MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When Oliver Luck treks across campus to visit coach Dana Holgorsen and his staff at the West Virginia football complex, the athletic director can sense the difference.
"The last couple of months, there has just been a really nice attitude," Luck said. "Kids are smiling. I know from going through spring ball many times that you're not always smiling. ... There seems to be a real positive vibe. Part of that is the new challenge of the Big 12. Part of that is Dana being in control."
Between spring practice 2011 and spring practice 2012, West Virginia went through enough drama to fill up the CW's Monday night lineup for a year. Holgorsen was escorted out of a casino in late May, and that prompted false reports of similar events. In June, head coach Bill Stewart was accused of having a hand in the false reports and of trying to dig up dirt that would get Holgorsen fired. West Virginia fired Stewart and made Holgorsen the head coach. In September, Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced plans to leave the Big East for the ACC. That left West Virginia scrambling to find a new conference home. In October, the Mountaineers thought they had an offer from the Big 12, but that was withdrawn after political pressure forced the conference to reconsider Louisville. After a brief skirmish, the Big 12 picked West Virginia -- but there was a catch. The conference needed West Virginia to come right away. So West Virginia sued the Big East. In turn, the Big East sued West Virginia. The parties settled their lawsuits in February, and West Virginia was free to leave.
That positive vibe Luck feels is an absolute lack -- for once -- of drama. It seems all accounts are settled.
Holgorsen couldn't be happier. After defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel left to get the band back together with former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Holgorsen got to hand-pick his defensive staff -- something most coaches do when they get hired. As co-coordinators, he hired Joe DeForest from Oklahoma State and Keith Patterson from Pittsburgh. Offensively, Holgorsen returns nine starters from the team that hung 70 on Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Luck also couldn't be happier. He has taken West Virginia out of a conference in peril and put it in a conference whose wealthiest members (Texas and Oklahoma) guarantee financial security. The biggest misstep of his young tenure, the awkward coach-in-waiting arrangement, is only a memory after Holgorsen led the Mountaineers to a league title in their final season in the Big East. If anything, the result only reinforced the fact that Luck was correct in aggressively pursing Holgorsen in the first place.
West Virginia feels on the verge of something big, and that has everything to do with the guy sitting in the head coach's office and the guy sitting in the AD's office. Whereas in previous regimes it didn't seem West Virginia's coaches and administrators were on the same page -- heck, sometimes it didn't seem as if they were reading the same book -- Holgorsen and Luck seem to complement one another perfectly.
Holgorsen has only two concerns: meeting and practicing. Everything else, he said, he leaves to Luck. "He understands football," Holgorsen said of the West Virginia quarterback-turned-executive. "He understands what you need to be successful. There is a lot of stuff I don't have to worry about because he's already taken care of it. He lets me do my job. ... Oliver worries about stadium upgrades, suites, club levels, parking, seating. I don't even get in the middle of it."
Luck said Holgorsen sells himself a bit short. As Luck works on the logistics of the move to the Big 12, Holgorsen -- who worked at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State -- has offered plenty of practical advice. "Dana is so familiar with it," Luck said. "He tells me, 'When you go to Ames, this is the only hotel you can stay in. When you go to Stillwater, you do this.'"
Holgorsen isn't the only member of the staff who knows the Big 12 well. Defensive co-coordinator DeForest had been at Oklahoma State since Les Miles took over the program in 2001, so he knows the offenses in the league as well as anyone. (Also, the coordinator experience should allow DeForest, a respected assistant and excellent recruiter, to eventually move along to a head-coaching job.) DeForest also brought along graduate assistant Andrew McGee, a former Cowboy who also knows Big 12 offenses.
Patterson, the other co-coordinator, had another key piece of experience. While working at Tulsa for Todd Graham, Patterson convinced Graham to switch from a 3-3-5 to a 3-4 and spent an offseason teaching Tulsa players the new defense. Guess what West Virginia is doing this offseason? Teaching players accustomed to running Casteel's 3-3-5 to run a 3-4. "I got scrutinized for the amount of time it took to get [the staff] together," Holgorsen said. "But to me, it makes a lot of sense to take your time and do it right."
During spring practice, Patterson and DeForest frustrated Holgorsen on plenty of occasions. That, Holgorsen said, is a good thing. The Mike Leach disciple pointed out that because of Leach's influence -- not to mention the fruits of his coaching tree -- half the programs in the Big 12 run offenses that embrace many of the same Air Raid principles handed down from Hal Mumme to Leach to Holgorsen and company. As offensive coordinator in 2010, Holgorsen helped design Oklahoma State's offense. Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel played for Leach when Leach led the Sooners' offense in 1999. Baylor coach Art Briles worked for Leach at Texas Tech from 2000-03. Meanwhile, Texas Tech and Iowa State also run spread offenses that use many of the same principles. So if Patterson and DeForest can concoct a defense that can slow West Virginia's offense, then they stand a good chance of slowing the offenses they'll see in the Big 12.
Besides, West Virginia's offense might be one of the most prolific in the league. Senior quarterback Geno Smith threw for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first year in Holgorsen's offense. Smith is more comfortable with the offense this season, and he returns his top three targets (Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney) from 2011. If backs Shawne Alston and Dustin Garrison can stay healthy this fall, West Virginia should force defenses to respect the run almost as well as Holgorsen's Oklahoma State offense did with Kendall Hunter in 2010.
"They can run, they play an exciting brand of offense because of their speed, and they've always been very physical because they're tough on defense," Texas coach Mack Brown said on the Big 12 teleconference in late April. "They get a lot of those kids from Pittsburgh, West Virginia and down into the North Carolina area and they've really done a great job recruiting in Florida. Just watching them the past few years in the BCS, I think they come in as a team to be reckoned with immediately."
For the next month, West Virginia coaches will hit the road to find more players. They'll need them. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas will offer a far stiffer challenge than Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida. The Mountaineers will continue to hit Florida, the state that produced 18 of West Virginia's scholarship players. (This includes Smith, Bailey and McCartney, who all played at Miramar High near Miami.) Coaches also will invade Texas, where the Big 12 affiliation should carry more weight. Last year, West Virginia plucked leading rusher Garrison, an undersized back, from Pearland, where he led Pearland High to a Class 5A state title as a senior. This year, Holgorsen has high hopes for undersized receiver Jordan Thompson, who caught 65 passes for more than 1,100 yards as a senior at Class 5A powerhouse Katy High.
Holgorsen knows he won't beat Texas for players in the Lone Star State, but he also knows he can work the system in place to find good players who fall through the cracks. Why was Garrison available to the Mountaineers? His size is the obvious knock. But he also was under-recruited because he blew up as a senior, and the Texas schools have so perverted the recruiting calendar that most of them have full classes before players even start their senior seasons.
Holgorsen knows to use this to his advantage because he recruited Texas for years. So did most of the members of his staff. And "his" might be the key word as West Virginia enters a new, more rugged landscape. This is Holgorsen's staff. This is Holgorsen's program. The drama is over. Now, it's time to focus on football.
"It's really good right now," Holgorsen said. "I've been on a lot of good ones. This is really good."