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Holgorsen's long but tumultuous journey

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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MORGANTOWN, W. Va.

Every time Dana Holgorsen was taken out of the game, he came off the field enraged.

He knew his coach, Hal Mumme, was calling a designed quick screen for one of Iowa Wesleyan College’s faster wide receivers. Because of Holgorsen’s lack of speed, Mumme wouldn’t call the play until the sure-handed, 5-foot-10 wide receiver with a mullet was on the sideline.

Mumme’s tactic infuriated Holgorsen because it kept him from having as many catches as some of the team’s other wide receivers.

“He would be all pissed off,” Mumme says.

When Holgorsen fumed on the sideline, he always made sure to stand next to Mumme. After looking at the opponent’s defense, Holgorsen would tell Mumme which plays to call instead of quick wide receiver screens and the coach sometimes listened.

“It usually worked,” Mumme says. “He was a very heady player. He was like a coach on the field.”

Holgorsen is still calling plays just like he used to, but now as West Virginia’s coach and one of college football brightest offensive minds. He will need all that ingenuity Saturday night when his 16th-ranked Mountaineers (3-0) host No. 2 LSU (3-0) in in the biggest game of his young coaching career.

“There’s a lot of things that are unorthodox about how he does things,” Houston coach Kevin Sumlin says of Holgorsen. “But when you look at the numbers, statistical records and the win-loss column, there’s no question about his success.”

Originally hired nine months ago as West Virginia’s offensive coordinator and to become the Mountaineers’ coach next season, Holgorsen was promoted in June after his predecessor Bill Stewart resigned amidst rumors of being involved in negative media reports about Holgorsen’s off-field behavior. One of those reports said police escorted an intoxicated Holgorsen from a casino in Cross Lanes, W.Va., in May, an incident for which Holgorsen later apologized.

West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck hired an investigator to look into all the reports about Holgorsen. The investigator’s findings revealed they were all fabrications, Luck says.

“I never wavered for a second about Dana because I knew the reports simply weren’t true,” Luck says.

Even with the controversy, the sugar-free Red Bull-guzzling Holgorsen insists his vagabond journey from Iowa’s corn fields to West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains is “very boring.”

“Look, I’m just a simple guy,” says Holgorsen, 40, who is single.

From simple beginnings

Raised in Mount Pleasant, a small farming town of approximately 8,700 that is an hour south of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Holgorsen and his two brothers came from a middle-class household. Holgorsen worked occasionally at his father’s automotive parts store and sometimes picked tassels in the corn fields.

“It was hard to get in trouble around there,” Holgorsen says. “Everybody knew everybody.”

With no football leagues for youth, Holgorsen didn’t start playing the sport until it was offered in seventh grade.

“It was bad football,” Holgorsen says. “It was a bunch of slow little white kids running around.”

Holgorsen’s best childhood friend was Spence Evans, the son of legendary Mount Pleasant High School coach Bob Evans. Spence Evans played quarterback at Mount Pleasant High and Holgorsen was his favorite wide receiver.

Although Holgorsen was a skilled pass-catcher, Division I schools shied away from him because of his 4.8-second speed in the 40-yard dash. But he was a sought-after small college recruit.

Mumme was hired as coach of Iowa Wesleyan in 1989 and on his first day went to Mount Pleasant High to recruit Holgorsen. Mumme’s job at the tiny NAIA college in Mount Pleasant, which hadn’t won a game the previous season, was his first as a collegiate head coach.

Mumme arrived with his revolutionary Air Raid offense, a system of short passes that stretched the field, which he invented at his previous job as coach of Copperas Cove (Texas) High School. With only three returning players, he ended up bringing in 52 new recruits for his first season.

When Mumme showed up at Mount Pleasant High to recruit Holgorsen, Bob Evans sent an office aide to get his receiver out of class. While the two men waited, Mumme introduced himself and began to explain his Air Raid offense.

After 30 minutes of conversation, they were still waiting on Holgorsen. Evans tracked down the aide and asked her about Holgorsen’s whereabouts.

Afterward, a sheepish Evans walked back in to his office to talk with Mumme.

“Coach, Dana would rather stay in English class than talk to Iowa Wesleyan,” Mumme recalls Evans telling him.

Determined to leave his hometown and not to play for downtrodden Iowa Wesleyan, Holgorsen decided to attend St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, which he thought was the big city with its population of approximately 100,000.

Mumme, with a young assistant named Mike Leach, led Iowa Wesleyan to a 7-4 record and a bowl game in his first season. Meanwhile, at St. Ambrose, Holgorsen was the run-first team’s leading receiver with 12 catches through nine games before he was moved to defensive back.

During Christmas break, Holgorsen returned home to Mount Pleasant. He ended up hanging out with Mumme, Leach and Iowa Wesleyan players, almost all of whom were from Texas and had played at some of the state’s biggest high schools.

“That’s when I started to get a better feel for what real football was about,” Holgorsen says.

Just before Iowa Wesleyan’s second semester started in January 1990, Mumme was sitting in his office when he looked up and saw a humbled Holgorsen standing in the doorway.

“Coach, I’d sure like to transfer,” Mumme recalls Holgorsen telling him. “I want to play for you guys because you guys are really doing what you said.”

Lifelong connections

During the next two seasons playing for Mumme and Leach, Holgorsen caught close to 150 passes. He also took turns at long snapper, punter and kick returner.

Leach says Holgorsen played over more talented players at Iowa Wesleyan and remembers the team’s coaches discussing that during meetings.

“Yeah, this guy is faster than Dana,” a coach would say.

“But I don’t know if we can trust him,” another coach would reply.

“Well this guy is more athletic,” a coach would reply.

“But is he smart enough that we can teach him?” another coach would reply. “Because I know we can teach Dana. At least Dana will go to the right spot and know where he’s going.”

“Dana was just reliable,” Leach says.

But while Holgorsen lacked speed on the football field, he made up for it with crisp routes, finding open spots in defenses and by catching the ball cleanly.

“He was a Wes Welker type of guy,” says Dustin Dewald, who was Iowa Wesleyan’s quarterback during Holgorsen’s sophomore and junior seasons. “He was always kind of a go-to-guy whenever it was third-and-7 or third-and-8 to pick up a first down. At the level we were at, he was good.”

After Holgorsen’s persistent griping about not being on the field for quick wide receiver screen plays, Mumme finally left him in for one his sophomore season during a blowout of Concordia University, a private liberal arts school in Chicago. Concordia was known at the time for producing monks and didn’t have a single player who could run the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds, Mumme recalls.

When Holgorsen finally caught his screen pass, the Concordia defensive back covering him was playing so far off the line of scrimmage that one of Iowa Wesleyan’s faster wide receivers would have made the catch and ran straight down the field to score, Mumme recalls. Instead, Holgorsen started to weave across the field.

As he did, two Concordia defenders collided with each other before Holgorsen unexpectedly cut back to the other side of the field.

“It was a whole Keystone Kop thing,” Leach says.

After 14 seconds, Holgorsen finally made it to the end zone on his 50-yard touchdown catch, a play in which nearly every Concordia defender had touched him at least twice.

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“He looked like Jim Thorpe out there,” Mumme says.

After his touchdown, Holgorsen ran down the sideline in search of Mumme. When he found him, he yelled, “I told you I could do it!”

Mumme replied, “Yeah, this is the only team we play you could do it against.”

Finding his calling

After Holgorsen’s junior season, Mumme was hired as coach at Valdosta State University and took Leach with him. A year later, Holgorsen joined them as a graduate assistant for $6,000 a year. He was assigned to Leach, who had him work with the wide receivers.

“There were other guys I would have preferred,” Leach admits.

Holgorsen had worked at Valdosta State for three years when Mississippi College called Mumme in 1996 and wanted to hire someone from his staff to help implement his Air Raid offense. Mumme recommended Holgorsen and told him to take the job, which was to coach quarterbacks, wide receivers and special teams.

When Mumme became coach at Kentucky a year later, he again took Leach with him and wanted to hire Holgorsen but never did. When Leach left the Wildcats in 1999 to become offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, he too wanted Holgorsen to go with him but couldn’t work it out.

While Mumme and Leach had hit the big time of college football, Holgorsen continued to toil in obscurity at Mississippi College and then at Wingate University, where he coached quarterbacks and wide receivers in 1999, another job for which Mumme had recommended him. At times, he wondered about his future, especially when he and the other football coaches at Mississippi College had to plant shrubs and flowers around campus during the summers.

“That was bulls**t,” Holgorsen says. “I was pissed.”

Leach left Oklahoma after just one season to become coach of Texas Tech in 2000. One of his first calls was to Holgorsen, a conversation that was brief.

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“Come here,” Leach told Holgorsen.

Holgorsen initially was hired as Texas Tech’s director of quality control before later becoming inside receivers coach.

“I really didn’t have a good résumé,” Holgorsen says.

While at Texas Tech, Holgorsen had a reputation for holding his receivers like future NFL players Wes Welker and Danny Amendola to a high standard on every snap. The day after games, he would critique each play with them and ask rapid-fire questions.

“Why aren’t you blocking this guy?” former Texas Tech quarterback Kliff Kingsbury recalls Holgorsen yelling. “Why’d you run there? Why are you being a p**sy?”

No one play was perfect. Holgorsen critiqued his receivers the same way in practice and called them out in front of the rest of the team.

“He’s a pretty intense guy a lot of the time, especially if things don’t go well,” Welker says.

Holgorsen was so hard on his receivers at Texas Tech that they wanted to fight him at times.

“They would be that mad,” says Kingsbury, now the University of Houston’s co-offensive coordinator.

But Holgorsen’s never-good-enough philosophy paid off for his receivers.

“Those guys got so good because Dana held them accountable,” Kingsbury says. “They could never take a snap off. They ran every route as fast as they could and blocked as hard as they could. They did everything full speed. That’s a great tribute to Dana.”

To get back at Holgorsen, his receivers at Texas Tech often pulled pranks on him. They were infamous for leaving the door of their meeting room cracked and placing a cup of water on top of it to soak Holgorsen.

“You a**holes,” Welker recalls Holgorsen often telling him and the other wide receivers before he later laughed it off and usually got even.

Unlike wide receivers coaches at other schools, Holgorsen sat in the press box during games and relayed his observations to Leach. He was promoted to Texas Tech’s co-offensive coordinator in 2005, but Leach continued to call almost all of the plays.

Making the break

When Sumlin settled in as coach of the University of Houston in 2008, he called Holgorsen to discuss his offensive coordinator opening. Sumlin had just coached his last game as Oklahoma’s passing game coordinator in the Sooners’ blowout loss to West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

During the rout, the fast-paced tempo of the Mountaineers’ no-huddle offense overwhelmed Oklahoma’s defense. Sumlin knew Holgorsen was well-versed in the intricacies of Leach’s offense at Texas Tech, but wanted to explore adding a faster tempo to the no-huddle like West Virginia and player motion before the snap.

Holgorsen made a trip to meet with Sumlin in Houston, where they talked at a bar called Pub Fiction. After a brief discussion about offensive philosophies, they worked out an agreement on Holgorsen’s compensation and shook on it.

“That was it,” Sumlin says.

As Houston’s offensive coordinator, Holgorsen was able finally to showcase his own play-calling creativity.

Holgorsen always had Sumlin review his ideas, some of which were so outlandish that Holgorsen asked at least to be allowed to try them in practice.

“He had some things that at first looked a little crazy,” Sumlin says.

Once Houston practiced Holgorsen’s ideas, Sumlin usually liked them. Occasionally though, Sumlin wouldn’t sign off on a play and would tell Holgorsen it needed a couple more weeks of practice.

“I’d be hoping that it would go away,” Sumlin says.

A couple weeks later, Holgorsen would be back to practicing the nixed play. Inevitably, he would then sneak it into a game plan.

Whenever Sumlin asked Holgorsen if he planned to run the play, Holgorsen always answered, “No, we just have it in case we need it.”

“And of course, we’d run it,” Sumlin says with a laugh.

During Holgorsen’s second season at Houston in 2009, the Cougars upset No. 5 Oklahoma State on the road in a 45-35 shootout. At the time, Cowboys coach Mike Gundy was also his team’s offensive coordinator.

The arrangement took a toll on Gundy, who at times turned his back to the field during games to talk to his offense. After his team’s offense sputtered in back-to-back losses to end the 2009 season, he hired Holgorsen as offensive coordinator.

“He’s very smart and understands offensive football,” Gundy says. “He’s got very unconventional work habits.”

Holgorsen is known for watching video alone into the early morning while drinking some of the nearly a dozen sugar-free Red Bulls he consumes daily. Like he does now, he lived in a hotel during his lone season at Oklahoma State, one in which the Cowboys offense shattered team records behind the duo of quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon.

Getting his chance

All along, Luck had been keeping his eye on Holgorsen.

Luck, a former NFL quarterback, had been the president and general manager of the Houston Dynamo soccer team when Holgorsen was at Houston. He hadn’t met Holgorsen before, but Sumlin and Leach spoke highly of him.

Luck’s one question to Sumlin about Holgorsen was, “Is ready to become a head coach?”

“Absolutely,” Sumlin replied.

Late last season, Luck visited Holgorsen at Oklahoma State. During the meeting, Luck explained that he was looking for someone to revitalize West Virginia’s stale offense and who could take over for Stewart.

Holgorsen was impressed by Luck’s reputation and background.

“It was exciting to possibly be able to work for a guy that understands the game of football,” Holgorsen says.

Over the next three weeks, Holgorsen and Luck continued to talk. They eventually discussed Holgorsen being hired as offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting for a year.

By then, other schools such as Pittsburgh had begun to approach Holgorsen about the possibility of making him a head coach right away. Holgorsen was intrigued by West Virginia’s potential, but most importantly, he believed in Luck.

“I trust him,” Holgorsen says.

When Holgorsen was hired, Stewart was upbeat about the move publicly, but privately he was incensed. He told all who would listen that Luck had betrayed him and that Holgorsen wasn’t fit for the job.

“I knew what I was getting myself into,” Holgorsen says.

Undeterred by Stewart’s antics, Holgorsen locked in to his immediate responsibility as West Virginia’s offensive coordinator. He was so focused after hiring his offensive assistants that he watched all the offensive plays of the teams they coached at the previous season.

All the while, Stewart continued to disparage Holgorsen behind the scenes.

“Were things always peachy? Obviously not,” Holgorsen says.

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Stewart’s badmouthing finally reached a tipping point in May when the report surfaced about an intoxicated Holgorsen being escorted out of the casino by police. That’s a common practice for high-profile casino guests, but Holgorsen still apologized for the incident.

“I know what the expectations are of me being in the public eye,” Holgorsen says. “I’m going to do my very best to live up to the standards that are put upon me.”

There was another report later that Holgorsen had been involved in perhaps as many as six alcohol-related incidents in the previous six months. A former newspaper reporter also came out publicly and said Stewart had told him to “dig up dirt” on Holgorsen.

Almost two weeks later, Stewart was forced to resign on his 59th birthday and Holgorsen succeeded him, ending their messy six-month relationship.

A few days after becoming head coach, Holgorsen skydived over West Virginia’s New River Gorge. It was a stress reliever for Holgorsen, who is still well aware of the perception nationally that he is an out-of-control drunk.

He insists he’s not the person he was characterized as in the reports.

“I don’t think I would have the support of our athletic director, president and board of governors if there was something wrong with what my actions are,” Holgorsen says. “I’m a single guy. That’s part of what the perception is. If people want to judge me for it, then they can go ahead and do it.”

While at Texas Tech, Holgorsen and his ex-wife divorced. They share joint custody of the couple’s three children, but the children mostly lived with Holgorsen for almost three years.

Holgorsen’s children now live primarily with his ex-wife in Midland, Texas. He spent two months in Texas with them this past summer.

Holgorsen says it’s been difficult being 1,350 miles away from his children. When he coached at Houston and Oklahoma State, he was just a short plane ride away from them.

“The relationship between me and my kids will never be broken,” Holgorsen says.

Neither will Holgorsen’s relationship with Leach. The two are in touch often through text messaging.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find two people whose philosophies are more closely aligned than us,” Leach says

Holgorsen, however, is admittedly more conservative than Leach. But those who have watched video together with both coaches say if you close your eyes while doing so, it’s difficult to differentiate their voices.

“Dana’s voice almost morphs into Mike’s on some of the concepts and things they both see and the way they talk about them,” Kingsbury says. “He hates to admit that.”

Mumme now is the coach at McMurry University, an NCAA Division III school in Texas. He credits Holgorsen for coming up with a successful rushing component that the Air Raid lacked.

Running the ball long had been a problem for the legendary offense. Mumme has implemented some of Holgorsen’s rushing concepts.

“The teacher is listening to the pupil,” Mumme says.

Just like Mumme did when Holgorsen was a player. Only this time, Holgorsen is calling all the plays.

Tagged: Virginia, West Virginia, Iowa, Mississippi, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas, Houston

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