Yesterday we dug deep into West Virginia's collapse on the road at Kansas State and its origins with the refusal to rely on a pair of productive running backs. I'll pick up where we left off:
All this pretty quickly leads to the question of why would a coach make the decisions that Dana Holgorsen did for his team in the second half? Pride? Stubborness? I don't know, but the answer to that question very likely informs how you think WVU should handle the position of head coach moving forward.
...that WVU loss had nothing to do with (Bill Snyder's) special brand of wizarding magic. Nor did it have anything to do with blown special teams assignments or kick coverage demons. It had to do with a coach stubbornly refusing to adhere to a plan that had yielded victory in 4 previous games and all but certainly would have done so again. It had to do with the failure to follow through with a plan of attack that was painfully obvious to anyone who had watched this team at any point in the last month.
That's about as critical as I've ever been with coach Dana Holgorsen in writing and I know a lot of people who think I'm way too forgiving. After a month of good feelings, the Mountaineer fanbase is as angry about its coaching situation as it's ever been. For the record I'm still against making a change (I'll get into the reasons later) but the questions are very valid.
With all that, I figured it would be a good idea to focus on just this with a separate Retweet from the Kansas State postgame. I've got a lot of thoughts on a complex topic and 180 characters wasn't cutting it.
(author's note: this is not a real quote but boy it sure sounds like one. Sorry for being unclear there and suggesting Holgorsen said something that he did not. But the sentiment stands - Holgo doesn't like to have his playcalling questioned but there's ample reason to do so.)
Well technically coach I was at my dining room table at my computer, does that change things? In all seriousness, I get the gist of what he's saying here. Playcalling is born from a complex collection of information and game conditions, many of which escape us as we sit watching at home. It's a perfectly valid point. I get that.
But the game Saturday was notable in that, more-so than any game I can remember, the statistics laid bare the coach's inability to simply take the simple path to a win. We saw in the first half the template that had proven successful over the four game winning streak and the inexplicable shift in strategy in the second half begged a lot of questions.
Is it really unreasonable to wonder why you run your quarterback with his injured foot on the biggest play of the game as WVU did on their final 4th and 2 (it went for no gain)? Is it truly that complicated to point out that when you ran your running backs a combined 13 times on first down in the first half (they averaged 7.2 YPC on those plays) you scored on 3 drives and took a 10 point lead but when you gave those same two tailbacks just 8 combined carries in the second half (5.7 YPC) you scored only twice and were outscored by 11? What if I pointed out that the 6 times you elected to air it out on that first down in the second half netted 4 drive-crippling incompletions?
Dana Holgorsen has a huge perception problem in that his entire fanbase has no idea what is behind what on the surface looks to be perplexing decision making. And a tone like the one he took with the above quote doesn't help - there's a tinge of arrogance there that essentially rejects the premise of any question. If he has any chance of rebuilding some goodwill with the fans, he needs to walk us all through what went into his second-half decisions. I have no doubt that it would be frustrating for him, but he frankly needs to explain himself. I'd think his next coach's show would be a perfect time to do that.
On the field, the biggest problem Holgorsen has right now and moving forward is at quarterback. I like Skyler Howard and he's done the best he can do (without a lot of help from his receivers) but I think it's fair to say he puts a ceiling on this team. Holgorsen needs someone with the arm strength to make the throws his system demands and the command, timing and touch to capitalize on the home run attempts that an opposing defense invariably yields. Skyler Howard simply hasn't been as consistent on either of these fronts as Holgorsen needs.
The biggest fear is that it won't be possible to have anyone else prepared to run the show by the beginning of next season. The difference between Clint Trickett in year 1 and Trickett in year two suggests that it takes a year of live fire before you can really understand things in this system. The difference in production between what we saw from Geno Smith between 2011 and 2012 (the first half of the season at least) would seem to support that. Doesn't paint a hopeful picture of a first-year starter for next season.
Then there's the William Crest question. Given all we've seen (or not seen) I'd have to give 3-1 odds against that he ever starts a game at quarterback for WVU. He's been around long enough that he should understand things and he certainly has the physical ability to run the read-option that Holgorsen has become so enamored with, so what gives? Where is he? The Musket tweet above made the case perfectly. If Crest can't make a case for playing time now, will he ever?
It's an enigma that an offensive guru who has put over a half-dozen wide receivers in the NFL can't find a quarterback, and it might very well be Holgo's undoing. It's probably the single biggest factor in whether or not WVU can put together a successful 2016 and I just don't see an easy solution. If we agree Skyler is what he is (good, not great), Crest isn't and won't be ready for prime time and Sills' future is at receiver then we're left with Chuganov. Seems like a lot to put on a guy who's never taken a snap.
What Randy is outlining here is the job description for virtually every head coach in college. There are a million things to do for a head coach and play-calling is a huge task to add to that list. And even if he doesn't want to relinquish play-calling duties, it's fair to wonder if some of the sloppiness we saw on offense resulted from not having a single person charged with the day-to-day operations associated with that side of the ball this season. This was the first year of his 5 in Morgantown that Holgorsen didn't have an OC and also probably the worst the passing game has ever looked. I wonder if those two are related.
But now let's get to the meat of the matter. There are two big reasons that I don't think WVU should fire Holgorsen.
I've always been a proponent of the "don't fire a guy until you have a new guy you really like" philosophy. And not some half-assed list, but a GUY. Someone you have an understanding with that they are absolutely going to be your new coach and more importantly a guy you want to be your new coach because he's really good, not just because you want to fire the guy you've got now.
Ask Tennessee what happens when you fire a good coach, as they did with Phil Fulmer in 2008, without a plan. They're 7 years (and a small Brinks truck of buyout payments) removed from that decision and only now getting to the point they were at when they fired Fulmer. And that's at a marquee name in the sport.
Want to see WVU's real worst-case scenario? Cast your gaze up I-79 to the Pittsburgh Panthers
. They fired Dave Wannstedt just a year after his team had put together a 9 win season and was within a point of winning the conference championship. Then they hired 4 coaches in 5 years and the job became a revolving door for middling coaches looking to simply hang around long enough to further their career.
The discussion must start with a realization that West Virginia is a different place. It's a good job and a place you can win, but it's not a glamour job that inspires awe among the general coaching population. The stature that it does have has come from the hiring and retaining of coaches who placed a higher value on the job than many of their brethren. They wanted to be here for reasons deeper than simply taking the next step. You can't assume that anyone else we'd bring on board would share that viewpoint. It's entirely possible that WVU could fire Holgorsen and enter a cycle similar to what Pitt has seen.
One of the things I've always liked about Holgorsen is he's felt like a good fit here. He's laid-back off the field and values the opportunity that WVU offers him - good enough to win at a high level, but not so high-profile as to constrain his personal life. He's a simple guy who just wants to coach football and then go do his thing, and WVU gives him that opportunity. Oliver Luck hired him in 2011 as a long-term solution at head coach. Not everyone WVU could bring on board would fit that description.
My point is if you're WVU you've got to give a little more rope than other places. You're not Michigan or USC with the ability to cycle through coaches until you find the one you want. So you can't be so quick to hire and fire. You need to be sure, and as much as people don't want to hear it, there's been enough success since 2011 to warrant more time. A little, not a lot.
Not only are a lot of the good candidates gone, but there are plenty more jobs out there left to fill and it's a seller's market. In the event that they needed to hit that market, WVU would quite likely overpay for a coach that isn't as good. And within the context of what I said above, it's an unnecessary chance to take. This year.
Especially when there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about WVU next season. You've got a young offense where just about everyone is returning (with the biggest question mark being Wendell Smallwood's potential exit for the NFL). Didn't a lot of the rust we saw this season remind you of 2013? Well those growing pains paid dividends in 2014. Tony Gibson has given ample reason to believe he'll be able to take care of things on the defensive side, so with a schedule boasting 5 conference home games and non-conference games against Mizzouri and BYU squads that will be breaking in new staffs early in the season there would seem to be ample reason to keep things in place for another year and see where they land.
OK maybe not THAT optimistic. But hey, now we know Dana's dad is on Twitter!
This sentiment is pretty prevalent and I'd guess I'd argue that there's a little more nuance there than people give credit for. Some of these teams have been pretty damn good. Last year's was about 1 play away from being 7-2 with back to back wins over top 15 teams and a great look at a conference title before Clint Trickett went down by the facemask and effectively ended the season.
This year 8-4 was within grasp and with a lucky bounce against Oklahoma State maybe 9-3. Up until this last game they were handily beating teams they should beat. That's not to be taken for granted and it's certainly not mediocre. But that was the most damaging thing to Holgorsen about what we saw against Kansas State. So many times he's been undone by bad luck as much as bad decisions, but there was no hiding from the reason for the loss on Saturday.
OK maybe this was the most damaging thing to Dana to come out of Saturday night. If things do deteriorate and he does get fired either this year or next, remember that play. It's the play with no explanation and no excuses. It's the play that cost Dana the game and maybe more. It's a play that many will forget, but might have changed the trajectory of the program.
Life's all about motivations, right? I'll take it!
And here is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. All our high-minded talk of stats and coaching scenarios takes a back seat to things that directly affect revenue. Ticket sales to the bowl game will matter a little (they will be pretty small) but season ticket sales for next year will matter a lot. A bowl win (Vegas has installed WVU as a 2 point favorite for what it's worth) could do quite a bit to fuel fan sentiment and boost ticket sales, but a(nother) bowl loss could drive morale down even further. This is the part where I point out that WVU is 1-7 in bowl games since 2000 that were not started by Pat White.
Also not to be forgotten is the buyout payment that would be owed to Holgorsen and his staff, somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million to the head coach and $3 million to his assistants. That number drops after next year (although I can't find to what) so it would seem to be another argument in favor of another year.
So there we are. The conversation is sure to last all offseason but this is where I stand. I think it only makes sense to give Holgorsen another year but with the shortest of leashes. Athletic Director Shane Lyons needs to have a list in his back pocket and if things look bad heading into November he needs to make calls and have a plan in place. Don't pull a half-assed LSU and make it up as you go along, have a plan and have a guy.
I still think Dana can work here and I still want him to. His reign has been characterized by some thrilling moments and we've gotten glimpses of what this program could be, but glimpses are no longer enough. It's time to deliver.
I hope he can.