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Shane Lyons Passed His First Major Test As West Virginia Athletic Director

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Though he’s been on the job for four years, Lyons had yet to make a big-time hire until signing a new head football coach.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Shane Lyons should be applauded for managing the WVU football coaching transition logically, swiftly and to the financial benefit of the University. It was his first major challenge since coming on as the WVU AD in 2015 and he exhibited great leadership through it all.

The eight days that have passed since West Virginia football lost to old rival Syracuse, 34-18, in the Camping World Bowl have been tumultuous at best for the program and the WVU athletic department as a whole. But Lyons stuck to his guns when negotiating with a current head coach and was thorough and efficient hiring the replacement.

Negotiating With Dana

Almost immediately after the loss, rumors circulated that head coach Dana Holgorsen had no intentions to return to Morgantown for 2019. Holgorsen wanted a contract extension from WVU after this season, one to carry him through another recruiting cycle and give him more guaranteed money. WVU athletic director Shane Lyons appropriately judged that Holgorsen had not earned that kind of deal. The two were at an impasse and Holgorsen ended up leaving WVU to be the head coach at Houston for more money and the job security he wanted.

Lyons handled the contract negotiations quite well, in my opinion. It came leaked in early November WVU and Holgorsen were in talks to extend his contract expiring in 2021. Holgorsen earned his extension in 2016 after a 10-win season. In the two seasons following that extension, Holgorsen only amassed a 15-11 record, a showing that many WVU fans felt was an underachievement.

Though Holgorsen was making bowl games and putting players in the NFL, but it just felt that his teams did not meet expectations. Perhaps the biggest shortcoming was finishing fourth in the Big 12 with an 8-3 record in 2018, fumbling its shot to play for a Big 12 championship. Because of these shortcomings, Lyons had no reason to give Holgorsen the guaranteed money he wanted.

“A proven record of competitive success, a passion for the student-athlete, emphasis on academics and a strong work ethic are among the qualities that I will be looking for in our next head coach.” — Shane Lyons, WVU Athletic Director

The Hiring Process

Once reports surfaced that Holgorsen was leaving for the Houston job, reports surfaced that Lyons was making calls to find the replacement. Sure, The Smoking Musket liked it because he seemed to target coaches we liked (Brown and Luke Fickell from Cincy), but it proved that he had a set of requirements for his next coach before starting the search. Just three days since Holgorsen’s departure was publicly announced, WVU hired a new head football coach.

That quick process was necessary, given the lateness of the vacancy, but it still displayed Lyons’ steadfast management. There are some positions you can leave vacant for a while (a volleyball or wrestling coach, maybe), but there are two positions that an AD must get right: football and men’s basketball. Lyons proved he was capable of making the big-time hires.

This was the first big head coach Lyons was to hire, and we just saw his process play out beautifully. He knew the kind of head football coach he wanted and he went out and got him.

“A proven record of competitive success, a passion for the student-athlete, emphasis on academics and a strong work ethic are among the qualities that I will be looking for in our next head coach,” said Lyons in his statement after Holgorsen departed. Neal Brown seems to check off each of those boxes, as did the other two candidates Lyons interviewed.

The hiring process itself, though quick, was anything but rushed. Lyons targets candidates and interviewed them accordingly. Reports stated Brown was interviewed at least twice, and Fickell and current WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson were also interviewed. This points to an efficient filtering process and, as stated above, clear desired characteristics and qualifications for a new head coach.

Obviously, Brown was a name on just about every program’s list, but even with several Power 5 vacancies this offseason, no one was able to land him. Brown not only brings Big 12 experience to Morgantown but the quality I believe Shane Lyons valued above others was proof he could win as a head coach. Much of the frustration with Holgorsen for WVU fans circled around the “breaking in” process we endured during his first four seasons with the program. Lyons was not willing to wait on an up-and-coming coordinator to learn on the job, he wanted a man who was ready on day one, which I believe he found in Brown.

More importantly, Lyons paid the financial game well in favor of the University. From a salary standpoint, Holgorsen was set to make $4 million by 2021, and if reports were true, WVU would have continued to increase Holgorsen’s pay at the same rate he was on now, presumably for another four or five years, which could have pushed his salary to nearly $4.5 million at the end. Brown was hired for six years and $19.05 million— a longer contract than Holgorsen would have received, but Brown’s annual salary averages just under $3.2 million, significantly less.

Not only the salary, Lyons netted $700,000 in the buyouts. Houston will pay WVU $1 million to hire Dana while WVU will only pay Troy $300,000 (which, by the way, if you look at Brown’s contract at Troy, it was laughably low). This can be used for a number of things, including assistant coaches’ salaries, facility upgrades or more.

Now, what could have been very interesting—and I’d totally be here for it—is that Brown’s buyout could have been decreased by an agreement for the two schools to meet on the field for a home-and-home. Lyons declined this option even though a WVU at Troy game would have been lit.

Cleary, we won’t know if hiring Brown will make WVU’s football program more successful, but WVU fans should thank Lyons for turning what could have been an embarrassment into a win. Holgorsen leaving for a “smaller” program may leave the program with egg on its face, but making a home-run hire like Brown makes Lyons look like a smart, rational manager and a leader with a clear vision.

Ultimately, it looks like WVU came out on top of this ordeal. A coach who seemingly wasn’t truly content in his current position left, an experienced, proven head coach takes over—to hopefully take a relatively strong program to the next level—and the University is better off financially. This is all because Lyons stayed true to his vision and values.