Holgorsen Waiting Game Ticks Toward Conclusion
As the clock ticked up to and past midnight in the Eastern time zone, turning the calendar to 2019, several reports surfaced that the University of Houston and WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen had reached a deal for the eight-year Mountaineer veteran. While those remained unconfirmed as clocks bonged 12 times in the Central, it’s all but certain that it will be wrapped up at some point on the first day of the new year, and that WVU will be officially looking for a new leader for its football program.
Two different sources have indicated two different potential contract terms for Holgorsen at Houston, with one being six years for $24 million and the other five years for $20 million. Houston would also pay the $1 million buyout that Holgorsen will owe the school when he departs. The average of $4 million per year for those deals would make Holgorsen the highest-paid coach at a Group of Five school, and match his 2021 salary at West Virginia.
That figure dwarfs the $1.5 million paid this year to UH’s Major Applewhite. He was fired just before a $250,000 retention bonus would have been paid to him had he been the head coach on Dec. 31, 2018.
The potential salary figures being reported for Holgorsen would have placed him 25th on the list of head coaching salaries paid in 2018 according to USAToday. That list does not include some private schools which declined to release their compensation numbers. Still, it is a huge step up for the Cougars, who would then be paying more to Holgorsen than six other Big 12 schools paid their head coaches in 2018.
As BlueGoldNews.com reported earlier, WVU was unwilling to extend Holgorsen to match the length of those deals, given his level of performance and the increased buyouts that would be placed on the school if his current deal was simply lengthened. Some talks did take place regarding shorter extensions, but the terms were not close to being agreed to.
West Virginia, if it had chosen to fire Holgorsen following the end of the 2018 season, would have to pay him a bit more than $7 million. That number drops to $4.74 million in 2020.
The Houston Chronicle reported early on Tuesday that Holgorsen and school representatives would meet to “hammer out the final details”. Holgorsen did not return on the team charter to West Virginia following the Mountaineers’ 34-18 loss to Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl, and although that has not been unusual for the head coach on road trips, it signaled the start of his departure from his first head coaching position.
For its part, West Virginia remained in a wait an see pattern as to Holgorsen’s departure, although it has been anything but inactive as it lays the groundwork for a successor. Potential candidates, from a list that is often evaluated and updated, are being vetted, with two names perhaps bubbling to the top of the list, both of whom are at Group of Five schools.
The first is Luke Fickell, whose name appears courtesy of connections between WVU president E. Gordon Gee and Youngstown State president Jim Tressel. Fickell just completed an 11-win season at Cincinnati with a win over Virginia Tech, which Holgorsen failed to accomplish in West Virginia’s 2017 season opener. Fickell took the program over from Tommy Tuberville in 2017, and had a 4-8 record that year. He also served as Ohio State’s interim head coach in 2011 after Tressel ran afoul of the NCAA, which initially resulted in a five-game suspension, and later his resignation. Gee was Ohio State’s president during that period. Fickell was retained as an assistant and co-defensive coordinator when Urban Meyer was hired as head coach in 2012.
According to the USAToday database, Fickell made $2 million in 2018 and $1.9 million in 2017. He earned nearly $1.2 million during his one-year interim stint with the Buckeyes, where he spent his collegiate playing career and the vast majority of his coaching career to date. Other than his current two-year period with Cincinnati, his only other coaching time outside Columbs was a 2000-01 stay as the defensive line coach at Akron.
The second name to watch is Neal Brown, who has fashioned a 35-16 record in four seasons at Troy, including an attention-grabbing 31-8 record over the past three seasons, which placed him on WVU’s watch list. He’s moved frequently in his ascent up the coaching ladder, with stops at UMass, Sacred Heart and Delaware before moving on to Troy from 2006-09. He then gained experience on the Power Five level as the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech under Tuberville from 2010-12 and at Kentucky from 2013-14 before returning to the Trojan program as head coach in 2015.
Brown has been a candidate for multiple jobs, with varying degrees of interest, as he has pushed Troy up the ranks. He is currently under contract through 2021, and earned $810,000 this year after starting his career there at the $660,000 mark.
Other names have been bandied about in the about-to-become-public search, but at the moment these two are the ones getting the most buzz in West Virginia circles.