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Holgorsen brings high-powered passing attack back to Big 12

| Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen signals his players in the second half of an NCAA football game against Maryland in College Park, Md., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011. West Virginia won, 37-31. 
West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen signals his players in the second half of an NCAA football game against Maryland in College Park, Md., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011. West Virginia won, 37-31. AP

They are good friends and kindred spirits. Mike Leach recruited Dana Holgorsen to play college football and later hired him to coach it. For two decades, they have popularized an up-tempo style that emphasizes the passing game.

Since 2005, Holgorsen's teams have ranked among the top 10 nationally in passing offense. Last season at West Virginia was the first time one of Holgorsen's passing offenses didn't rank among the top three in yards per game during that span — the Mountaineers finished sixth.

For three of those years, Holgorsen was Leach's offensive coordinator at Texas Tech.

“We are close friends, and we keep in touch,” Holgorsen said of Leach, who was hired at Washington State following a two-year absence from college football. “He's a mastermind when it comes to organization, so I learned a lot of stuff from him, and when I broke off, I put my own spin on it.”

When Holgorsen left Lubbock, Texas, after eight years for an opportunity at Houston, Leach lavished him with praise: “He's the best I've ever had.''

Leach believes Holgorsen is the perfect coach to usher West Virginia into the Big 12.

“He's going to do a good job,” Leach said. “The Big 12 is more demanding than the Big East by a lot. I think the Big 12 is weaker than it's ever been, but it's significantly more demanding than the Big East. Dana's (familiarity) with (Big 12) cities, the stadiums and the nature of some of the teams is an advantage.”

Leach spent time with Holgorsen last year prior to West Virginia's win over Cincinnati, right before he accepted the Washington State job. Inviting Leach to a practice, Holgorsen provided his mentor with a script of plays.

“Half of it made sense to him, and half of it didn't,” Holgorsen said. “He stuck it in his back pocket. I don't know if he likes it.”

Leach loved it. How could he not?

Leach, after all, showed Holgorsen how it was done, first as his assistant at Iowa Wesleyan and later when they coached together at Valdosta State and Texas Tech.

“It was basically the same stuff,” said Leach, who was fired from Texas Tech in 2009 amid allegations he mistreated a player who had a concussion. Leach denied the allegations and sued for wrongful termination. “He adjusted a little terminology. The practice itself was almost identical.”

Deep roots

Leach and Holgorsen did everything together. It began when Leach recruited Holgorsen to play receiver for him and Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan. Holgorsen liked the way Leach recruited him and wondered if he, too, could become a coach.

Holgorsen liked Leach's style, and Leach appreciated Holgorsen's ability to grasp offensive concepts. Leach couldn't wait to hire him.

“I knew a lot about him,” Leach said. “I coached him in college, then he was my (graduate assistant) at Valdosta State.”

Mumme and Leach were on the fast track. Mumme, who developed Tim Couch at Kentucky into the top pick in the NFL Draft, took Leach with him to Lexington, Ky. However, Leach couldn't convince Mumme to hire Holgorsen. And he struck out trying to convince Bob Stoops to hire Holgorsen when Leach branched out to become coordinator at Oklahoma.

Leach realized it was only a matter of time before he and Holgorsen were together again.

Rising through the ranks

Wide-open offenses were becoming the rage in college football. Athletic directors were seeking offensive-minded coaches who could put points on the scoreboard and fans in the stands.

Mumme's success at Kentucky made Leach an inviting target. Leach's time was coming, Holgorsen's too.

“As soon as I got to (Texas) Tech, I knew I was going to bring Dana,” Leach said.

Leach guarded his play-calling duties but paid Holgorsen the ultimate compliment in Lubbock when he made him offensive coordinator and allowed him to call some plays.

“He was always a guy I trusted,” Leach said. “He's one of those guys that's a natural. He can personally coach every position on offense.”

Holgorsen, who was becoming a rising force on the national scene, believed he had what it took to run a major college program. So while Leach and Holgorsen collaborated on the game plan that led to No. 6 Texas Tech's 39-33 upset win in 2008 over No. 1 Texas, Holgorsen made it a point to study Leach's organizational skills.

Feeling a need to position himself better for a head coaching job, Holgorsen left Texas Tech after the 2007 season to become offensive coordinator for two other pass-happy coaches, Houston's Kevin Sumlin (2008-09) and Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy (2010).

Following the 2010 season, Holgorsen was hired at West Virginia. First hired as offensive coordinator, he replaced Bill Stewart as coach while never coaching a game as coordinator.

“From an organizational standpoint, the eight years I was with (Leach), that's what I took from him more than anything,” Holgorsen said.

Holgorsen noticed how Leach, while capable of running his offense, welcomed his friend's input and gave him the title of offensive coordinator. When Holgorsen took over at West Virginia, he also hired an offensive coordinator, Shannon Dawson, who played for him at Wingate.

“Offensively as a coordinator, you view yourself as one-half of the ball,” Holgorsen said. “As the head coach, you've got the whole team.”

One day, perhaps, Leach and Holgorsen, two coaches who call themselves friends, may even break down and schedule a game against each other.

First team to 50 points wins.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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