5 for the 10s is a four-part series reflecting on the most memorable West Virginia athletics players, games, news and events of the concluding decade of the 2010s.
Last of four parts: In this installment, we rank the Top 5 West Virginia University sports news events of the decade. These are the decade’s stories that took place off the playing field, but their impact was certainly felt between the lines.
5. West Virginia announces plans to sell beer at football and basketball games (2011)
In a forward-thinking way to increase revenue, WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck announced that the university would allow beer sales in the concessions stands at football and basketball games beginning in the fall of 2011.
WVU and Luck were trailblazers in this area, bucking the baffling hypocritical puritanism universities had/have regarding alcohol. Drinking has been a part of the fan experience at college games from the beginning, but the NCAA and its institutions acted like allowing alcohol consumption inside the stadium walls would result in absolute chaos.
Luck realized that selling beer was an untapped (pun intended) revenue stream that universities were foolish not to tap into (also intended). Beer sales began in WVU’s last season in the Big East. When the Mountaineers joined the Big 12 a year later, they were the only conference school permitting on-campus alcohol sales. WVU remained the lone Big 12 school to permit beer sales at athletic events until 2015 when Texas followed WVU’s lead.
With TCU’s announcement in August that it would allow beer sales in 2019, by decade’s end seven (WVU, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Kansas and TCU) of the 10 Big 12 schools allow alcohol sales at on campus games.
4. Dana Holgoren leaves for Houston, Neal Brown arrives (2019)
On the surface, Holgorsen leaving a Big 12 school to take an AAC job is a bad look for West Virginia. It looks better upon deeper inspection.
Holgorsen’s 2018 team was one of – if not the most – talented WVU teams he had since taking over in 2011. The Mountaineers had an offense stacked with talented skill position players coupled with an experienced offensive line. Expectations were sky high.
An 8-5 record and a spot in the Camping World Bowl did not meet those expectations.
Reports were that Holgorsen wanted an extension but WVU AD Shane Lyons wasn’t interested. With most of his talent leaving, coming off a season that fell short of expectations, and his boss refusing to extend his contract, Holgorsen saw the Houston offer as a safe landing spot from an unstable situation personally.
Facing his first big hire as WVU athletic director, Lyons appeared to nail it. Lyons brought in Brown after Brown’s four-year tenure as head coach at Troy. Brown was 35-16 and 3-0 in bowl games at Troy.
Both coaches had losing records at their new schools in 2019. Brown’s WVU team was 5-7 and Holgorsen was one game worse, finishing 4-8.
3. Oliver Luck hired as West Virginia athletic director (2010)
In June 2010, West Virginia announced that the university hired former WVU quarterback Luck to replace retiring athletic director Ed Pastilong. Luck had the job for five-plus years. They were certainly eventful.
Luck’s most consequential move was getting West Virginia invited to join the Big 12 Conference. As the Big East Conference crumbled around WVU, Luck’s efforts were crucial to finding a landing spot in the incredibly turbulent world of conference realignment. Luck will always be remembered for this move.
Luck showed his out-of-the-box thinking soon after his arrival when he worked to get the university to accept allowing beer sales at football and basketball games. Few schools did that at the start of the decade. By the end of the decade, more than 50 schools allow on-campus alcohol sales. Luck was a trailblazer in opening this revenue stream.
Getting WVU into the Big 12 was Luck’s most important accomplishment. The second-most important decision of Luck’s tenure was hiring Holgorsen to replace Bill Stewart as football coach. That didn’t go as smoothly.
Luck left WVU in December 2014 to take a job with the NCAA. He is currently the commissioner of the XFL, which is slated to begin play in February.
2. Bill Stewart resigns under pressure, replaced by Dana Holgorsen (2011)
The process that resulted in the hiring of Stewart as WVU football coach was bizarre. The circumstances that led to his forced resignation were surreal.
WVU officials hired Stewart without conducting a coaching search and likely without sobering up.
Stewart was named WVU’s interim coach in December 2007 after coach Rich Rodriguez left to take the job at Michigan. The plan was for Stewart to coach WVU in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma, then the university would conduct a thorough search for Rodriguez’s replacement. Stewart wasn’t even considered a viable candidate.
Then WVU throttled Oklahoma, 48-28. The next day, the school announced Stewart was now the full-time coach. A major college football coach had just been hired without a search. At all. None.
And that’s just the hiring of Stewart. The story of replacing him gets weirder.
When Luck was named WVU AD in 2010, the football program was solid but had withered from its heights under Rodriguez. WVU won two Big East titles in Rodriguez’s last three years. They didn’t win any under Stewart. Luck felt the program had stagnated into mediocrity and decided a coaching change was in order. Luck announced that Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen would replace Stewart.
So far, completely normal. But then Luck went full bore into his outside-of-the-box thinking. Way outside.
Holgorsen would replace Stewart, but not for the 2011 season. Holgorsen would serve as Stewart’s offensive coordinator for a year, then take the reigns in 2012. For some reason Luck didn’t forsee that forcing Stewart – who didn’t want to leave – to have his replacement on his staff for a season might be an issue. Almost a decade later it still is completely baffling that a man as smart as Luck didn’t see the pitfalls in this plan.
This Stewart-Holgorsen arranged marriage appeared to be set to play out. But in steps Colin Dunlap.
Yes, Stewart’s premature ouster as WVU football coach was precipitated by a man few WVU fans ever heard of.
Dunlap was the WVU football beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He covered the team for the paper during part of Stewart’s tenure. On May 30, 2011, Dunlap, now a former P-G reporter, was a guest on a sports talk show on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh. In his appearance, Dunlap said Stewart asked him personally “dig up some dirt” on Holgorsen and see if Holgorsen had any “skeletons in his closet.”
So the head coach was asking a reporter to “dig up dirt” on his top assistant. Again, how Luck thought this was a good idea – or that it was even plausible – remains inexplicable.
Naturally, a firestorm of negative publicity followed. On June 11, 2011, – Stewart’s 59th birthday – WVU announced Stewart’s resignation and that Holgorsen was the new head coach.
Stewart died less than a year later after suffering a heart attack while playing golf.
1. West Virginia bolts the Big East, joins the Big 12 (2011)
The biggest WVU sports story of the decade is also the most impactful sports story in the history WVU athletics. That statement is not hyperbole.
WVU joined the Big East in football in 1991 and became an all-sports member in 1995. The Mountaineers had been a football independent and an Atlantic 10 member in all other sports.
In an ideal world, WVU would still be a member of the conference. But it’s not an ideal world.
In 2003, Miami and Virginia Tech left the Big East Conference to join the ACC. Boston College joined them in 2005. However, starting with that season, the conference added Louisville and WVU and the Cardinals became the conference’s powerhouses. WVU scored major style-point victories for the conference with BCS bowl wins over Georgia (Sugar, 2006) and Oklahoma (Fiesta, 2008). The Mountaineers (nor any other Big East team) didn’t play for a national title during this time, but they were players on the national stage.
But the writing was on the wall for the conference. Its fate was sealed on September 17, 2011, when Pitt and Syracuse announced they were also leaving for the ACC. For the remaining schools, it was akin to having a seat on the Titanic.
The Big 12 was suffering deserters of its own. Colorado had left for the Pac 12. Nebraska for the Big 10. Texas A&M and Missouri for the SEC. The conference was down to nine members and needed a 10th and needed it for the 2012 season.
West Virginia and Louisville were the contenders for the invite. Luck worked some magic and, on October 28, 2011, announced that, beginning the next football season, West Virginia would be a member of the Big 12.
The Big 12 hasn’t been ideal. WVU’s closest conference rival is more than 800 miles away in Ames, Iowa. Most of the others are more than 1,000 miles from Morgantown. The Backyard Brawl has been on hiatus since 2011 and won’t renew until 2022. And then it’s just for four years. There are no convenient road trips for fans.
But it beats the alternative – that being almost complete irrelevance as a member of the American Athletic Conference.
The Big 12 isn’t the smoothest of lifeboats. But the roughest seat on the lifeboat is better than the softest seat on the Titanic.