mountaineers following. In many ways, this looks like a perfect match.

It's just how the matchmaking was done that is a bit troubling.

Bill Stewart was hired in the euphoric haze following his interim coaching victory over Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. Many thought he was in over his head from the beginning, and he often seemed one catastrophic defeat away from being canned. The wheels for his departure were greased this season after back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Connecticut, two setbacks that ultimately kept West Virginia out of a BCS bowl.

Yet Stewart still managed to win nine games for a third straight year and earn a share of a Big East title, with a 10th win possible in the Champs Sports Bowl. Exactly one week ago, West Virginia sent out a press release touting its recognition for graduating 90 percent of its football players.

That left Luck in an odd position: How do you fire a loyal servant whose record and achievements belie his perception among the fans? Hence this awkward succession plan, in which Holgorsen will serve as an offensive coordinator for one year until Stewart retires after the 2011 season.

Make no mistake: the 59-year-old Stewart wasn't interested in retiring. He sure isn't thrilled about grooming his own successor. Yet he was left with little choice.

The 2011 season will be fascinating to watch, as Holgorsen acts as the coach-in-waiting that Stewart didn't hire, perhaps with a few of Holgorsen's guys on the offensive staff. The entire defensive staff, led by coordinator Jeff Casteel, will be allowed to remain if they so choose. That could create a majorly awkward transition, if not outright tension. I can't help but think of the internal struggles at Florida State in Bobby Bowden's last year when Jimbo Fisher was the chosen successor, or the staff chemistry problems in Steve Kragthorpe's first year at Louisville when he was forced to retain several of Bobby Petrino's former assistants.

Holgorsen can use a bit of seasoning on the job; he's only 39 and his lone coaching stints east of the Mississippi River came at his first stops at Valdosta State and Wingate. He needs time to learn the unique culture of West Virginia, and he hasn't been known as an ace recruiter during his career.

Still, I think Luck would have been better off just biting the bullet and forcing Stewart out now if he knew he wanted to go another direction. Let Holgorsen bring in his own staff, learn on the job as he needs to and get on with moving forward. How weird will it be, for example, if West Virginia goes 12-0 next year and still pushes Stewart aside? Or what if staff chemistry problems lead to a disappointing 2011, putting Holgorsen in a hole before he ever moves into the big office?

The only way this works in 2011 is if Stewart is humble enough to set his own ego aside and truly show Holgorsen the ropes. With other coaches, I'd give that little chance. But Stewart is such a genuine and loyal guy that maybe he can actually make it happen, despite how heartbroken he must be right now about losing his dream job.

One thing's clear: the Mountaineers are going to be a whole lot of fun to watch on offense in 2011 and beyond. They will also have a fascinating subplot thanks to this new, odd relationship.

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