Let's go win the game: Dana Holgorsen has no fear of failure

Dana Holgorsen is 61-39 at West Virginia and has turned the Mountaineers into contenders. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Pick your favorite Dana Holgorsen eccentricity. There are a lot to choose from. The Red Bull. The hair. The two-point conversion he casually called against Texas a couple of weeks ago. They're all good, and they've all been parsed and praised and parodied enough times that it feels like a pretty unabridged biography of a coach who never wanted to be known as typical.

Still, the stories all seem to miss something critical about what really sets the West Virginia coach apart, about how the Red Bull fuels his manic attention to offense that rarely coalesces during standard business hours, or how that madman confidence was built in the cornfields of Iowa as an eager kid who never imagined he'd carve out his own place in the spotlight. All the colorful flourishes are real because Holgorsen doesn't know how to fake it, but they hide something more essential too -- that Holgorsen has been a damn good football coach for a long time.

"However smart you think he is," said Washington State coach Mike Leach, "he's smarter than that."

Funny thing is, people at every level of football are beginning to appreciate just how smart Holgorsen is. Staid and stable Alabama is running tempo. The stuffy old NFL has embraced the run-pass option. Oklahoma has evolved its own version of the Air Raid, similar to the tweaks Holgorsen has made on an offense he learned from Hal Mumme in the 1990s.

Now the Sooners stand as the last obstacle (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN) for West Virginia to reach a conference championship game.

Holgorsen, the ultimate outsider, is now mainstream -- like a punk rock band that makes it big. What's left to say once the outsider imagery has been stripped away?

Holgorsen is now the entrenched coach of a veteran team with a job description that is both unfamiliar and inevitable.

"He doesn't like being the CEO all the time," said Jake Spavital, the man who took over play-calling duties from Holgorsen two years ago as Holgorsen transitioned into coaching's middle age.

Has Holgorsen mellowed? Nah. Like his offense, he's tweaking things, adding a few new layers. But at the core, it's still hard to shake that need to push further, sometimes too far; and when he bumps up against the line that separates innovation from stupidity, he still says the same thing he did when he went for it in Austin: "Let's f---ing win the game."

There was a coaching clinic in Nashville, Tennessee, maybe eight or nine years ago. Holgorsen was speaking, and Chris Hatcher went to see him. The two worked together at Valdosta State in the early 1990s, Hatcher the QB, Holgorsen a coach -- sort of.

"He may have been getting paid," Hatcher said, "but he was a volunteer coach. He was our age, and he was allowed to hang out with the players."

That's how the two became friends, and it didn't take long for Hatcher to realize how much Holgorsen knew about offense. So years later, with Hatcher now a coach too, he was eager to hear what new concepts his old pal was bringing to the Air Raid.

The basics, Hatcher remembers, were still the same, but then Holgorsen gets going a little, and he starts talking about these personnel groupings he has been tinkering with. Real big sets, Hatcher remembers, in which the defense is forced to account for the run. Then, Holgorsen says, if they play the run, the QB can pull it, throw into one-on-one coverage on the outside. It was simple, really, but not many coaches were doing it.

"I was like, 'So it's a run-pass option,'" Hatcher said.

A few years later, the RPO was a staple of half the offenses in college football, and it's now devouring NFL playbooks. Like the Air Raid, Holgorsen didn't invent it, but he stole enough concepts and used them in creative enough ways that, suddenly, something old felt new again.

That's how it's always been with Holgorsen. Leach jokes that in those early years, if you asked Holgorsen for the time, he'd build you a cuckoo clock, but that's just how the guy is wired.

Mumme said he used to sit around with coaches and talk about the four or five run plays they would utilize, almost always built around the skill set of a particular back. It was an afterthought. Then, one day, Holgorsen visited practice, taught Mumme the zone read in about 15 minutes and -- voila -- the Air Raid had a run game.

When Kevin Sumlin hired Holgorsen at Houston, it was in hopes of building an offense around Air Raid concepts. But the Cougars had just faced Air Force's up-tempo team in a bowl game, and the idea clicked that the Air Raid and tempo went together quite nicely, so off Holgorsen went with some more new concepts.

At West Virginia, Holgorsen evolved again. His ground game now involves gap schemes. He'll line up in two-tight end sets. There's a whole new world for the offense to explore.

Holgorsen jokes that Leach booted him out of the Air Raid club years ago, and only now that he's chucking the ball around with Will Grier at QB has he been allowed back. For Holgorsen, that might be a badge of honor. He doesn't like being defined so easily.

"His creativity level is really up there with anybody," Sumlin said. "You see him evolve from basically being a four-wide team that threw a lot to where he is now changing formations and doing a lot of different things. He's unbelievably creative, and always on the cutting edge."

The Air Raid club is as much a cult of personality as a coaching clique, and Holgorsen has eagerly embraced that. He's not Leach. He doesn't care about pirates or expound on the virtues of employing a wedding planner. But he's happy to do things his own way, and he apologizes to no one for doing it.

"Maybe his greatest trait is he honestly does not care what anybody thinks about him," said Graham Harrell, who quarterbacked for Texas Tech during Holgorsen's time on staff there and is now offensive coordinator at North Texas. "Some people don't care for him, but he honestly doesn't care. And because of that, he'll try anything. If it doesn't work, what, fans are going to be pissed? He doesn't care."

That has been Holgorsen's ethos at West Virginia. It's not a place that wins by doing things the easy way. Before Holgorsen arrived, it wasn't a place that won much at all. The Mountaineers had seven 10-win seasons in more than a century. Holgorsen could get his third in eight years with two more victories this season.

"It's almost like he's been lost on the island of West Virginia," Harrell said. "But he always wins."

At Texas Tech, Holgorsen coached the inside receivers, and Harrell remembers them as the toughest unit on the team. Holgorsen makes his guys work, and that toughness endears him to folks in Morgantown.

"This program," Holgorsen said, "you're going to roll up your sleeves and outwork people."

West Virginia isn't a place stocked with homegrown talent either, so Holgorsen has built a roster his own way. David Sills V bounced around from quarterback at USC to juco castoff to star receiver for the Mountaineers. Grier arrived from Florida, choosing West Virginia from a laundry list of suitors because Holgorsen promised him a wide-open offense. Another half-dozen regulars arrived via transfer too. The way Holgorsen sees it, it's part of how business gets done in a place like Morgantown.

"West Virginia's like that in general," Holgorsen said. "That's what the state was made up on. It's a melting pot of a whole bunch of different people that all came here, and the state was formed because another state didn't want it."

Then there's the offense -- a menagerie of wild ideas culled together from years of late-night mania, few of which made much sense at the time but all of which wormed their way onto the practice field or a call sheet long enough to fail or succeed on their own merits.

Holgorsen remembers pitching ideas to Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State that were laughed off by the head coach as "preposterous" or "the dumbest idea I've ever heard."

Sumlin recalled as much in 2016.

"Some of this stuff he was trying to get me to sign off on in 2008 and 2009, not a chance," Sumlin said. "Routes crossed up, and backs and receivers and tight ends all over the place. It looked like spaghetti. No way, sorry man, we aren't doing this."

Holgorsen calls that "good football communication."

"Some of them work, some of them don't, but you can't be scared to try," he said. "You can't be afraid to fail. If you are, there's no innovation."

That's the real hallmark of Holgorsen's career. He's not afraid of failure. He's afraid of standing still.

"If you don't think independently, all you are is everybody else," Leach said. "And if you're everybody else, anybody else will do."

On the wall of Holgorsen's office at West Virginia, there are framed photos of some of the Mountaineers' stars -- Grier, Sills, Gary Jennings Jr. It started with nine, but Holgorsen has had to add a few as the season progressed. "My guys," he calls them.

Holgorsen invites them out to his house routinely. They watch football and eat barbecue.

His son, Logan, is a senior in high school, and he spends a lot of time at the West Virginia facilities these days too. So Logan and a handful of players will invariably find their way into Holgorsen's office, set up shop with the video game console in back and spend a few hours needling the coach.

"He'll be at his computer looking at film," Sills said, "and we'll be like, 'What are you doing?' even though we know exactly what he's doing."

Holgorsen is spending more time with the defense too. The coach who, as his former QB Brandon Weeden said, wanted to score 100 every game, has started to appreciate the nuanced performance of the guys on the other side of the ball.

And Holgorsen arrives at every Friday practice armed with a laundry list of scenarios for his assistant coaches to address on the fly -- a pop quiz of creativity. Third-and-3 in the red zone, down a score. Whaddaya got?

He is challenging himself to stay hardwired to those things he has always embraced, but he is forcing himself to see a bigger picture. It's a balance.

Maybe that's what bothered him so much about last week's loss to Oklahoma State, a game West Virginia botched amid woeful red-zone performances and far too many third-down failures. This was the antithesis of Holgorsen's identity. "It's stupid," he said after the game.

Spavital said the toughest conversations during the week are about the plays that aren't working, about being ruthlessly efficient in what to keep and what to throw away. Too much of what happened against Oklahoma State was some variation of an offense that didn't belong in West Virginia's playbook. So now they start again.

"You're not going to be defined by your mistakes," Holgorsen said, "if you correct them."

Everyone talks about what Holgorsen said at the end of the game-winning drive against Texas because it fits so perfectly with his freewheeling image. "Let's go win this f---ing game," he shouted to Grier. Of course Dana Holgorsen said that.

And they did go win it. That's the other thing that made Holgorsen's audacious gamble to go for two to topple Texas one of the season's most lauded moments. It showcased the sheer arrogance of the man calling the shots, but "Let's go win" was followed by a play Holgorsen said he has had in his back pocket all season, a play he ran as the Longhorns called timeout, then brazenly ran again for the win, with just a slightly different twist. Confidence, creativity and timing. That has been Holgorsen's blueprint for decades.

But all of that misses where the whole thing started, 75 yards from the end zone with 2 minutes to play and the Mountaineers trailing by seven.

A week later, when Oklahoma State tried the same gamble against Oklahoma only to fail on the two-point try, Gundy said he didn't give a damn what his players thought of the call. But Holgorsen cared. He has built that rapport this year, here in his new world -- not as a program builder or an avant-garde offensive mastermind, but as the coach who is finding a mesh point between madman and grown man.

He gathered his guys on the sideline, not to call the plays but to guarantee the outcome.

"Keep doing what you're doing," he told his offense before that final drive. "We'll move the ball. We'll score. We'll go for two. Then we'll get the hell out of this place."