Houston’s hiring of Dana Holgorsen flies in the face of the traditional progression of the coaching carousel. Sure, Group of Five schools have plucked their new head coaches from Power 5 staffs often over the years, but most have been coordinators or assistants being given a shot at their first head-coaching jobs, or recently fired Power 5 head coaches who seek another chance in the big chair instead of moving down the org chart and taking an assistant job at a bigger program.
And then there’s Holgorsen, who with his agreement to a five-year, $20 million deal, becomes the only person to move from a Power 5 head coaching job to a Group of Five head coaching job without being fired or otherwise forced out. What Holgorsen did probably isn’t the start of a trend, but it’s still meaningful evidence that even if the Group of Five doesn’t have universal respect among big-time college football, at least its best teams do, especially within the American Athletic Conference.
In his new conference, Holgorsen will be the fourth head coach with Power 5 head-coaching experience, joining Connecticut’s Randy Edsall (who was fired at Maryland in 2015), SMU’s Sonny Dykes (fired at Cal after the 2016 season) and South Florida’s Charlie Strong (fired at Texas in 2016). Only Strong, who is 17–8 in two seasons with the Bulls, has had any kind of success in his Group of Five tenure, and at Houston, Holgorsen will be expected to win just as much as if not even more than he did at West Virginia in order to get the Cougars back to the status they attained under Tom Herman as fringe College Football Playoff contenders. Major Applewhite was fired after just two seasons for going 15–10, an incredibly short leash for a first-time head coach following in Herman’s wake.
Holgorsen’s decision is proof that he believes those lofty goals are possible—and that he sees Houston as just as likely to make the playoff as West Virginia, which has been bowl eligible in seven of his eight seasons in Morgantown and this year was in contention for this year’s Big 12 title until Thanksgiving weekend. There’s a sense that the Mountaineers’ best chance to win the conference and reach the playoff just passed: quarterback Will Grier and several other central contributors are out of eligibility, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital left for the head coach job at Texas State, and West Virginia lost its bowl game to Syracuse. The season fell flat after an 8–1 start, and it may be a long time before the Mountaineers put together another team that can push full-strengthOklahoma for an entire game, as this year’s did in a late-November 59–56 loss in Morgantown.
Holgorsen is a Texas guy. He has spent 10 seasons of his career in the state running offenses at Texas Tech and Houston, and he knows the talent pool more than well enough to understand that Texas’s recruiting riches exist in stark contrast to those of West Virginia. Many parts of the move make sense, even if the headline was an eyebrow-raiser. It’s evidence that the imagined gulf between the Power 5 and the best of the Group of Five is a mirage, that there is more nuance to evaluating a coaching job than simply the school’s conference or its television deal.
For many Group of Five programs, especially top-tier ones, hiring a new coach comes down to a lose-lose decision: Get the hotshot young guy who might view your school as a stepping stone to a Power 5 job, or hire the coach with slightly less upside and higher chance of sticking around. Holgorsen breaks that mold. He’s a proven coach who hasn’t been chased out of anywhere yet sees Houston as a destination he’d be willing to stick with, even if he improves the Cougars to the point that other offers start rolling in. He’s a best-case scenario for a Group of Five hire, and scenarios like this won’t come around every year—or even every couple of years. But when they do, they might play a small role in the ongoing shift of the college football landscape.
To get true consideration for the playoff, a Group of Five team needs what Holgorsen and Houston think they can achieve: sustained success and the talent to knock off Power 5 challengers. An undefeated season out of nowhere won’t do it; neither will a second year running the table. Instead, it takes excellent recruiting, fortunate scheduling and a coach capable of holding the program to an unnaturally high standard. Houston already has the talent to contend for the AAC title every year, and it has proven itself willing to schedule the marquee games that catch the playoff committee’s eyes. Holgorsen might be the missing piece.