MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jake Spavital, then a graduate assistant, remembers watching Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy cede play-calling duties to a new offensive coordinator in 2010.
The cold-turkey phase wasn’t easy, especially for an ex-quarterback like Gundy who had been at the controls for nine seasons in Stillwater.
“I know Gundy still had that itch,” Spavital said. “But after that year, I think he realized it was the best thing.”
That year’s coordinator, of course, was Dana Holgorsen, who produced 11 wins, 520 yards per game, a Biletnikoff winner, two All-Americans and an All-Big 12 quarterback — parlaying them into his first head coaching job at West Virginia.
Six seasons and a 46-31 record later, Holgorsen is doing as Gundy did and turning over the play-calling to Spavital — partly out of self-preservation. Glimpsing at six years’ worth of media guide family photos convinced Holgorsen that running the program and detailing the offense had aged his appearance at a rate comparable to U.S. presidents.
“You want to live a long, happy, healthy life,” Holgorsen said. “I’m not nearly as grey as what Bush turned over the course of eight years, but I still have two more years to get there.
“You have to spend as much time recruiting as you possibly can. Fundraising is a big part of what we do, and then the game management aspect. … it’s hard to do.”
Still, becoming “more of a CEO-type guy” required finding a coordinator he trusted, a coach familiar with the system, someone with whom Holgorsen shared chemistry.
He sought out Spavital, who orchestrated the nation’s No. 4 passing attack at Cal in 2016 and became available when the school fired head coach Sonny Dykes for publicly courting too many jobs elsewhere.
“Dana said, ‘I’m thinking about making a change. I’d like you to come call it,’” Spavital said. “Now Dana’s a guy I’ve looked up to and a guy who taught me my offensive philosophy, so to come back and help him out was a no-brainer.
“But I had to make sure it was me calling the plays. Like, Dana, can I get this in writing?”
Holgorsen was serious enough about the offer he began texting Spavital’s wife Mehgan, a former Mountaineers gymnast from Belle, W.Va., who met Spavital during his stint as WVU quarterbacks coach in 2011-2012.
“He was texting her thinking we weren’t there together,” said Spavital, “but I’m sitting right there and she said, ‘Now Dana’s texting me too.’ You know how West Virginia people are — this is her home and what she knows. Getting to Mehgan was a smart move.”
The couple expects their first child in June, by which point Spavital hopes to hold a fuller grasp on the functionalities of the offense.
Spring drills begin Tuesday, the first of 15 practices culminating with the April 15 Gold/Blue game.
Seeking to better understand the capabilities of his personnel, Spavital sounds particularly enticed by tight end Trevon Wesco and fullback Eli Wellman — body-types he used at Texas A&M but lacked at Cal.
“What can they can do besides block? Can you be more multiple with sets?” Spavital said.
“At Cal I had 18 receivers and one fullback and I played that kid so much. We’d start the game in ’11’ personnel (one running back, one blocker, three receivers) because I believe you have to establish the run game. But after six or seven plays the kid needs a break so I had to sub in ’10’ personnel (four-receiver sets).”
Enthused about West Virginia’s run-game rejuvenation during recent seasons, Spavital anticipates using power-counter elements he learned under Gus Malzahn at Tulsa in 2008. (Coincidentally, when Holgorsen began texting the Spavitals in January, Malzahn also was reaching out about Auburn’s coordinator vacancy.)
Spavital claims to have “done a lot of growing up” since his first stint in Morgantown — the record-smashing campaigns behind Geno Smith that yielded a championship farewell to the Big East days and a rocky debut to the Big 12. In recent days Holgorsen and his coordinator have become walking partners around the law school that overlooks the stadium.
They’re a tandem again, and Spavital views himself as a stress reliever for the program’s CEO.
“I can control the practice schedule and I can deal with certain situations with kids and issues — off-the-field things that don’t need to get to the head coach. I can handle those as an offensive coordinator and let him handle the bigger problems,” he said.
“But I want Dana to be around the office and in the staff room and bring his insight, because he’s a great play-caller.”