With Holgorsen Now Gone, What Does WVU Do?
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–At 2:55 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, the University of Houston announced that Dana Holgorsen would become the Cougars’ new head football coach.
After eight seasons leading the Mountaineer football program, and accumulating a 61-41 record, Holgorsen has now left West Virginia and will take over at UH.
So where does that leave the Mountaineers?
“I want to thank Coach Holgorsen for his eight years at West Virginia,” said WVU director of athletics Shane Lyons in a statement released moments after Houston’s announcement of Holgorsen’s hiring. “We wish him and his family all the best at the University of Houston. Our national search for his replacement has already begun, and I know it will be a successful one. A proven record of competitive success, a passion for the student-athlete, emphasis on academics and a strong work ethic are among the qualities that I will be looking for in our next head coach. We will move quickly to bring him to Morgantown to continue our strong winning tradition and solidify our place in the Big 12 and on the national scene. We are looking forward to this new and exciting era of Mountaineer football.”
Lyons had originally hoped to hold a press conference to address the situation, but according to WVU officials, because Houston’s announcement came a little later than expected, the West Virginia director of athletics will not have time for a press conference at this time as he’s now heavily involved into the search to find the Mountaineers next head coach.
BlueGoldNews.com reported Tuesday night that WVU officials say Lyons has not yet made a job offer to any candidate to replace Holgorsen. Lyons reportedly is not going to use a search firm, and is going to conduct the search on his own, though obviously his boss, West Virginia University president E. Gordon Gee, will have influence on the decision as well.
BlueGoldNews.com also reported that Lyons has recently met with Mountaineer defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, but the exact details of that meeting are unknown. Many WVU players, both past and present, have come out strongly on social media in the past 36 hours in support of Gibson becoming West Virginia’s next head coach, but the true viability of his candidacy in Lyons’ mind is still unclear.
In all likelihood, Troy head coach Neal Brown and Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell are the leading candidates to be offered the WVU head coaching job, but to this point Lyons apparently has not interviewed either. Our understanding is that West Virginia’s director of athletics will want to sit down and formally interview any top candidates, possibly along with Gee, before extending an offer to anyone. Such interviews would certainly take a day or two to conduct, so Lyons does not appear ready to make a hiring announcement in the next 24 to 48 hours.
WVU starts its spring semester on Jan. 7, and the returning football players will be back on campus at that point, so having someone in place by that date or shortly thereafter would seem the likely target for Lyons.
— West Virginia Football (@WVUfootball) January 2, 2019
As for the two main candidates to become the Mountaineers’ 34th head football coach, both are relatively young. Fickell is a 45-year-old native of Columbus, Ohio, while Brown is 38 and born in Danville, Ky.
Fickell has spent most of his life in Ohio. He was an outstanding defensive lineman at DeSales High School in Columbus, earned a scholarship to Ohio State and after a redshirt year in 1992, became a four-year starter at nose guard for the Buckeyes, playing for OSU coach John Cooper from 1993-96. Injuries limited his NFL career to one season on the IR list for the New Orleans Saints (1997), and after that he got into coaching. He spent 1999 as a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater, and was a full-time assistant at Akron, working with the Zips’ defensive line in 2000-01. He returned to Ohio State in 2002 and remained on the Bucks’ coaching staff for the next 15 years. He worked at OSU for both Jim Tressel (2001-10) and Urban Myer (2012-18). Fickell was also the interim head coach at Ohio State in 2011 after Tressel was forced to resign as the Bucks’ head coach in the midst of an investigation into NCAA violations. The president at Ohio State who requested that resignation was Gee, who is now heading into his fifth year as the president of WVU. Gee was the president of OSU from 2007-13 and obviously knows Fickell from that time.
The Buckeyes were just 6-7 during that tumultuous season after Tressel’s resignation, but Myer retained Fickell as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator when he took over the program in 2012. Fickell remained at OSU until getting the Cincinnati head coaching job in 2017, taking over for Tommy Tuberville, who was 4-8 in his fourth and final season at UC.
The rebuilding Bearcats were 4-8 in 2017, but this past year Cincinnati posted an 11-2 record that included a 35-31 win over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl. For his team’s performance in 2018, Fickell was named the American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.
In his first season at UC, Fickell’s Bearcats struggled both offensively and defensively. They were 101st in the FBS in total offense (351.8 yards per game) and 110th in scoring offense (20.9 points per game), while finishing 94th in total defense (428.5 yards per game) and 94th in scoring defense (31.8 points per game).
But with former WVU offensive line coach Ron Crook on his Cincinnati staff, Fickell got things turned around in a big way in year two. The Bearcats amassed 239.5 rushing yards per game (15th in the FBS) and 219.0 passing yards (75th) for 458.5 total yards (23rd) and 34.9 points per game (23rd). UC was also very strong defensively in year two of the Fickell era, giving up over 24 points just three times in 12 games. In all, it allowed 113.0 rushing yards per game (13th), 190.5 passing yards (27th), 303.5 total yards (11th) and 17.2 points per game (10th).
Luke and his wife Amy have five children, including two sets of twin boys.
Fickell signed a six-year contract when he took the UC job in 2017 that is worth of $13.4 million before bonuses. Thus his average annual salary would be $2.23 million. He also has a buyout if he would leave Cincinnati before the contract concludes. It’s believed his buyout is in the neighborhood of $2 million now.
As for Brown, he was excellent three-sport athlete (football, basketball and baseball) at Boyle County High School in Danville, Ky., which is just south of Lexington. In 1998, he entered the University of Kentucky to play wide receiver in the spread offensive attack of UK head coach Hal Mumme with his assistants Tony Franklin and Mike Leach. Obviously Holgorsen also is a branch of that same Mumme/Leach tree.
Brown transferred to UMass in 2001 after Mumme was fired by Kentucky, and not only did Brown finish his playing career with Minutemen but his coaching career also began with them in 2003. From there he began climbing the college coaching ladder, working as an assistant at Sacred Hart (2004, QB/WR), Delaware (2005, WR), Troy (2006-09, WR then OC/QB), Texas Tech (2010-12, OC/QB) and Kentucky (2013-14, OC/QB). He was hired as the head coach at Troy in 2015, and has posted 35-16 record in his four seasons with the Trojans. Taking over for legendary Troy coach Larry Blakeney (178-113-1 from 1991-2014, taking the Trojans from Division II to FCS and ultimately FBS in 2002), Brown’s first squad was 4-8, but he’s had nothing but success since, with marks of 10-3 in 2016, 11-2 in 2017 and 10-3 in 2018. Along the way his teams have won three bowl games, albeit against Group of 5 teams, though they have regular season wins over Power 5 teams in Nebraska (24-19 in 2018) and LSU (24-21 in 2017), and they also suffered a close 30-24 loss at Clemson in 2016.
As you would expect from a coach from the Mumme/Leach/Franklin tree, Brown’s offenses like to throw the football, though he’s put more emphasis in run game as he’s matured as a head coach. His first Troy squad in 2015 managed just 119.1 rushing yards per game (116th), but that number has gone up significantly since. The Trojans averaged 174.1 rushing yards a game this past season, which was 58th in the FBS ranks. Troy didn’t throw the ball as effectively this year, but some of that can be attributed to injuries, as starting quarterback Kaleb Barker was injured midway through the season and lost for the rest of the year. For 2018, the Trojans averaged 215.3 passing yards a game (80th) after averaging 257.0 yards a game through the air in the three previous seasons (33rd, 37th and 48th). The offense as a whole averaged 30.7 points per game in 2018 (50th), 31.5 in 2017 (43rd), 33.7 in 2016 (39th) and 27.9 in 2014 (70th). Defensively Troy has put up much better numbers than a lot of other teams with spread offenses. The Trojans allowed 347.9 total yards (31st) and 22.0 points (28th) in 2018, 337.0 yards (24th) and 18.5 points (11th) in 2017, 366.5 yards and 22.1 points in 2016, and 391.3 yards (57th) and 28.3 points (78th) in 2015.
Neal and his wife Brooke have three children, two daughters and a son.
Brown signed a four-year contract extension in 2017 that will pay him an average of $815,000 for the life of the deal, before bonuses.