|Dana Holgorsen and Geno Smith ended Year 1 together with a resounding Orange Bowl win. (Getty Images)|
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Two tables full of West Virginia coaches made the 100-yard walk across the street to the Varsity Club on a balmy April night to toast Joe DeForest. The occasion: the Mountaineers' new co-defensive coordinator had turned 47. At the head of the table, DeForest, only a few months removed from coming over from Oklahoma State, was busy trading barbs with Shannon Dawson, the team's offensive coordinator. Both assistants have small-college Louisiana and Texas roots, much like almost every other Mountaineers assistant in the place on this night. Even Dawson's parents, just in from Louisiana for the WVU spring game, heaved some zingers their son's way.
A few hours later, most of the tavern has cleared out. These tables, which had been covered with platters wilting under overstuffed meatball subs, are now littered with salt and pepper-shakers. The condiments have become de facto Xs and Os. The Mountaineers' other new co-defensive coordinator, Keith Patterson, another guy with small-school Texas roots before devising formidable defenses at Tulsa and Pitt, is "diagramming" his theories on ways to attack a spread offense to his boss Dana Holgorsen and Jake Spavital, the QBs coach.
Holgorsen seems more impressed than amused. Maybe Patterson doesn't have the magic bullet. Maybe he does. Holgorsen isn't conceding anything other than he's thrilled Patterson is on his side. Last year, Patterson's Pitt defense gave the Mountaineers fits, holding WVU to its lowest offensive output of the season. The grin on Holgorsen's face as he listens to his new assistant is because conversations like this can trigger the next wrinkle of the Mountaineer attack, the second-year head coach later explains. Better still, it's just this kind of back-and-forth itself that shows just how much further his program may go.
The 40-year-old head coach has reasons to beam. He is coming off a chaotic debut season at WVU where he led the Mountaineers to 10 wins, capped off by a BCS bowl victory. It was a season spurred by an eye-popping jump from No. 78 in scoring in 2010 to No. 13. Most of the key players from the 2011 squad return, including star QB Geno Smith, a Heisman contender. WVU also no longer has to worry about its conference home after bolting the beleaguered Big East for the suddenly robust Big 12. In addition, this offseason not only afforded a savvy Mountaineers offense more time to hone its timing with added reps in Holgorsen's system, but a chance to overhaul the defensive staff and pump up team chemistry.
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The staff shakeup was prompted when longtime West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and two other WVU defensive assistants, D-line coach Bill Kirelawich and cornerbacks coach David Lockwood, all holdovers from the Bill Stewart regime Holgorsen inherited, opted to rejoin Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. Holgorsen is quick to say those were three good coaches, but the arrival of DeForest, whom he worked with at Oklahoma State, along with Patterson and new defensive line coach Erik Slaughter, who coached with Dawson at Stephen F. Austin, seem to be ideal fits as the program moves into the Big 12. Others around the program are more blunt. They say the change is something that not only will help in recruiting but also boost morale and the energy around the facility, something that was sorely needed.
"I really never saw those guys besides Lock [Lockwood] outside of the office ever," said one of the WVU offensive assistants of the deflated vibe around the football facility last year. The staffer added that it was also vital that Holgorsen spruced up a complex that had gotten stale because the players "came into the building pissed off."
Staff chemistry, like team chemistry, can be a delicate thing. Young assistants can clash with older guys not open to new approaches. Vets can lose patience with upstarts. Egos get bruised. Players sense it. One former Florida State staffer pointed to bad staff chemistry as a major factor in the decline toward the end of Bobby Bowden's run in Tallahassee, where several older assistants got too set in their ways and didn't mesh well with others. Things may not have been that fragile last season in Morgantown, but after a tumultuous transition from Stewart to Holgorsen, it was an issue.
"You notice a huge difference [from Year 1 to Year 2 of the Holgorsen era]," Smith said. "The biggest change is that everyone's getting along with each other."
That means coaches with coaches, players with coaches, players with players.
"The coaches we had last year never said anything about it, but you can definitely see these guys are more on the same page," Smith said. "Me and Coach 'Defo' watched film together. We talk about what he sees and what I see. That's something I'd never done before but it helps. I know I can trust him and he knows he can trust me."
Earlier in his career at WVU, Smith says players might miss a workout or a class, but how it was handled varied. "Some guys would get away with it, and some wouldn't. Everyone knows what that would ultimately lead to: Guys felt like they were bigger than team. We kinda had a rift between the offense and defense, but as coach Holgorsen implemented his personality on the team, everyone's getting along better. We have good competition but we know we're all part of the same team."
The makeover inside the complex is even more noticeable. Coaches' offices are no longer split up with defensive assistants on one side of the building, offensive guys on the other. Holgorsen mixed them together. You also can't take two strides without seeing a big photo from the Mountaineers' Orange Bowl rout of Clemson. Each of the 40 framed photos scattered throughout the halls in between offices and meeting rooms is titled "70-33," the score of the game that has helped define the Holgorsen takeover. Those pictures went up, not so coincidentally, right before the Mountaineers hosted their first Junior Day.
"Those Orange Bowl pictures do two things," said Alex Hammond, WVU's director of football operations. "They highlight to our current players what we did on a BCS level and it's doing wonders for us in recruiting."
The university even put up billboards on the interstates that show a big "7" next to a big orange with the words "It's not just our speed limit," beside a smaller WVU logo and a digital scoreboard cutout of 70-33.
Something as subtle as updating the photos on the walls can make a big difference, says Spavital.
"We have all these pictures of Pat White and Steve Slaton, which are good but you'd see pictures from the 2008 Fiesta Bowl everywhere. It was a good thing, but you can't live in the past forever. Dana's put the emphasis on these kids now. You'll see it go from [Seattle Seahawks first-round pick] Bruce Irvin to [senior defensive lineman] Will Clarke. He's trying to get the team to come around the office more. He's putting in more Xboxes. He doesn't want them to dread coming over here."
The team has noticed the more player-friendly setup.
"Me, [WVU receivers] Tavon [Austin] and Steadman [Bailey] talk about that all the time," Smith said. "Now, we can come in and be ourselves and not worry about being chewed out. Coach Holgorsen has made it very clear that everyone's gotta be accountable, but he's also a laid-back guy. He just wants the work to be done. It's a domino effect. It starts with positive reinforcement."
• • •
Steve Dunlap sits inside his office studying film from the Orange Bowl of his kick-coverage team bottling up Clemson All-American Sammy Watkins. Dunlap has spent 23 seasons coaching at WVU. In the early '70s, he was a star linebacker for the Mountaineers, playing for Bowden. Dunlap, who also coaches safeties, still holds the school record for most tackles in a season (190) and in a single game (28). He's also the only remaining holdover from the Stewart regime.
Dunlap has seen plenty of coaching moves and staff shakeups in 32 seasons of coaching. "That's the landscape of college football," he said when asked about seeing the other long-time WVU assistants move on. "Those are my friends and they're gone. I'm gonna miss 'em."
Part of the adjustment includes shifting from Casteel's 3-3-5 "stack" defense to a 3-4 scheme. Holgorsen loves the flexibility his defense has to disguise things and create confusion. Dunlap likes it too: "This is exactly what we did when I was the DC," Dunlap said.
Dunlap describes Holgorsen as "a good guy to work for." The long-time assistant has worked for his share of micromanagers. "He's not like that at all."
Dunlap can tell you how much the program and the town have changed over the past four decades, and go into detail about where things used to be around campus. The pictures on the walls inside the football complex may have been a few years old, but the furniture and technology looked circa mid-'80s or older. Spavital's "office" last year was a cubicle that had one of those 200-pound tube TVs, propped up on an old filing cabinet. Now every office is equipped with big HD screens hooked up to HD computers.
"He fixed what's most important to us," Spavital said. "That's watching tape."
Said Dunlap, "That's nice for special teams. Now you can see guys' numbers."
• • •
For most of the past decade, the Mountaineers were the closest thing the Big East had to a powerhouse. In 2005 and 2007, under Rodriguez, they finished No. 6 in the nation, but now the program is stepping up in class. The Big 12 isn't only better at the top, but it's also much deeper. The transition to the big time of the Big 12, though, appears to coincide with the rise of this program. Expectations, both inside the building and also around the state, after the devastation of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, are soaring.
The head-turning 70-33 score in a BCS bowl is definitely something to be proud of, said senior Will Clarke.
"It's something that we're looking to build off of because we see what we're capable of but we don't want that to be the high point for us."
Just a few days ago was the first time Smith says he got a chance to watch the telecast of the Orange Bowl. He couldn't help but think, "Man, we really scored 70 points in a game where people counted us out and said we were the one team that didn't belong in the BCS."
"But this is not the end. We're going to continue striving. It's my duty as a leader to keep up us striving to take that next step."
And that next step is?
"The national championship, man. We have seven weeks left to get ready for camp, and we're going to fight our butts off to go undefeated and be in a position to play in that game."