MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Oliver Luck spent time on the set of WOWK-TV’s “Decision Makers” this week, an aptly titled news program considering the West Virginia athletics director could soon face a difficult decision regarding his football coach.
The Mountaineers, reeling from a 4-8 season that marked their first losing record since 2001, are entering Year 4 under Dana Holgorsen. He joins Charlie Weis as the only two Big 12 head coaches facing a hot-seat situation, and local opinions vary on just how hot Holgorsen’s seat is.
It seems a tad less dicey based on Luck’s most recent comments in this clip from Sunday:
“I think we’re going to be a better football team. I hope that’s reflected in our record, but given the strength of our schedule this year, it very well may not be.”
His tone seems pretty clear: With Alabama, Maryland and the nine-game Big 12 schedule on deck, a 4-8 repeat could be construed as progress. (Heck, by these relaxed standards, a .500 season might be cause to name the new team room Holgorsen Place.)
You’ve got to give Luck this much: He certainly isn’t over-promising. Instead, he’s establishing an early narrative designed to reset expectations for 2014. Why paint himself into a corner by establishing benchmarks when he can leave himself wiggle room to justify retaining Holgorsen?
Fact is, it would cause Luck severe gastritis to go coach-hunting next season—would be particularly ignominious given the muddled and clumsy manner in which Luck handed over the reins from Bill Stewart to Holgorsen. Create disharmony to bring in a winner, and the fans will champion the forward-thinking logic. Make a mess to bring in a coach you fire after four seasons, and Luck will be reminded how the situation was cursed from the get-go.
Firing Holgorsen also would be expensive—almost prohibitively so. He will be owed $8.6 million after next season for a contract that extends through 2017. While Texas and Oklahoma can shrug off that kind of payout, most Big 12 schools would feel the pinch. (Recall that West Virginia athletics netted $4.2 million last year, a figure that would have been in the red if not for a $4.4 million subsidy from the university.)
It’s hard not to agree with Luck’s primary point—a four-win team this fall could be markedly better than the four-win version of 2013. Thing is, the 2013 version was absolutely rancid by some metrics. At 2-7, West Virginia produced its second-worst conference record ever on the FBS level. It lost by 37 points to a Maryland team that closed the season precisely one spot higher in the Sagarin ratings at No. 73. It lost at home to No. 72 Iowa State. It lost by double-digits at No. 119 Kansas.
Yes, there was a magical September ambush of Oklahoma State and the overtime gut-punch against Texas. Few fans, however, will cherish beating a four-win TCU team, and fewer still will tell their grandchildren about victories over William & Mary and Georgia State.
Yes, the injuries escalated as WVU limped through the season’s second half, but until the NCAA outlaws tackling, that will be an annual peril.
“Clearly last year was a disappointing season for me, for the coaches, for the student-athletes, for our fan base,” Luck said this weekend. “But I do think this team has made some significant improvements over last year.”
And if we are to oblige Luck’s preseason warning, improvement needn’t necessarily manifest itself in a bowl bid.