|Dana Holgorsen is coaching one of the youngest teams in college football this season
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Oct. 11, 1986 is a day that I will never forget. Twenty-seven years ago, I was running around Mountaineer Field as a freshman football player for the WVU Mountaineers. Clanging and banging with our defense during pre-game, slapping heads, pounding chests like we were barbarians. I was doing all I could to get them ready to assault their opponents. Let the blood sport begin, we are GLADIATORS!
Standing square in the middle of the exercise was a fiery, younger version of Don Nehlen encouraging the team and all who were within yelling distance, “Give your greatest effort; give your all; we can win!” I was already a believer, but I was only a true freshman so I would have to sit this one out on the sidelines.
You see, the week before, we lost to Virginia Tech 13-7. Coach Nehlen decided to make it official. I would redshirt my first year. We lacked depth on the offensive line that year and I had to wait five games to see how the injuries played out. Thank God, those offensive linemen remained injury free. I did not realize at the time what a great gift Coach gave me. A 250-pound true freshman guard had little business being on the field in a Division 1 football game, especially in a game such as this.
At any rate, Oct. 11 was going to be a great day for WVU, or so I wished. Of the 63,500 screaming fans in attendance, the majority were Wild & Wonderful WVU fans. The nation’s eyes were upon us as we were the ABC featured game of the week. We were going to win that day and rectify all that was wrong with the season and turn it around. After starting out the season 2-0 against Northern Illinois and East Carolina, we had lost three straight to Maryland, Pitt and Virginia Tech by a combined score of 85-26.
The No. 1 team in the land blew into Morgantown and Mountaineer Stadium that day. The Miami Hurricanes were led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde and a host of future NFL players. The ‘Canes won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball. The first series was impressive. The defense stopped Miami with a pair of great plays, including sophomore defensive tackle Chris Parker sacking Testaverde for a big loss. Man, we were jacked! “Let’s Go Mountaineers!” rang throughout the entire stadium. We were going to win this after all! All of those naysayers would be wrong and we would overcome!
But reality has a funny way of bringing all things into perspective and this afternoon was no different. The game quickly turned out of control and into a rout. When the game clock read zero at the end of the first quarter Miami had already built a 28-0 lead that only grew larger as the day wore on. We lost 58-14 and, in reality, it was not even that close. ABC could not even cut away to another game as there were no alternatives. Not the most moment for Mountaineer football.
We finished the 1986 season with a 4–7 record. Talk about ‘Leaving on a jet plane!’ Nine months earlier, Coach Joe Paterno called me at halftime of Penn State’s Orange Bowl game against Oklahoma and said that if I chose Penn State University playing for national championships would be the norm. Straight up, that was the only time I ever second-guessed my decision to play at West Virginia University.
Don Nehlen has taught me many things as a player, coach and as a man. I have witnessed him in good and bad times. As a player on the field and a coach behind closed doors, I can testify that I have heard him say “stay the course” and then watched him walk the walk! I love the game of football for many reasons: among them is that the greatest lessons learned from the game should be applied to one’s life in general.
Staying the course is not just a cliché. Cliché’s are penned for a reason: it is a difficult path when games aren’t going your way. Detractors and distractors start popping up claiming they know the way. Don’t listen - staying the course is about how one approaches business every day, regardless of the obstacles that come from all directions. Regardless how hard the wind is blowing you back, you fight that wind with every bit of your heart, mind and soul. Staying the course is all about Leadership.
, author of The Heart of Leadership
, says it best, “Leadership is a matter of character before skill. In other words, it’s about who you are. Fake leaders – those with skills but lacking character – inevitably sink. Skills might get you there but character keeps you there. Leaders fail for lack of character. Developing character is a matter of repeating behaviors.”
Strong leadership is a necessity when building a football program. Knowledge, belief, discipline, focus and perseverance with passion that translates; an iron will to correct the ship to the right path. In high major college football, leadership starts with the head coach and trickles down through the assistant coaches and then to the upper-class players and on to the young pups. True leadership is contagious and players will emulate their leaders, whether it is upperclassmen, assistant coaches or the head guy. The players are always watching, they know if the coach is just giving lip service or if he really embodies the message. Everything goes back to buying into the program, heading in the same direction, and all of that starts with leadership.
The 2013 WVU football team has had a bumpy season to date. Some surely think that is an understatement, but youth, first-time players, continuity, Big 12 competition, and a few bad breaks have been part of the cause. The 1986 team that went 4-7 had 13 seniors on the roster. The 6-6 team in 1987 had 10 seniors. Is it a coincidence that the 1988 team that went 11-1 had 25 seniors and the 1993 team that that also went 11-1 had 27 seniors? The 2013 team has just 12 seniors and 30 underclassmen among the two-deep.
These are not excuses but rather facts! Facts have consequences and this team is certainly battling them.
I have been around this game for a long time. I have seen the good, the bad and certainly the ugly. This team is not even close to the latter two. I am impressed by how they continue to fight, battle, keep their unity and stay focused. I watch practice. They are zipping around drill to drill - no signs of being disinterested or cracking. They have players that are leaders - Pat Eger
and Charles Sims
on offense and Darwin Cook
is playing his best on defense. Lights out young man! Big Will Clarke
and the Shaq “Attack” Rowell have played strong and given tremendous effort up front! These guys know this is their last go-round in college and they are making the most of it. The team, overall, is growing and I continue to support them. Work, grow, trust, believe and know that if you do, good things are coming!
Saturday, the 1993 team will return to town to honor and celebrate its 11-0 regular season record of 20 years ago. Former greats such as Richie Braham, Robert Walker, Jake Kelchner, Darren Studstill, Tommy Robsock, Timmy Brown, Michael Collins, Aaron Beasley, Mike Logan, Mike Baker and many more will be on campus. When I think of the 1988 and 1993 teams that I played and coached on, that darned 1986 Miami game still jumps out at me. Why? Because we would never have had that kind of success had those teams, those assistant coaches and Hall of Fame Head Coach Don Nehlen, had not walked the walk and stayed the course!