When Bill Stewart was hired as West Virginia's head coach last January, he vowed to put together a coaching staff that was second to none. On defense, coordinator Jeff Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich were still in town, while former WVU players and assistants Steve Dunlap and David Lockwood were quick to heed the call to come home to coach the safeties and cornerbacks, respectively.
However on the offensive side of the ball, piecing together the staff was a little tricky. The only holdover from the previous offensive staff was Stewart, who coached quarterbacks for six years and tight ends in 2007.
His first call was to Florida, where former WVU assistant John "Doc" Holliday had been coaching safeties while also serving as Urban Meyer's recruiting coordinator. Holliday coached at WVU in some capacity from 1979-1999. Stewart was able to lure him away from the Gators as associate head coach, recruiting coordinator and tight ends/fullbacks coach.
Jeff Mullen, formerly the quarterbacks coach at Wake Forest, was brought on board as offensive coordinator thanks in no small part to a glowing recommendation from Demon Deacons head coach Jim Grobe, one of Stewart's close friends. Lonnie Galloway left his job as receivers coach at Appalachian State for the same position with the Division I-A Mountaineers, and Northern Illinois running backs coach Chris Beatty was also hired.
Each coach brought his own unique background and philosophy to Morgantown. As talented as the coaches were individually, they had never worked together until spring practice. Naturally, there was an adjustment period, a getting-to-know-you phase that takes place during any coaching transition.
As much as practices in the spring and preseason helped, there was still the issue of working together on gameday. Whereas each and every minute of practice is planned and organized throughout the week, there is only so much you can do to simulate an actual game experience.
"During a game, you're thinking different things and everything works a little bit faster," explained Beatty, who spent time as a successful high school coach in Virginia before moving on to the college ranks. "It's not scripted like it is in practice. So, you've got to be able to anticipate what Jeff (Mullen) is thinking and help each other out. We're all looking at different things, so you have to trust the other people to see what they see and relay it to you to get your group corrected. It's a process. It takes time."
Eight games into the season, it seems as though the offensive staff has gelled as the season enters its final third.
"I think that the more you are together, there is no question that you get more comfortable," said Holliday. "I think the kids feel more comfortable too because it was a new system for them. The more games that you play, the more you get into it. I think the kids have adjusted well. Jeff Mullen has done a great job and he's keeping this thing together. The more games you can play, the more experience you can get, you're going to keep doing a better job."
West Virginia's coaches could not have picked a better time to gel than now. Currently sitting atop the Big East standings, the Mountaineers are again in great position to win the conference's automatic bid to the BCS. And while early-season hiccups at East Carolina and Colorado might have left some fans pointing fingers at the offensive staff individually and/or as a whole, the fact remains that West Virginia is peaking at the right time in 2008.
Much of the credit for that goes to the staff, which has found ways to utilize each and every weapon it has in its arsenal. No, the Mountaineers aren't putting up the gaudy rushing stats of past years and scoring 40-plus points every time out, but the winning results remain.
"I think we've gotten there," said Beatty. "It takes a long time to get where you want to be. You would like to be where you can be thinking about what Jeff is thinking before he even says anything and you know what he thinks. I'm sure that's how those guys he worked with at Wake were, and that's how the guys with Doc were all those years he worked here. It's just one of those things that builds the more you work together."
And according to Johnson, the good chemistry extends beyond the playing field.
"We respect each other, we like each other, we hang with each other off the field," he said. "You know, everybody comes in with different backgrounds and different verbiage. That takes a little bit of time to get used to. As far as gelling together, I think that took a very short amount of time as a group."
"I'm real satisfied with (the WVU staff)."