By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It was just what the doctor ordered, considering how tense things have been becoming around West Virginia’s football program as the losses have mounted into a four-game losing streak that has devalued what once looked as though it would be a golden season.
WVU coach Dana Holgorsen was on the weekly Big 12 coaches’ conference call when someone asked an innocuous question, then followed it up with another harmless inquiry.
“I’m wondering, do you talk to Coach Leach during the season much?” he asked.
Mike Leach is the former Texas Tech coach under whom Holgorsen was an apprentice for a decade and is now having a rough go at Washington State.
“Periodically, not too much,” Holgorsen answered. “We’re both doing our own thing.”
That led to this beauty of a question:
“Have you offered him any encouragement for what he’s going through?”
That’s like asking a drowning man if he cut down the man who was hanging by the neck from the rafters in the cabin on the lake. See, at the moment, that wasn’t exactly what a drowning man would be thinking about, and surely offering encouragement to anyone else wasn’t what Holgorsen has been doing these days.
He began laughing, then answered, “I’m looking for words of encouragement from him for what I’m going through. It’s more about me than it is about him here in Morgantown.”
To see Holgorsen could laugh about it was important, though, for while coaching football is an intense profession, there are times when you have to find distractions, find ways to make it enjoyable, even in the worst of times.
The mind of the player — and, for that matter, the coaching staff — has turned inward to the program, for there is much in the media, both traditional and social, much in the classroom and even at home that can distract a team and make things look not only worse than they are, but unfixable.
Texas Coach Mack Brown, for example, was having a bit of a rough go of it earlier this season, and was looking at tough times if his team didn’t bounce back from losing at home to WVU.
Being a veteran coach, one who has won a national championship but also seen the other side of that coin, he knew where he had to go at that moment and took his team there.
“The guys understood they didn’t play well at times against WVU,” he began. “We just circled the wagons. The biggest thing is they stopped listening to any outside sources and went back to work.”
They corrected the technical problems but also understood that they had to find ways to reach each kid.
“Every team is different. Every player is different. Every coach is different,” Brown said. “There’s a key to each kid and to each coach. My job is to learn to get through to each kid.”
It is no different at Kansas, where things are really bad. They have won only once all season, never in the Big 12, but new coach Charlie Weis has seen his team improve to the point that now they are losing really tough games, like an overtime thriller last week to Texas Tech.
Weis, like Jones, is a veteran coach who has had enough success in his career that he wears a Super Bowl ring from his assistant days at New England.
He tries to do away with the boredom of practice by varying things along the way.
“Every week we do something different,” he said. “A team can get in a rut because it gets used to losing, so you have to make sure you have fresh ideas every week.”
He thinks this is a major item in the way his team has been able to improve since the start of the season, putting it in position to win conference games the last two weeks.
“The most positive thing this past week was there wasn’t a ‘woe is me’ attitude on the sideline. When a team is losing, the first time something goes wrong, you get that, ‘Here we go again’ thing. This past game it wasn’t that way for the first time. This time the team wasn’t waiting for something to happen,” Weis said.
Holgorsen does try to put some different wrinkles into practice but doesn’t sound like he makes it a priority.
“It’s more trying some new things from a mentality standpoint, as far as getting the guys ready to play, as far as getting them excited to play,” he said. “I think we accomplished that last week, although it didn’t turn out good.
“What we do is we only have a few practices in a week. We have to get the scout team coached up and get the looks, figure out what you want to run on all three sides of the practice. You can’t really change that because of the NCAA limitations on the hours you have with your guys.”
Weis, for whatever reason, is seeing more good things coming than Holgorsen has recently.
“Considering you just lost a double-overtime game, that’s a major disappointment, still yesterday’s practice was as spirited a practice as we’ve had in some time. I think that’s in part because they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Key to turning things around and making progress, however, seems to be building a wall around the program in terms of keeping out the negative things that are being said in town and in school.
“Older teams handle it better than younger teams,” Brown said. “The media talks. Students talk. Parents hear the talk and talk about it.”
Brown says this is as true when a team is winning as it is when it is losing.
“In 2005 we were getting ready to play Texas A&M coming off a game we’d just won something like 66-0 when Bill Parcells sent me an email. I’d played for him at Florida State and I’d hear from him some. Well, the email read, ‘You have to be careful not to eat the poison cheese.’”
The point was not to believe all the good things that were being said about the team by outsiders.
“We put a piece of cheese in each locker with the quote hung up there,” Brown recalled. “We beat A&M and went on to win the national championship.”
Weis is looking at his season at Kansas as “a learning experience.”
“I told my staff everything we’ve done this year will make us better going forward,” he said. “We’ve had to come up with inventive ways to run because everyone knows we’re running it. The investment we made in the running game will make us that much better when the passing game becomes more efficient.”
Hopefully, WVU, too, is learning from the adversity and will be willing to put it to their own advantage in the future.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.