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Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Holgorsen survives one crazy ride

By Andrea Adelson

The quiet of the spring was shattered at a casino one night.

It was then that everything changed for West Virginia.

Dana Holgorsen
After a rocky start, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen excelled this season, leading his team to a conference title.
Dana Holgorsen would go from admonished coach to Big East champion, from the butt of jokes to unprecedented success in his first year guiding the Mountaineers.

All of that seemed improbable in late May, when Holgorsen admitted to inappropriate behavior at a casino in Cross Lanes, W. Va. But even more improbably, that night began a series of events that elevated him from coach-in-waiting to head coach a year earlier than anybody anticipated.

Amid speculation and innuendo that Bill Stewart had been spreading rumors and looking for dirt on Holgorsen, athletic director Oliver Luck decided he'd had enough.

West Virginia was making headlines for the wrong reasons. His succession plan had failed miserably. Stewart could no longer be trusted to run the football program. He was sent out the door without a farewell tour, a farewell news conference, a farewell anything.

The Holgorsen era began on a Friday night in June, under a mask of ambiguity. Nobody really knew how a first-time head coach, known as a quirky coordinator with a penchant for downing Red Bulls, would handle all his newfound responsibilities or the adversity presented to him -- with about six weeks to go before the start of fall camp.

Holgorsen had to get to know his defensive players in a short period of time. He had to work with a staff of assistants that he did not hire. He had to handle the questions about his inexperience, about his character and about the sky-high expectations for this team -- expectations based almost entirely on the offense he was bringing to Morgantown.

So  it is easy to see how the adversity Holgorsen and his players have faced really has defined this season for West Virginia. It is no wonder the one word Holgorsen uses to describe this team is resilient.

"Our guys play a little bit better when their backs are against the wall," Holgorsen said in a recent phone interview.

Holgorsen is probably the last person you will find in a Hallmark store picking out a saccharine greeting card. He is not much on reflecting, or evaluating himself or the job he has done. But if you stop to think about where he has come in six months, it is truly remarkable. Consider: Now consider this: West Virginia was all but out of the Big East race after losing to Louisville 38-35 on Nov. 5. That loss dropped the Mountaineers to 2-2 in the Big East, two games behind league-leading Cincinnati. It was the second head-scratching conference loss after a miserable 49-23 loss to Syracuse on a Friday night in October.

West Virginia, the preseason pick to win the Big East, had to get its act together. Holgorsen, sensing there was no unity or identity to his team, had a simple request: play with enthusiasm, play with energy. West Virginia is not going to just beat its chest and win games.

"I could pinpoint about 100 ideas about why all that happened, which bottom line is this -- all those are are excuses," Holgorsen said. "So whether it was a new coaching staff learning to coach together, a new feel with the head coach. Based on changing things in June, I don't think we were very familiar with each other. Sometimes it takes longer than others to figure out what kind of team you've got. We just identified a group of guys that needed to be held accountable for what they're doing and part of that is what they're doing on the sidelines, whether we thought we were good enough to just show up and beat Syracuse and Louisville, being patted on the back probably has something to do with it, being picked to win the conference, that probably had something to do with it, just feeling you can show up and win."

After the Louisville loss, West Virginia geared up for a huge game at Cincinnati. Holgorsen saw the emotion he begged for early in that game. After Julian Miller recovered a fumble in the end zone, Holgorsen ran onto the field to chest bump his player. Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros was injured on that play, and the Big East race turned.

West Virginia ended up winning with a fourth-quarter comeback and a blocked field goal on the last play of regulation to insert itself back in the Big East race. The resilience Holgorsen talked so much about came through in wins over Pitt and USF. Both games also came down to second-half comebacks. West Virginia ended up winning a share of the Big East title and the BCS berth to get its first trip to the Orange Bowl.

"He comes in here, his first head-coaching job, and all the things he had to go through with the whole coaching switch over, definitely to get through that and have us ready week in and week out to play says a lot about him," Miller said. "It's something the fans should be proud of -- to have a guy like him here now and hopefully later on down in the future."

There is no question adjustments had to be made back in June. The seniors were playing for their third head coach in five seasons, so they had no idea what to expect. The laid-back Holgorsen is brutally honest with his players, so that was another adjustment. So was his sideline demeanor, a stark departure from his personality in meeting rooms. Holgorsen has a tendency to turn many shades of red while yelling about a missed assignment or dropped pass.

"You need tough skin," receiver Tavon Austin said. "He is not going to sugar coat anything. Coach is never afraid to tell you when you're wrong."

Holgorsen shouldn't be afraid of getting a little bit of praise himself. His move to West Virginia and  his ability to bat away one challenge after another has the Mountaineers back in the national spotlight.

For all the right reasons this time.