Follow the leaders
Stanford's David Shaw made the transition from assistant to head coach appear seamless.
Dana Holgorsen had it ready. The West Virginia boss is one of two first-year head coaches to lead his team to a BCS bowl this season. The other is David Shaw of Stanford.
"I guess we both got a little bit of luck on our side," Holgorsen said. "Quote unquote, Luck on our side. You might want to use that one, huh?"
Thank you, and don't forget to tip your ballboy. West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who hired Holgorsen earlier this year, is the father of Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Holgorsen's groaner notwithstanding, Shaw will take the No. 4 Cardinal (11-1) to play No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, while Holgorsen and the No. 23 Mountaineers (9-3) will play No. 15 Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.
The two rookie head coaches couldn't have taken more divergent paths to the BCS, and not merely because their campuses are nearly 2,700 miles apart.
First, some perspective on this career-defining achievement for both coaches: Only 31 of the 120 active FBS head coaches have taken a team to a BCS bowl. Joining Shaw and Holgorsen as the newest members of the club is Brady Hoke of Michigan. Though he is in his first season with the Wolverines, Hoke is in his ninth season as a head coach.
Before this season, only five first-year head coaches led their teams to the BCS in its 13-year history. Only once did two do so in the same season -- 2001, when Larry Coker took Miami to the Rose Bowl presented by AT&T and the BCS championship, while Ralph Friedgen took Maryland to the FedEx Orange Bowl.
In other words, it ain't easy in the best of circumstances, which is what Shaw took over last January: a top-five team with a 12-1 record and the Heisman Trophy runner-up at quarterback.
"There's no book that says you have to start at the bottom," Shaw said. "So why not take a team with high expectations and push yourself, not just to reach those high expectations but try to exceed those expectations? I loved every minute of it."
Shaw took over a team that he knew and that knew him.
"Sometimes as a new head coach," Shaw said, "you can come in and say, 'Hey, everybody has a clean slate. Everybody starts from ground zero. What you do from now on is blah blah blah.' For me, there was no such thing. I knew all the pluses and minuses. I knew all the things the guys had done and hadn't done. There was no clean slate. Everybody was right where he should have been."
The apparent seamlessness of the transition from Jim Harbaugh to Shaw can be seen in how the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award didn't name Shaw one of its 10 finalists. He was expected to win and he did. Yet Shaw didn't exactly climb on the back of his extraordinary quarterback. He had to replace four assistant coaches. He had to learn how to negotiate the difference in running a meeting room and running a team.
He and Holgorsen share a love for watching video. No longer did they have the luxury of sitting in a dark room, remote control in hand, for eight hours a day.
"Having the football knowledge is paramount, but it's not the only thing," Shaw said. "You have to be able to hire a great staff and you have to be able to handle the other 80 percent of your job, which is non-football-related activities. Whether it's media, alumni, just handling all the other stuff that's around the program and recognizing that stuff is vital to our program's success is as well."
It amounts, Shaw said, to 20 decisions a day.
"We're talking about practice times," he said. "We're talking about where we want the cameras. Which practice fields? Should we rotate fields? Should we move this drill? How much individual time? This kid's grades came back. Is he still a kid we want to keep pursuing as a recruit? Do we need to back off of him? Is there still time for him to get his grades up? Should we change this protection? What do you think about playing this guy on special teams as opposed to that guy?"
Early on, Shaw said, he would call his wife Kori and tell her he was walking out the door. "And I live 10 minutes away from here. About half an hour later, she'll [call]. 'Are you coming home or not?' I have to pass by six offices on my way out the door. Invariably four of those six wants an answer to a question."
Shaw laughed. "I've learned not to call my wife until I actually get to my car," he said.
The transition at West Virginia was anything but seamless. There were seams, stitches, scars, you name it. Oliver Luck hired Holgorsen as offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting for Bill Stewart, whom Luck allowed to remain as head coach for the 2011 season. Holgorsen brought an entirely new offensive staff with him. Once it became public in June that Stewart had tried to undermine Holgorsen, Stewart resigned. Luck promoted Holgorsen and put him in charge of a staff, half of which he had not hired. That was pretty much the same circumstances that made Stewart balk.
Holgorsen didn't know his players, "and they didn't know me," he said. "And the offensive staff didn't know the defensive staff and vice versa. New schemes, defensive schemes and personnel used to doing things one way. … Day-to-day operations and practice schedules and how you practice against each other and what's being said. It's just new. And it's with a bunch of people that, regardless of the situations, just didn't know each other very well."
It took three-quarters of the season for the Mountaineers to work everything out. Only after the 38-35 loss at home to Louisville in Week 10, Holgorsen said, did the team come together. That loss dropped West Virginia to 6-3, 2-2 in the Big East.
"I really felt like the players listened for the first time all year," Holgorsen said. "It wasn't anything about X's and O's. It was all about attitude, being accountable, everybody buying in, being together, playing together, getting excited about playing, [having] a bunch of energy on the sideline."
The Mountaineers won each of their final three games in the final seconds: a blocked field goal to hold off Cincinnati, 24-21; a defensive stand to stop archrival Pittsburgh 21-20 in the Backyard Brawl; and with the Big East BCS berth at stake, a field goal as time expired to defeat South Florida, 30-27.
"It took some time for everybody to get to know each other and build trust and figure out that we all got to play together to win," Holgorsen said. "I think we are a very, very, very united football team right now, regardless of reports. I think we are a very united football team right now. Now, we weren't at Louisville; for the last month, we have been."
Getting to a BCS bowl will provide Shaw and Holgorsen some career insurance. But there are no guarantees. Of the five previous first-year coaches who reached a BCS bowl, two were fired within five years of the bowl. Next season, without Luck at quarterback, no one will expect Stanford to have a third consecutive 11-1 regular season.
"We're not having lower expectations," he said.