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There and Back Again: A Holgo's Tale

Dana Holgorsen's legacy at West Virginia is strange, complicated, and may not really be answered for a while.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia is now at the beginning of its first true, honest to god coaching search since Don Nehlen retired after defeating a young Eli Manning and Ole Miss in the 2000 Music City Bowl. Strange to actually say that, but it’s true. Bill Stewart was promoted in a haze of glory in a strange prequel to The Hangover trilogy and the hire of Dana Holgorsen as the infamous offensive coordinator/head coach-in-waiting was an equally unilateral move by Oliver Luck to provide a spark of energy to a program that was winning, just not quite enough to win the country’s weakest power conference.

And, while it seems like a lifetime ago (and, in coaching terms, really is), Dana Holgorsen did energize the fanbase. As a student during the three year Bill Stewart era, and a Senior when Holgorsen took over there was, to quote Jon Rothstein, palpable buzz on campus. Bill Stewart’s three year tenure came with a lofty winning percentage but a stale, boring brand of football and a complete lack of wins where it counted. West Virginia came in to each season with a clear talent advantage in the Big East and left with no hardware. To quote Kanye West in West Virginia’s first pregame intro video of the Holgorsen era “the socket was out the plug, now it’s time to bring the power back.”

The power did come back, and it came back quickly. West Virginia had growing pains as Geno Smith and company adjusted to Holgorsen’s style of play, but won the games they needed to and won the Big East. What happened next was history, and the final act of Clemsoning before they became an unstoppable machine of war.

The move to the Big 12 in his second season will be what defines his legacy and while the bookends of 2012 and 2018—mirror images of promise, excitement, and collapse—are the easy targets to go in on and definitely prevent his eight years in Morgantown from receiving any sort of “A” grade, I want to focus on the middle years and Holgorsen’s accomplishments beyond the wins and losses and how his tenure has set up the next man up to potentially complete the puzzle and shed the stigma of “winningest program to never win a national championship.”

Dana had a complicated relationship with West Virginia fans and to me, it began with a crucial misunderstanding of how ill-prepared West Virginia was as a team and an athletic department to compete at league average in the Big 12 from the jump. The Mountaineers entered a whole new type of league completely bereft of depth from a pattern of recruiting mismanagement that became systemic. Initial requirements of JUCO and desperation transfers led to a horrid 2013 season that ended up being Holgorsen’s only missed bowl while at West Virginia and when you really sit down and look at West Virginia’s depth issues, that fact in and of itself may be a minor miracle.

Holgorsen’s tenure saw an uptick of quality and quantity recruiting and the huge leap in West Virginia players in the National Football League that comes with it. The Mountaineers may have two players taken in the first round of the 2019 draft. Yes, wins did not come at the clip that anyone involved wanted and the program’s first Big 12 championship (and win over Oklahoma as a conference-mate) have evaded West Virginia and that will be the main legacy of Holgorsen’s era and what will be talked about ad nauseam. However, a program that can compete consistently at or above league average in a league with blue blood powerhouses like Oklahoma and Texas has emerged from the ashes of a team that could not complete recruiting classes or win a moribund Big East conference, and that is the gift that Dana Holgorsen leaves behind to his successor in Morgantown.

The rocky relationship between Dana and Shane Lyons always seemed to cast a shadow over the workings of the football program as a whole, and now Lyons gets the chance to forge the partnership that Holgorsen once enjoyed with Oliver Luck. The ball now lies in his court to find the coach that can finish the job that Holgorsen could not complete.

And, again, we wait.