Four hours after crash-landing into a lake while skydiving with a U.S. Army parachute team last June, Dana Holgorsen stood in front of his West Virginia players for the first time as head coach. The theme of Holgorsen's first team meeting: trust. He had quite the fresh anecdote to help drive home the point.
"You don't know too many coaches who will skydive," said star defensive end Bruce Irvin. "When you see your head coach doing stuff like that, it makes you feel comfortable you can be yourself around him."
Irvin and his fellow Mountaineer defenders have spent the past two weeks of preseason practice getting to know their new head coach, who was promoted unexpectedly early from offensive coordinator following a chaotic summer soap opera involving since-ousted head coach Bill Stewart. Soon the rest of the country will get better acquainted with the straight-shooting, Red Bull-swigging offensive guru. Holgorsen's Cowboy offense averaged 44 points and 520 yards per game in 2010; the Mountaineers reached 40 points twice in Stewart's three seasons.
These days, Holgorsen is letting his offensive assistants run the meetings so he can figure out this whole head-coaching thing.
"The biggest thing is to get to know the other 50 percent of the team," said the Mount Pleasant, Iowa, native. "I'm still signaling the plays in, but I've hired some good guys that can meet with [the offense] so I have some free time to bulls--- with some of the [defensive] guys and get to know them. My job is to mesh the team."
Holgorsen, 40, came to Morgantown last winter as part of AD Oliver Luck's unusual -- and ultimately disastrous -- head-coach-in-waiting plan. Holgorsen was supposed to focus on the offense in 2011 before ascending to the top post in 2012. Shockingly, Stewart failed to welcome his replacement with open arms, and tension mounted on a staff comprised of Stewart and Holgorsen hires. Following a late-night May 18 incident in which security escorted Holgorsen out of a West Virginia casino for "inappropriate behavior," the state's gossip mill churned with rumors of other alcohol-related incidents. Shortly after that, a former Pittsburgh newspaper reporter announced Stewart had asked him to "dig up dirt" on Holgorsen the previous December.
By mid-June, West Virginia had paid Stewart -- who went 28-12 in three-plus seasons but failed to engender fan confidence -- a $1.65 million resignation settlement, and the Holgorsen era had abruptly begun. Some have said Luck is taking a huge risk on a reputed partyer who's far from CEO-smooth. Holgorsen's mentor Mike Leach, the ultimate unconventional coach, offers a different description of his former Iowa Wesleyan receiver and Texas Tech assistant coach.
"He's a fascinating guy," said Leach. "At times he can be a little guarded, so it will take a little time to reveal, but he has all of those personality traits that you see in Iowa: down to earth, salt-of-the-earth people. He's straightforward to the point where sometimes you say, 'Is it for real? Is it really that simple?' Yeah it is. He's just driven by football."
Holgorsen, who apologized for the casino incident, isn't hiding behind a veil. "I'm not trying to be anyone I'm not," he said. He is trying to develop his own head-coaching persona, based on a whole lot of observations made while working under his past three bosses. The goal: implement his offensive vision without micromanaging.
"Working with Leach for eight years, seeing him being an offensive guy to going to Houston [in 2008-09] and working with Kevin Sumlin, who I view as outstanding as far as a CEO and balancing time, I learned a lot from him," Holgorsen said. "Then going and working for [Mike] Gundy -- he had a nose in that playbook for quite a while, as Leach did, but it wasn't working, so he saw what Sumlin was doing and he hired me.
"I'm trying to take the good things and the bad things from everybody. I'm involved in the offense but I don't want it to consume me. You've got to trust the guys you hired."
Holgorsen knows it also helps to have offensive talent. Last year in Stillwater Holgorsen was blessed with a strong-armed, older quarterback (Brandon Weeden), a future Biletnikoff winner (Justin Blackmon) and a top 10 rusher (Kendall Hunter). Of the three, however, only Hunter had played a significant role before Holgorsen arrived.
At West Virginia, Holgorsen is working with junior quarterback Geno Smith, who threw for 24 touchdowns and just seven interceptions last season. If all goes to plan, Smith will likely see a significant increase from last year's 2,763 passing yards.
"He's a little better than I thought he was coming in, and what I thought was just what I saw in the bowl game watching on television in my hotel room in San Antonio," said Holgorsen, who was preparing Oklahoma State for the Alamo Bowl while his future team was losing to N.C. State in the Champs Sports Bowl. "I just need to get him to calm down and not try to do too much. He needs to chill out and relax a little."
Holgorsen is bullish on the players around Smith, too.
"[Junior receiver] Tavon Austin is as fast a guy as I've been around," Holgorsen said. "[Sophomore] Steadman Bailey is as smooth a receiver as I've been around. They're going to be guys that emerge around the country."
Defensively, Holgorsen knows he has an elite pass rusher in Irvin, who had 14 sacks last season playing primarily on passing downs. For the most part, however, he's putting his trust in defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, a member of Rich Rodriguez's original staff in 2001 whose unit ranked third nationally last season.
Ultimately, the Mountaineers' success in 2011 will hinge as much on what happens inside meeting rooms and the locker room as what happens on the field.
"More than the offense or the defense, [staff cohesion] may be the most important issue for that team this year because they've already had a certain degree of turmoil with the departure of Coach Stewart," said Leach. "There's going to be some murmuring. It's important the coaching staff stay united."
As for the players, Holgorsen said they've been "resilient" during the unusual coaching change and notes that every player is still working with his same position coach. But the defense has been seeing a new face during practice.
"A lot of times, I will step away [from the offense] and I will step into the defensive huddle," Holgorsen told reporters last week. "Is it different? Yes, it is. Before, I never used to care about them whatsoever. I use to do everything I could to beat them, but now, it is a little different."
It's a lot different, not only for Holgorsen and the Mountaineers, but also for a football-crazy state that, after a tumultuous four years with native sons Rodriguez and Stewart, is ready to embrace this exciting if unusual outsider. Holgorsen plans to give them a high-powered offense. As for the skydiving ...
"That's just my personality," said Holgorsen, who cut short a fishing trip when the parachutists came calling. "If something's available, I'm going to do it. But the crash landing obviously wasn't premeditated."
Neither was his June promotion. But it happened. Holgorsen trusted the parachute. West Virginia will have to trust that he's ready for the job.