MORGANTOWN — Dana Holgorsen has already won a conference title and a BCS bowl and been ranked as high as No. 5 in the national polls in two seasons as West Virginia University’s football coach.
WVU had two receivers and a quarterback drafted in the first three rounds in April, largely because of what they did after Holgorsen landed on campus in December 2010 and took Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Geno Smith under his wing.
Yet there’s no use fighting this feeling on the cusp of the 2013 season: It’s a lot like a fresh start for the third-year coach.
Holgorsen is not making a hasty transition from offensive coordinator to head coach with a staff of defensive coaches he was made to keep. He’s not acquiescing to the Big 12 with a roster of players entirely unaware of what they’re about to encounter beyond the insight Holgorsen gained from nine years spent in the league.
The staff is now composed entirely of his hires, and some of them are coaches he’s needed to hire or reassign after misfiring on a prior decision. The past two recruiting classes have been full ones and the roster has been built to where it’s just below the scholarship limit, somewhere the Mountaineers haven’t been for far too long.
“It’s much more settled, much more my program than it ever has been,” Holgorsen said last week. “I don’t know how to say this without sounding, not arrogant, but optimistic. I don’t want to sound optimistic. I want to sound like the world is coming to an end, the sky is falling, the walls are crashing in on top of us, whatever.
“I want everyone to think that, know what I mean? I want everyone to think we’re lousy.”
He wants that to be the perception - or, more accurately, to continue to be the perception - because it is not the reality. Had it been? Was he not looking over his shoulder to monitor half a coaching staff he didn’t hire and agreed to keep for a season? Wasn’t he sidestepping the issues that come from rolling into a new conference with all the momentum and swagger that a program could want and that an opponent could despise?
And isn’t that all gone?
“The truth of the matter is I feel pretty good about where we are right now,” he said. “I’m looking forward to coaching this team more than I have the previous two teams.”
Consider that, for just a moment. The 2011 season was his first as a head coach. It started with the most talented team in the Big East and ended with a 10-touchdown performance in the laughable Orange Bowl. The 2012 season started with seemingly sane conversations about Heisman Trophy contenders, Big 12 title legitimacy and national title possibilities.
The 2013 season is like neither of those.
But, it’s the best fit yet.
“It seems like we’ve got a lot more bodies, a lot more seasoned bodies, a lot more potential,” Holgorsen said. “We’re at 82, 83 (scholarship players out of a maximum of 85). The first year, we were under 70. Last year, we were around 76, 77. Numbers-wise, we’re getting a lot closer to where we want to be. Staff-wise, scheme-wise, I really like where we’re at and now we’re ready to start coaching them. We’ll know a lot more here in the next three weeks.”
Holgorsen can’t fly over the staff and scheme makeover quite so quickly because a lot has changed there. Out of nine assistants, only defensive line coach Erik Slaughter is doing exactly what he did last season. Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson is the only one who was on Holgorsen’s original staff, and Dawson moved from coaching receivers the past two years to coaching quarterbacks this season.
Everyone else is either new to the staff - receivers coach Lonnie Galloway, running backs coach JaJuan Seider, offensive line coach Ron Crook, cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell and safeties coach Tony Gibson - or has new assignments like Dawson, linebackers coach and new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson and special teams coordinator and former defensive coordinator Joe DeForest.
Some of the turnover Holgorsen could not help. He lost three holdover defensive assistants to Arizona after the 2011 season. Offensive assistants were hired away by Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas A&M after the 2012 season. Holgorsen admits other things could have gone better. After last season’s 7-6 performance, he reassigned DeForest and moved him away from the safeties and he fired cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts.
“It happens and it’s not the last time I’m going to make mistakes,” Holgorsen said. “You make mistakes, identify the mistakes and try to rectify them. That’s just part of the profession.
“Assistants are becoming much more sought after and they’re becoming much more higher-paid, so guys are jumping at opportunities. We had success here, so three of my guys had opportunities to better themselves with pay, a title, whatever it was. You’ve got to be on top if it and expect it to happen. You have to have a plan to be able to proceed once it does happen because the same stuff is probably going to happen next offseason.
“I’m not going to incriminate myself for making mistakes as a new head coach. I’m not going to incriminate myself on that. Everyone makes mistakes and then you try to rectify them. I think we’ve gone a fantastic job getting guys in here and getting a staff in place. I’m pretty fired up about it.”
The surroundings, whether coaches, players or facility features, matter most to Holgorsen. The weight room he once believed was “the worst weight room in all of college football” has been redesigned and replenished with new equipment.
He’s reconfigured meeting space for his coaches and built a new room for full staff meetings. Holgorsen has a plan, to say nothing of roughly half the money raised, for a new theater-style team meeting room that would be built where a parking lot rests today outside of the Puskar Center. He then hopes to renovate the rooms where assistant coaches meet with their respective players.
Beyond that, Holgorsen thinks about the unthinkable, about the item he has neither a plan nor a timetable for. He wants a practice facility so his team doesn’t have to prepare for games in the same place it plays games.
“We can only practice on our outdoor grass field about two weeks out of the whole year and then the grass is torn up and we can’t use it anymore,” he said. “We can’t hold live scrimmages in the indoor building. Live practice, you kind of can. It’s just very dysfunctional. The stadium should be a sanctuary. You should practice in that thing about 15 times a year. Right now, there are less than 15 practices a year that don’t take place in there.
“You pick your battles. I’m happy with our progress. Really happy. I’m happy with the weight room, the meeting rooms, the offices, everything like that. It’s functional from a coaching standpoint. The weight room, the locker room, the players’ lounge, that’s all good stuff. The academic center is great. The cafeteria is great. There’s a lot of good stuff here. Don’t take it out of context.”