In this second of this three-part series, we look at how the Mountaineers adapted to change after Rich Rodriguez departed as coach. Ultimately, the purpose of the series is to examine just how high the Mountaineers have climbed under Head Coach Dana Holgorsen and to consider how much higher they might still climb during his tenure. This covers the modern era of West Virginia football through the departure of Rodriguez.
Rome was not built in a day. As it turns out, neither are sustainable successful college football programs. Look at Kansas State, for example. They were a perennial cellar dweller prior to Head Coach Bill Snyder’s arrival. In the 20 seasons predating Snyder, Kansas State had as many zero- or one-win seasons (five) as it did seasons with five or more wins. Yet, as successful as Snyder was, it still took him seven years to produce his first ten-win season. Fans should keep this in mind as we ask, just how high will the Mountaineers climb under Head Coach Dana Holgorsen.
Mountaineers Adapt to Change
The Bill Stewart Era
The Bill Stewart era began almost immediately after the Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in 2007. His oft-repeated “leave no doubt” speech inspires to this day. Quarterback Pat White threw his support behind Stewart. And while then-athletic director Ed Pastilong interviewed a few other candidates, his office decided to hire Stewart. Many, however, questioned the hire as one based on the emotion of the bowl win.
Stewart benefited immediately from the Mountaineers’ sustained success by pulling two straight recruiting classes finishing in the top 32 (per the 247Sports Composite rankings). The Mountaineers had only pulled one class finishing as high or better since 2000. It appeared the success was paying off, even after Rodriguez’s departure.
Though Stewart’s first season started off well (a 48-21 win over Villanova), the Mountaineers then lost two in a row to East Carolina and Colorado. They fell out of the top 25 and did not return until November 2, after winning five straight. After a 23-20 loss to Cincinnati, however, the Mountaineers fell right back out of the polls.
All three seasons under Stewart followed a similar cycle. The Mountaineers would win a few games in a row, reach a ranking within the top 25, lose to an unranked team, and fall out of the rankings for several weeks. After starting the Bill Stewart era ranked eighth, the Mountaineers’ highest final season ranking under him was 18th.
Unfortunately, the Mountaineers’ standing in recruiting circles started to diminish, and Stewart’s final recruiting class finished ranked 52nd. Additionally, as discussed thoroughly here, Stewart struggled to retain his higher-rated recruits from previous classes. In fact, over his three recruiting classes, Stewart retained only 41% of his top-rated recruits, well below the national averages.
Dana Holgorsen Arrives
Dana Holgorsen arrived in Morgantown amid heavy tension. Oliver Luck was now the athletic director. He hired Holgorsen under a strange “coach-in-waiting” premise by which Coach Stewart would complete one more season in the Big East as head coach. Holgorsen would then replace Coach Stewart in the 2012 season, the Mountaineers’ first in the Big 12.
The idea was to promote continuity and allow recruiting to stabilize while bringing in a head coach familiar with the Big 12 landscape. In preparing for the future, Luck had to balance some loud donors decrying the move. To this day, the common refrains continue. Nothing tied Holgorsen, the “outsider,” to the program or the State. Stewart, on the other hand, was a good old boy who loved West Virginia. And he finished three straight seasons with nine wins. Sure, it was not the eleven-win success the program enjoyed under Rodriguez, but things were still great. (Things were only “great,” though, until one considered the anemic offense the Mountaineers featured under Stewart and the resulting, substantial decline in ticket sales.)
Shortly after he was named coach-in-waiting, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke an unfavorable story after police escorted an intoxicated Holgorsen out of a casino in Cross Lanes. Neither the casino nor prosecutors filed charges concerning the incident. But Stewart was found to have called former Post-Gazette reporter Colin Dunlap asking him to run negative press on Holgorsen. The Holgorsen era thus began with Stewart resigning as head coach of the Mountaineers. The friction damaged recruiting and led to further attrition, and Holgorsen started his tenure well below the maximum 85 scholarships permitted.
The Holgorsen Era started off well. The Mountaineers won three straight to start the 2011 season before a College GameDay showdown in Morgantown with second-ranked LSU. Unfortunately, the Mountaineers lost that game 47-21. But they showed more offensive proficiency in that game than they had at any point in Stewart’s tenure. Geno Smith passed for 463 yards. His career high under Stewart was 352. He had already broken that plateau in three straight games under Holgorsen.
For a fan base and team starving for offense, the Mountaineers shattered the glass ceiling. In 2010, they finished 78th in the nation with 25.2 points per game. In Holgorsen’s first season, they turned that around to 37.6 points per game (13th in the nation).
The Mountaineers ended the 2011 season with a BCS bowl win over Clemson. West Virginia erupted for 70 points on nearly 600 yards. After Clemson hit a field goal with 4:49 remaining in the half, West Virginia rattled off five straight touchdowns (three to end the first half) and built a 63-20 lead. All felt well in Morgantown, as West Virginia finished the season 10-3 and ranked 17th. More importantly, the Mountaineers looked forward to the likely returns of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey for the next season.
Depth Issues Surface
During the first half of the 2012 season, both Smith and Bailey appeared on Heisman watch lists. Smith finished the season passing for 42 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions. Bailey finished with 25 touchdowns and more than 1,600 yards. Austin compiled nearly 3,000 total yards and 17 touchdowns (including return production). Overall, the Mountaineers averaged 39.5 points per game, 9th in the nation.
After peaking at number five in the AP poll after a 48-45 win at Texas, however, the Mountaineers lost five straight. The defense simply could not stop opposing offenses. Through the heart of the Big 12 schedule, the Mountaineers surrendered 45 points or greater in six of seven games. They finished that season 117th in scoring defense.
The depth issues resulting from the inefficient recruiting and poor attrition rates pre-Holgorsen substantially contributed to the Mountaineers’ inability to sustain their early-season success. Simply, West Virginia’s roster was unable to withstand the grind. Make no mistake, the move from the Big East to the Big 12 resulted in a steep climb in strength of schedule, from a rating of 1.41 during the final Big East years to 3.0 upon joining the Big 12.
West Virginia met the tougher schedule with a new staff headed by a first-time head coach lacking depth and installing a new base defense, switching from the 3-3-5 to the 3-4. Only four of the Mountaineers’ top ten defensive players returned in 2012. The top two tacklers in 2012, in fact, were freshmen Karl Joseph and Isaiah Bruce. In total, West Virginia lost 65% of its defensive production from 2011 to 2012 and replaced a vast majority of it with freshman or players with little experience. As a result, West Virginia finished its inaugural Big 12 season a disappointing 7-6.
In the next (and final) part of this series, we look at whether the program is turning around under Coach Holgorsen. We also look at how high the Mountaineers might climb in the future.