As of 12:01 a.m. on January 1, the West Virginia Mountaineers and Dana Holgorsen part ways, ending a sometimes tumultuous but always exciting eight-year relationship. Holgorsen is expected to become the head coach at Houston, replacing the recently fired Major Applewhite. Why 12:01? Well, that is when Holgorsen’s buyout dropped from $2.5 million to $1 million. That is important because the business details of the contract appear to have put a wedge between the parties in the final days. Regardless those details, West Virginia finds itself in the market for a new head coach, and Dana Holgorsen returns to Houston.
The Contract Details
Holgorsen’s last extension with West Virginia saw the coach making $18.6 million over five years. His buyout dropped to $1 million if he terminated the contract after December 31, 2018. The sticking point between the parties, however, appeared to lie in job security.
All college coaching contracts allow the university to terminate the coach with or without cause. Contracts vary, though, on how much the university will owe the recently-fired coach. Here, West Virginia would owe Holgorsen only 60% of his remaining salary beginning January 1, 2019, if the University terminated the coach. But that figure would be reduced by any football-related income Holgorsen received from any other source.
Thus, if athletic director Shane Lyons fired Holgorsen after a poor performance in 2019, West Virginia would have owed him a little under $4.5 million. But if Holgorsen received a $2 million annual contract from another school, then West Virginia would only owe him $500,000.00. In other words, only 60% of Holgorsen’s contract was “guaranteed,” and he could have been compelled to take a 40% pay cut (at another school) if West Virginia was unhappy with future results.
Now, Holgorsen is expected to have a 5-year, $20 million contract with Houston. Instead of facing the possibility of a pay cut, he gets a decent raise. Not bad for him financially, even if this is viewed by many as less than a lateral coaching move. That said, West Virginia was apparently unwilling to secure more of Holgorsen’s future salary in the event the University decided to fire him.
In this situation, it is difficult to objectively cast blame on either side for digging in on their respective positions. No doubt, however, that each feels the other’s demands were unreasonable.
Before thinking about how West Virginia might move forward, it is important to remember how it got here. As we discussed here, Holgorsen was brought in after the emotional hiring of former Head Coach Bill Stewart. He was hired under a “coach-in-waiting” premise that was unusual, to put it mildly. And the concept of a head coach playing nicely with his immediate successor predictably failed, in spectacular fashion. But major damage was done, and the Mountaineer fan base has been divided as a result.
To many, Holgorsen unfairly saw blame for what was, in hindsight, a poor decision by the administration at the time. As we wrote here, he did a great job recruiting and developing talent in Morgantown. In fact, he did better than his predecessors in both categories.
But when his most talented team failed to reach the Big XII Championship this season, fans’ patience wore out. That undoubtedly had an impact on what Lyons was willing to concede during negotiations. The Mountaineers’ continued poor performance during bowl season certainly did not help. As such, both sides part ways, for better or worse, and it is hard to blame either for the result. Holgorsen will see success in his career, and the West Virginia program will also move on.
What Comes Next?
Shane Lyons and school president Gordon Gee no doubt have legacy-defining decisions to make. Since 1980, the Mountaineers have only had four coaches. Simply, there have not been many critical junctures like this in the program’s history.
The outside world also changes rapidly. Attendance continues to decline. All programs seek to dethrone the dynasties at Alabama and Clemson. The rules of the game are changing. And players have far for freedom to transfer than they have in the past. Further, the impending expiration of media rights in the next few years will likely trigger another wave of realignment.
As a result, this is perhaps the most critical decision for the future of the program. That said, both Lyons and Gee have big league credentials. Lyons came to Morgantown from Alabama. And Gee presided over the Jim Tressel to Urban Meyer transition at Ohio State.
While there have not been any officials remarks about the presumptive list of candidates, many names have circulated. These names, of course, cannot even be considered rumored candidates, as none in the media yet know what Lyons and Gee are considering. Current and former players have floated Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson as a replacement. The national media have proposed Rich Rodriguez and Butch Jones as candidates. Still others suggest up and comers like Luke Fickell of Cincinnati and Neal Brown of Troy.
What is clear, however, is that Lyons and Gee must understand that emotional decisions have led to disastrous consequences. West Virginia is where it is because of an emotional decision made by Ed Pastilong over a decade ago. Expect the two to pair up to consider as many options and possible and make a measured, reasonable decision. They understand that West Virginia’s football future depends on it.