MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Now that contract-extension talks between Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia have produced an impasse, we see a similar divide among fans critiquing how Shane Lyons handled the situation.
My take? The first-year athletics director maneuvered as prudently as he could.
Holgorsen will coach the Mountaineers in 2016 at a clip of $2.9 million. He’s guaranteed another $2.9 million for 2017 whether or not he’s still around to earn it, and circumstances appear increasingly doubtful.
If West Virginia’s administration is posturing to make a change, why didn’t Lyons fire Holgorsen in December? Aside from the fact that 13 vacancies at big-time programs made for the most competitive coaching carousel ever, there was a financial component too heavy to ignore. Forfeiting more than $8 million to buy out Holgorsen and his staff wasn’t sound business. The cost to cut ties after next season dips to slightly more than $4 million. Even with West Virginia earning a full Big 12 revenue share—likely around $28 million this year—the program isn’t so flush with check-scribbling donors that an extra $4 million can be deemed nominal.
That’s real money, and contrary to the beliefs of some, schools aren’t simply printing it.
During 2013-14, the most recent academic year available, West Virginia’s athletics department reported $77.6 million in revenue while it spent $76.6, making it barely profitable. That “profitable” status required $4.4 million in university subsidies in an era where, you might have noticed, tuition hikes are easily outpacing inflation.
Lyons must operate within fairly rigid financial constraints—aiming to make his department self-sufficient while keeping West Virginia competitive in the Power 5 marketplace. He can’t treat $4 million as though it’s money found in the couch cushions.
There is a natural inclination to think he failed in getting an extension done for Holgorsen, that recruiting will tank under a lame duck head coach, that quality candidates will be dissuaded from WVU’s cornerbacks coach opening. Yet this contract snag lies equally at the feet of Holgorsen and his agent.
WVU offered an extension that would have allowed Holgorsen to tell recruits, “Look, we’re signed through 2019.” But said extension, and the public appearance of job security, would have attached the caveat of a liquidated damages provision, whereby Holgorsen could be bought out after next season for less than the $2.9 million he was guaranteed under the coach-friendly contract initially negotiated by Oliver Luck.
Holgorsen’s camp essentially declined, from which you can derive a couple motives:
1.) The coach is doubling down on the 2016 season producing enough wins to increase his leverage at West Virginia or a job elsewhere;
2). Holgorsen sees the writing on the wall and, thus, isn’t compelled to risk losing hundreds of thousands from a reduced buyout.
Extension or no, we’re essentially unchanged from mid-December when Lyons responded to a questionable media report and announced Holgorsen would be returning in 2016.
These are still proving-ground times for Holgorsen, who has neither elevated West Virginia to the upper reaches of the Big 12 or driven the program into the ditch. He’s 36-28 overall (31-28 if you redact five wins over FCS teams). Through four Big 12 seasons the program has never finished among the AP Top 25. WVU has gone 15-21 in Big 12 games. The high-water mark in conference play was a three-way tie for fourth place in 2014. The average finish in a 10-team league has been sixth.
Can’t exactly champion that record. Can’t pan it either.
Lyons’ extension offer would have mitigated some of the perceived vulnerabilities facing a coach under a two-year window. Holgorsen didn’t deem the offer enticing enough, and will leverage his next career move on what transpires in 2016.
A head coach in limbo is never a good look for a program. Neither is over-committing future salary to a coach who’s in limbo for a reason.