In one of the biggest stunners this Big 12 offseason, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen revealed he would be relinquishing playcalling duties to new offensive coordinator and longtime protégé Jake Spavital.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who once turned his offense over to Holgorsen years ago, has a bet he’d like to make -- provided that NCAA rules permit it.
“I’ll give you odds, that the first time they're in a good game and he starts grabbing for a headset or whatever, starts screaming, that he’s calling plays again,” Gundy said, laughing. “Now, I know (Spavital) is his buddy. But I’m just saying. ... How much money you want to bet on that?”
Gundy -- and for that matter, much of Big 12 country -- might be incredulous that Holgorsen would ever actually hand over the reins of his precious offense to someone else.
But that is the plan in Morgantown.
It could help Holgorsen and the Mountaineers the same way it did Gundy and Oklahoma State years ago.
“It’s just the right time, it makes sense, (for me to be) more of a CEO type guy,” Holgorsen said. “You have to spend as much time recruiting as you possibly can, fundraising is a big part of what we do, the game management aspect of it -- although I don’t think it’s been bad -- it’s hard to do. Just being able to oversee everything and live a happy life. You want to live. Want to live a long, happy, healthy life.”
Through the 2009 season, Gundy was still holding on to the playcalling in Stillwater. Since he had taken over in 2005, the Cowboys had gradually ascended, but in 2009, they hit a wall offensively. They were shut out by Oklahoma in the regular-season finale. Then, they scored just a touchdown in a bowl loss to Ole Miss.
That offseason, Gundy was convinced he needed to make a change.
“It just beat me up physically,” Gundy said. “Mentally, too many hours. I couldn’t, the 5:45 starts and watching video up to noon. Media, then running to a team meeting, then after practice until 10:30, 11 at night, it was just mentally beating me up. I wasn't as good with the players. I wasn't as good with the coaches. It just wore me out. I couldn't do it."
So Gundy tabbed one of the up-and-coming offensive minds in the game in Holgorsen, who was then Houston's coordinator, to bring his version of the air raid to Stillwater. The turnaround was immediate. In 2010, Oklahoma State ranked third in the country in offense and finished with double-digit wins for just the fourth time in school history.
Holgorsen stayed only one season in Stillwater before leaving for West Virginia. His offense remained with playcalling predecessors Todd Monken and Mike Yurcich, and has been one of the linchpins to Oklahoma State’s continued rise this decade.
“It worked out good, because when I brought Dana in, Dana’s personality, Dana didn't listen,” Gundy said, when asked about the temptation to get back into calling plays. “I never really got into it after I said I was out of it, because I stayed out of the room during the day.
“So it worked out great.”
As with Gundy, Holgorsen wasn’t going to surrender his offense to just anyone. But Holgorsen and Spavital go way back.
When Holgorsen was hired at Oklahoma State, he wasn’t able to bring any assistants with him because the Cowboys’ staff was full. He was able to bring a graduate assistant, which turned out to be Spavital, who helped Holgorsen teach the new offense to the Oklahoma State coaches and players.
“I learned under him for such a long time,” Spavital said. “My philosophy is very, very similar to his.”
After following Holgorsen to West Virginia, Spavital eventually became his own playcaller at Texas A&M, then Cal. When the Aggies and Mountaineers met in the 2014 AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Spavital had some fun with his old mentor:
After Sonny Dykes was fired at Cal, making Spavital available, Holgorsen knew he had an opportunity to complete the transition that Gundy once did.
“At first I was like, ‘Are you sure?’” said Spavital, recalling Holgorsen’s playcalling pitch. “It was flattering because the guy who taught you how to call an offense was asking me, giving me the keys. But I was shocked. I wanted to make sure he was really passing me the keys. Then he started talking to my wife, selling her on coming back to West Virginia (where she’s from). And we were sold.”
Holgorsen confessed recently that he too became exhausted calling plays on top of being the head coach. He told a story of how a West Virginia athletics photographer gave Holgorsen pictures of him and his family six years ago.
“I have a line of them in my house now,” he said. “It’s the first time I looked at them over six years -- I look different now than I did six years ago.”
Such a change worked beautifully for Gundy and Oklahoma State. Holgorsen is banking it will do the same for him and the Mountaineers.