Following a dominant win over Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl, West Virginia paid Dana Holgorsen handsomely, keeping him on hand through 2017. Maybe the move was overly reactionary, since some of the Mountaineers’ success was rooted in seeds Bill Stewart had planted (such as the recruitment of Geno Smith). However, the move was also made in an attempt to compete in the Big 12, moving from the Big East that season.
Holgorsen was supposed to be a great fit for the Big 12 partly because he worked under Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, but mostly because he knew how to coach a spread passing attack. Texas was slow to recognize this trend, and is scrambling (with new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert) to update its offense. West Virginia made, on the merits, a very reasonable decision to secure Holgo to a long-term deal.
Sometimes, however, reasonable moves don’t work out. So far, that’s been the case in Morgantown.
The Mountaineers opened the 2012 season ranked No. 11, but they managed only seven wins. Since then, they have flirted with top 25 status but have averaged only 6.5 wins per year. The 2012 Orange Bowl has become a distant memory. West Virginia has not been able to gain any traction in the Big 12.
There were some extension talks between Holgorsen and West Virginia following the Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State, but Holgorsen declined the extension and now the focus remains on winning. That’s the mindset athletic director Shane Lyons is taking.
“My philosophy and my point of that is I’m not going to discuss coaches’ contracts during the season,” Lyons told West Virginia MetroNews. “Coach Holgorsen and I decided last spring, with his contract, that he is going to focus on winning.”
So how warm is the proverbial hot seat? Moderately hot. From what Lyons has said, it’s all a matter of winning. A third 7-6 season in five seasons may not cut it, not when the Big 12 has dominant programs such as Oklahoma and TCU, with Baylor (scandal-plagued though it is) offering the chance that its brilliant frontline talent could win another conference championship.
Take a look around the conference. There’s not much precedence for coaches to stick around after leaving behind a trail of mediocrity, but some cases exist.
Tommy Tuberville had three seasons at Texas Tech, claiming an average of 6.7 wins before taking the coaching spot at Cincinnati. Kansas State went through similar growing pains with Ron Prince from 2007 through 2009. The Wildcats won fewer than six games per season under Prince, influencing Bill Snyder to save Little Manhattan from drowning.
The most extreme case comes from Iowa State on the wings of early success with Paul Rhoads. After three bowl appearances in his first four seasons, the Cyclones couldn’t win more than three games the past three seasons. Rhoads was replaced by Matt Campbell for the 2016 season.
That’s not to say West Virginia will suffer a similar fate as ISU, but it stands as a warning that the “just wait another year” line has its limits.
Another seven-win season would likely get Holgorsen’s second foot out the door.
His saving grace in that scenario would be if the offense becomes fully operational, getting the passing game back to his earlier standards. The 2016 Mountaineers have been hit with injuries to the defense, so some leniency might be granted to Holgo. As long as the offense does its job well, Holgorsen may stay on the sidelines.
That’s partly what spawned the extension talks back in March. Against Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl, Skyler Howard erupted for 532 yards passing and chipped in five touchdowns. It was a performance that hearkened back to WVU’s 100-point shootouts against Baylor, with Geno Smith and Clint Trickett slinging the rock.
Howard was inconsistent last season, unable to reach the heights Holgorsen pulled from Smith and Trickett. However, as long as Holgorsen can fine-tune some of those rusty areas, particularly raising Howard’s completion rate from 55 percent to at least 60 percent, it stands to reason WVU could give him a chance to work with highly-anticipated Florida transfer Will Grier.
It might be hard to say the same thing in the event of a sub-.500 season, but as long as the passing game pulls in another bowl win, this conversation could continue for at least another year.
Memo to Holgo: Win at least eight regular season games plus a bowl. If you win only seven regular season games, make sure fans are entertained by the quality of your team’s passing game.