Holgorsen Emphasizing West Virginia State Pride
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – Early on, Dana Holgoren was seen as an intruder, an outsider who had elbowed the home state hero, Bill Stewart, aside and become coach of the West Virginia football team.
This was something of a closed society in many ways.
Stewart had taken over for Rich Rodriguez, a state native. Before Rodriguez, it was Don Nehlen who took on the WVU coaching job and he adopted the state as his own, just as the state had adopted him as its own. Nehlen has made West Virginia his home even today, more than 15 years after his retirement.
What’s more, Bob Huggins, another native son, was coaching the basketball team and, while John Beilein had come in for a while, he really was only holding the spot until Huggins came available … and, of course, before Beilein, yet another native son, Gale Catlett, had run the basketball show.
In those early days there was resentment of Holgorsen and it lasted until the state of West Virginia, as it does with almost everyone who gives it a chance, won him over.
And, once it did, the realization hit Holgorsen that mostly he had a team of outsiders — West Virginia being far more productive of coal than football players — and he set about to make them understand why they were so important as a football team to West Virginia and its pride and why West Virginia had to be important to them.
If you were from Florida or New Jersey, Texas or Maryland, Georgia or Pennsylvania … when they wore the Old Gold and Blue they were West Virginians, Holgorsen has stressed, and that carried something with it.
You were an underdog who was willing to work hard, play hard and take pride in yourself and your team.
Holgorsen decided he had to pass along to his players just what Mountaineer pride is.
“We talk about it about twice a year,” Holgorsen noted during a press conference early in camp. “We go through the core values of the program, which is everything from what is expected of them to do to what the traditions are, to the history of the state of West Virginia.”
Too often players are caught up only in the football aspect of a program, caught up in themselves and their efforts to reach the next level and forget that football is more than just a game.
“We go over every aspect of what these guys need to know,” Holgorsen said. “We as coaches explain it to them in the offseason. Like right now, we are explaining it to them every afternoon at 3:30. I have a coach get up and cover a little area of the program.
“Then I get a player up that has been here, that covers a little bit of what it means to them as far as what the core values are, what the traditions are and all of that. It is fun to watch that and see the kids get up.”
It’s something of an honor for a player to get up and talk to the team.
“We don’t randomly pick them,” Holgorsen said. “We get guys that have been here to get up and talk about what it means to them. That way, and they are talking to 125 kids that are good kids and coaches, about what it means to them. We have to make a conscious effort to make sure that everyone that sits in those seats understands it.”
How necessary is this?
Twenty-four players on scholarship started their careers at other schools. Only 38 are from West Virginia.
One of the more prominent state natives is the senior fullback Elijah Wellman, who was the latest chosen to talk to the team.
“We have 13 different sessions … it’s a history kind of thing. We talk about team and effort and toughness and tradition. I got tradition,” Wellman explained. “With me being a West Virginia kid, I know about the tradition.”
So what did he talk about?
“Country Roads, the man trip, winning tradition, being an underdog all the time,” Wellman said. “That’s something you take pride in. We all like it. We’re never picked to win, but that’s all right with us because we’re going to come out and fight and do whatever it takes.”
The fact that West Virginia as a state or a football team gets little respect doesn’t bother Wellman.
“I wouldn’t want to be from anywhere else. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I was raised. My parents lived here,” Wellman said. “All my family lives here in West Virginia and are good people.
“Country towns are usually good people and good hospitality. That’s what my town is all about, too.”
Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, who grew up in Van, is another who is called upon to offer insight into what West Virginia is all about.
“It was good to be able to tell the guys I’ve been underground (in a coal mine),” Gibson said. “I’ve been miles back into the hole, so I know what it feels like back there. Now I didn’t have to work back there. I just saw it and got out.
“Dana started that three or four years ago. The first year it was doing just a few times. Over the past two years we’ve been doing a lot of stuff. Because we don’t have a lot of instate kids we let them know what the coal industry means to our state. We simulate the man trip. We feel we are the state school and we try to instill that in them.”
The point of it all?
“When we get finished playing, a lot of them stay here,” Gibson said, thinking of the likes of Jeff Hostetler or Owen Schmitt. “That’s what makes this place special, whether it’s a football program or a business, it’s all about the people.”