It’s easy for us as fans, critics and armchair analysts of the college game to see things for face value. When presented with a raw product such as two teams squaring off on a Saturday, it’s easy to draw conclusions based on the scoreboard or the perceived effort of the team based on the level of their competition. It’s easy to critique Dana Holgorsen and his now trademarked gruff demeanor while he’s at the pulpit addressing the media. Far less often, however, are we given a glimpse inside the deeper inner-workings of a power five program and what the people within that program are doing at a very small scale to improve its present and future state.
This week, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples published a piece focused on the West Virginia Mountaineers and Dana Holgorsen’s commitment to grooming his players for life after Morgantown. I’ll be the first to admit that the Mountaineers are very likely not the only team in the country doing something similar for upperclassmen that have NFL potential and while what Holgorsen and Hammond, his associate athletic director, have designed in the way of a curriculum might not be cutting-edge, it does speak to - in a larger sense - the maturation of the Mountaineer football program.
First, you have to analyze the ‘why’ with regard to this curriculum being developed in the first place. Simply put, you don’t fly nine of your players down to Atlanta in front of former NFL brass unless you feel that you have the talent in the program to warrant burdening such an expense. To further simplify it- this team is talented.
We, all of us, know about Grier, Sills, Long, Jennings, Cajuste and Askew-Henry. We’ve seen the highlight tapes and have heard the rumblings and the outright, bullish declarations of the potential this team has entering 2018. But the ‘why’ isn’t fully explained by the amount of talent in the team room (nor is it ever).
By now, the complaints regarding Dana Holgorsen’s tenure are well documented. Unless you’re one of the disciplined few who’ve managed to avoid all forms of social media over the last seven years, you’ve likely seen that Dana has mismanaged the team, recruited poorly, can’t hold onto talent, is out of his depth, etc. At some level, one or all of these complaints have held merit, at one point or another, but as blanket statements they show a lack of understanding for the strides that this program has made since Bill Stewart handed the reins to Dana Holgorsen in 2011.
What we’re now seeing, as Staples’ SI piece does such a great job of illustrating, is that West Virginia has cultivated a very business-like approach with regard to how they operate internally, with specific regard to the way they develop and educate talent inside the Puskar Center.
Tailored suits, interactive face time with NFL GMs, wealth advisors teaching money and investment management 101: I can assure you that this type of proactive approach to educating and grooming players did not exist in West Virginia’s program ten years ago when the Mountaineers brought home a Sugar Bowl trophy.
More importantly, it seems as if Holgorsen has turned a corner regarding his approach to being successful as a program. Being “pissed off at mediocrity” is a pretty straight-forward sentiment, even by Holgorsen’s standard. When asked about how to avoid a higher number of noon kick offs, senior quarterback Will Grier offered a simple solution: win more games. If leadership does indeed trickle from the top down, it appears as if the runoff that Holgorsen is generating is a positive one.
Yes, there have been transfers this offseason: Lamonte McDougle, Adam Shuler and now Reggie Roberson just to name a few. Yes, questions still abound on the defensive side of the ball and how Tony Gibson will be able to replace the numerous holes left by both graduation and attrition is something we are all anxious to see a solution to. Lastly, every West Virginia fan who has been along for the ride the last seven years is chomping at the bit to see the Mountaineers not only seriously contend for a Big 12 title, but win one outright.
If what Andy Staples chronicled in his piece is to be believed, everyone inside the team room in Morgantown believes that West Virginia is on the precipice of something special. I hope that the business-like approach team leadership is taking not only sticks, but emanates throughout the program.
There’s no guarantee that any of this will generate success in the win column come September 1st in Charlotte. It’s also certainly not a guarantee that any of the nine players will hear their names called in the first round of next year’s draft. What I can say as a fan, a critic and everything else I previously mentioned at the beginning of this is that I try and look deeper than just 60 minutes of live football we see on Saturdays. There’s more going on beneath the surface in Morgantown than most of us realize. If Sports Illustrated is willing to spill ink on something like this during college football’s downtime, when it could be writing thought pieces on any other team from Alabama on down the line, trust me- there’s something to it.