Following Luck's sophomore season of 1979, West Virginia dismissed head coach Frank Cignetti, who had compiled a record of 17-27 in four bowl-less seasons, and hired Don Nehlen as its new head coach. Nehlen, upon taking the job, was immediately in control, bringing in his own staff and putting his own stamp on the program. There wasn't any confusion, for Luck or any of his teammates, about who was in charge or who was calling the shots.
Fast forward thirty years, to the current coaching transition, and the situation is entirely different. There's no clean break here. Head coach Bill Stewart will hang on for one more season, but his authority will be limited, despite some assurances to the contrary. In Luck's own words:
"Coach Holgersen will have authority and autonomy over the offense, in consultation with Coach Stewart of course. He is in the process of talking with the offensive assistants today, and at the end of the day it will be Coach Holgersen's decision about what assistants are retained and what new assistant coaches on the offensive side he will bring in."
With such a division of responsibilities, how can Stewart effectively lead the team? Every player, from walk-on to star, will know he's not going to be around in 2012, so how can he be viewed as having any authority overall? Some, hopefully most, players will show their loyalty to the coach, but the potential is set for a very confusing division of power that may be difficult to overcome.
What happens when offensive mistakes are made? Does Stewart address them? Or will that be Holgorsen's responsibility? What about making in game decisions that affect not just the offense, but the overall aspect of game strategy? Holgersen will obviously be calling the plays, but in the end, doesn't there have to be some sort of unified set of tactics that work together?
Players, along with assistant coaches, will also obviously be working for their futures. For players, especially on the offensive side, building a relationship with Holgorsen will be paramount. Will that cause them to discount what Stewart has to say next year, for fear of being tied to strongly to the outgoing coach? That's just one of several aspects to consider in what promises to be a year unlike anything Mountaineer football has ever seen.
For his part, Luck believes, or at least says publicly, that there will be no conflict, although he admitted he had not spoken to the players.
"I really don't think there will be," he said when asked to compare his experience as a player in a clean coaching transition with this one. "Number one, I think our guys are professional enough to have clear lines of authority. Number two, I think our players are very smart and well-coached to begin with, so I don't see that as a problem at all."
We'll cast aside, for the moment, the thought that the current Mountaineers are "well-coached" (if that's the case, then why the change?) and examine Luck's model for making the change. He brought up two examples, neither of which are really comparable to the current situation at WVU.
"I have spent some time looking at various transition models in our industry within college football, and there are really two that we are using as our models for transition. First of all, the model that is very impressive and very similar to ours and almost exactly like ours is at the University of Wisconsin, back in 2005-06, when Coach Barry Alvarez, one of the great Big 10 coaches of all-time, segued out in favor of Coach Bret Bielema. The other transition model that we've looked at and are going to model ourselves after was also extraordinarily successful and it's at the University of Oregon. Chip Kelly came to Oregon in 2007 to join Mike Bellotti's staff. He was named coach in waiting in 2008 and became head coach in 2009. If you look at both of those programs, Wisconsin and Oregon, programs that we want to model ourselves after, they are today two of the most successful programs in the country. Wisconsin is going to the Rose Bowl ranked fifth, and Oregon is of course playing for the national championship game. Those transitions were handled very professionally and in a very transparent fashion. They were very comprehensive and inclusive."
While all that may be true, the fact is that neither Alvarez nor Bellotti were forced out of their positions. Also, both coaches-in-waiting were on the staff prior to their being named as heirs apparent – neither were brought in the with autonomy and control that Holgorsen is being handed.
Despite those clear differences, Luck still believes that the transition won't present any problems.
"What I expect and what I have shared with our coaches is that I expect a smooth and very professional transition. I have no doubt that we'll accomplish that because our guys are very professional guys."
Unspoken, but clearly evident in his statements, is the notice that there had better not be any squawking or problems with the transition. Luck, who has already overseen the departure of three coaches, won't hesitate to pull the trigger on a change, so it figures that, publicly at least, there won't be much displeasure expressed by any coach that stays on. However, Luck won't be able to control the feelings and expressions of his players, and those reactions are still to be heard, and more importantly, seen, in the coming year.