Wickline jumps in at WVU after Texas reminder that ‘nobody ever said it would be fair’

New offensive coordinator Joe Wickline says the details of his role on West Virginia’s staff “will work itself out.”

 

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Joe Wickline pulls off the road to return a phone call. He can spare only a few minutes because he’s canvassing high schools and junior colleges, giving recruits his new West Virginia pitch during the crucial runup to signing day.

This is Dana Holgorsen’s former colleague and new offensive coordinator, helping shore up a 2016 class largely assembled before he came on the job Jan. 13. Still, there’s room for up to six more recruits and even long-time commitments require face time and reassurance. Wickline thrives on the salesman aspect of college coaching, prides himself on hustling to cover his territory.

The hustle showed at Middle Tennessee State, where Wickline developed a productive offensive line under head coach Andy McCollum and led the program to a Sun Belt title in its third year of FBS transition.

“He’d call up and say ‘Andy, how many schools you hit today recruiting?’ And I’d tell him, probably 12. Then he’d come right back with, ‘Well, I’ve been to 13!’ Son of a gun always said he’d been to one more than you had.”

McCollum, now the linebackers coach at Georgia Tech, caught wind of Wickline’s new job and said West Virginia “hired one of the best assistant coaches in the country.”

“He’s an old-school guy and he gets after it. Dang good football coach. He’s very tough, but the kids, they love him. As a head coach, that was one room you didn’t have to worry about being ready to play.”

McCollum emphasized more than once: “West Virginia just hit gold on that one.”

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Texas coach Charlie Strong thought he made a golden hire before the 2014 season when he lured Wickline away from Oklahoma State and named him offensive co-coordinator. Then last December, with the offense in shambles and UT having dropped 14 of 25 games, Wickline and another assistant were dismissed.

For much of that stint at Texas, Wickline was being sued by Oklahoma State for breaching a contract that stipulated he pay OSU his remaining salary—$593,478 at the time of departure—unless he left for an NFL position or a college coordinator job with “play-calling duties.”

Oklahoma State sideline reporter Robert Allen championed both Wickline’s nine years of work in Stillwater as well as the litigation Cowboys athletics director Mike Holder pursued to enforce Wickline’s buyout. (The case was settled weeks after Wickline’s firing at Texas.)

“It was obvious Joe wasn’t calling plays for Texas, and that he wasn’t even the offensive coordinator, so you can’t blame Holder,” Allen said. “Oklahoma State was one of the first schools that really jumped salaries for assistant coaches and went to multiyear contracts. As an assistant, obviously you love the multiyear contract and the buyout that protects you, so you need to live by the one that protects the school.”

After all, cornerbacks coach Jason Jones paid his buyout upon leaving for Ole Miss in 2013 and West Virginia paid off Joe DeForest’s $350,000 a year earlier. (Wickline’s case was settled within days of his firing at Texas.)

Despite the legal tussle, which transpired mostly at the administrative level, Wickline remains respected by Cowboys head coach Mike Gundy and revered by most Oklahoma State supporters.

“The fans here had a line, ‘In Wick We Trust.’ He had a real cult following within the fan base and they felt really strong about the job he did. If Wick ever made a change in the lineup, the fans said, well, that must be OK.”

Joe Wickline spent nine seasons as Oklahoma State’s offensive line coach, where fans coined the phrase “In Wick We Trust.”

 

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McCollum and Wickline were assistants at Baylor during the 1997 and ’98 seasons, and when McCollum left for the head job at MTSU he wanted Wickline to join him, “so we loaded up some boxes in Waco and flew back to Tennessee together.”

They shared an apartment on campus and took over a team making the climb from what was then Division I-AA. The roster looked overmatched, particularly up front.

“We had guys where I’d sit in the offensive line meetings and say ‘There’s no way in the world we can win with this.’ We were not very good,” McCollum said. “But Joe, he molded those guys and in 2001 we finished fifth in Division I in total offense.”

One of those not-very-good linemen, Glen Elarbee, evolved into a two-time All-Sun Belt selection. Through 13 seasons as a coach at spots including MTSU, LSU, West Georgia, Arkansas State and now Missouri, Elarbee raves over Wickline’s influence.

“Coach Wick really has been more of a father figure to me than my own dad,” he said. “He taught me how to be a better player and how to be man. And when I got done playing he was instrumental in helping me grow as a dad and a coach.”

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McCollum’s Middle Tennessee staff included Larry Fedora, who left in 2002 to become Ron Zook’s run-game coordinator at Florida. Wickline went along, returning to the state where he grew up and his dad coached high school football for more than two decades. When Zook fell out of favor after three seasons, Wickline followed Fedora to Oklahoma State, where he became a beloved character.

“His practices were extremely organized. There was no wasted time,” Allen said. “Joe was always running—even though he wasn’t very fast—was always running with his guys from station to station and drill to drill.”

At Oklahoma State, Wickline recruited “a certain type of guy,” Allen said, unfazed by whether recruiting services and opposing schools thought differently.

“He was really, really good on player development,” Allen said “I’ve seen some guys that came in here that were not all that talented, or didn’t appear to be on the surface. But after a year or two, they’d get better and be able to help out. He had a criteria that worked for him. and he’d find a way to get him up to speed.”

Surely a coach able to work wonders with bargain talent in Stillwater could accomplish big things with elite recruits at Texas. But alas, the Longhorns were beset by weak quarterbacking and offensive line attrition over Wickline’s two seasons. Their national rankings for 2014 and 2015 in key categories rang abysmal: Scoring (106th and 83rd), sacks allowed (80th and 102nd), passing (88th and 117th), third-down conversions (106th and 102nd) and total first downs (98th and 120th)

At least in rushing, which improved from 98th to 17th last season, Texas seemed to be turning a corner just a Wickline was turned away.

“There were some things at Texas you could call detractors,” he said, “but nobody ever said it would be fair.”

McCollum says rather flatly of the situation that unfolded at Texas: “That’s not a reflection on him.”

Texas struggled with an 11-14 record during Joe Wickline’s two seasons as offensive coordinator, a stint riddled by poor quarterback play, offensive line attrition and a lawsuit with his former school, Oklahoma State.

 

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Where will Wickline’s recruiting focus? He remains well connected across East Texas dating back to his OSU tenure, and has long mined the Mississippi junior colleges. (He coached at Pearl River and Southwest Mississippi community colleges in the mid-90s.)

There’s another lesser-known connection to Mississippi: Three WWF matches staged in Oxford a quarter-century ago, recalling Wickline’s brief stint as a professional wrestler.

Past linemen have seen the video, where the muscled Wickline dons a ring persona and takes part in a tag-team match. West Virginia players can only hope their screening is next.

“We were in the meeting room one day at MTSU and he started busting out all his wrestling moves,” Elarbee recalled. “The elbow, the high leg drop. He was doing the stomp, shaking my arms, the voice, everything.

“We finally got to see the full video one day at cookout. It was hilarious.”

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It seems patently clear Wickline wasn’t ever the primary play-caller at Texas, and no one foresees Holgorsen letting loose of those duties at West Virginia. With folks wondering what he brings to the coordinator’s role, the former pupil Elarbee reminds them that Wickline helped galvanize and game plan MTSU’s spread offense, adopting philosophies from the system Rich Rodriguez was running at Tulane.

“Coach Wick is a great technician, but he also helped us assignment-wise. You not only knew where to go but you had the ability to anticipate the defensive movement. He always had us in good schematic plays. We weren’t running uphill. We were getting the box the way we wanted it and had some ‘advantage runs.’

“We were playing fast and doing the spread offense before it was cool and everybody was doing it. We were a spread team but we were physical and ran it tough. It was inside zone, powers, counters, outside zone—everything you’d see when you add more tight ends and fullbacks. We weren’t finesse. It was just a better way to run the plays rather than a softer way.”

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There was nothing soft about Wickline or his coaching style, which Holgorsen learned in his one season as Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator. Allen recalled how the two “got sideways” during a 41-38 shootout win over Troy in Week 2 when Holgorsen came yelling at the offensive linemen on the bench.

“Joe didn’t want anybody in the middle of his offensive line. His deal was ‘Tell me what you want and I’ll coach them.’ I think they got into it a couple of times before finally I think Dana realized Joe was right.”

Springing from what Allen deemed a “love/hate deal” early on, Holgorsen and Wickline assuaged their differences to become co-conceptors of the diamond formation that still surfaces in the backfields at Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

Wickline’s recollection of their time in Stillwater is essentially positive—“bottom line, we had a good relationship”—and he said he pounced at the chance to reconnect with Holgorsen, a head coach he lauds as being “very well respected in this business.”

How their rekindled relationship evolves depends, to some extent, on how roles will be defined among the offensive staff, which hasn’t been specified publicly. Offensive line coach Ron Crook, entering his fourth season, is widely credited with helping WVU transition to a power run team. He developed two NFL linemen in Mark Glowinsky and Quentin Spain and last year’s unit blocked Wendell Smallwood all the way to the Big 12 rushing title.

“Ron does a good job, and it’s a talented offensive staff,” said Wickline, suggesting the two could split duties between interior linemen, tight ends and fullbacks. “My role—I’m gonna kind of oversee some things. Exactly how that all fits, that will all work itself out.”





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