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Why Dana Holgorsen is leaving West Virginia for Houston

Moving from a Power 5 job to the Group of 5 isn’t common, but this one might make more sense than it seems.

NCAA Football: Baylor at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

As SB Nation reported late on New Year’s Eve, West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen announced Wednesday that he’s leaving the Mountaineers for the same job at Houston.

1. Holgorsen and UH have an agreement in place on a five-year, $20 million deal, sources said. It appears to make Holgorsen the highest-paid coach at any non-power conference school ever.

As for the timing of the move, his contract in Morgantown called for him to pay WVU $2.5 million if he left before New Year’s Day 2019.

That amount was slated to go down to $1 million at midnight on the first day of the year, causing Houston to wait before moving to officially hire him.

UH interviewed USC offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter in Los Angeles, sources said, but had long before then zeroed in on Holgorsen as the top candidate to follow Major Applewhite.

The school officially fired Applewhite on December 30, but his future was in serious doubt back when Houston took a historic loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl on December 22.

2. In Holgorsen, Houston had a candidate who badly wanted to be in the Cougars’ city, sources said, having had success in and near Texas before.

This will be the Mike Leach protege’s second stint with the Cougars. He was the offensive coordinator in 2008 and 2009 under Kevin Sumlin, when he coached QB Case Keenum.

Holgorsen then spent a year at Oklahoma State before becoming the head coach at West Virginia, where he’s had some excellent offenses. But the majority of the Great Plains native’s past two decades have been in and immediately around Texas, rather than in Appalachia.

3. Houston is a key talent hub in a top recruiting state. It produces a heaping handful of four-stars every year, and occasionally a generational talent like UH’s Ed Oliver.

The state of Texas has more blue-chip talent annually than any state except California and Florida, while the state of West Virginia might not have any four- or five-stars to recruit in a given year. In 2019, the state has its first five-star prospect ever in offensive tackle Darnell Wright, but WVU is not considered a candidate to land him. (Tennessee is the favorite.)

West Virginia’s not a densely populated state, but even relatively, there’s little blue-chip talent there. Houston’s second- and third-tier high school players, many of whom consider the Cougars, are more sought after.

For Holgorsen, the decision between WVU and Houston can be boiled down to one simple question: is it harder to lure talent from places like Houston, Dallas and Florida to far-flung Morgantown, or is it harder to keep a portion of Texas talent in-state at a Group of 5 school?

4. Relatively, Houston can have a more favorable talent situation in the AAC than West Virginia can in the Big 12.

To win at West Virginia, Holgorsen needed to out-scheme conference opponents from talent-richer parts of the country. To win at Houston, he might not have to do much more than keep some of his city’s better players home. In theory, at least.

And while UCF’s been dominant on the other side of Holgorsen’s new conference, Houston doesn’t typically face a situation comparable to, say, WVU’s historical standing against Oklahoma.

Over the last four full cycles:

  • WVU’s average recruiting class ranks a distant sixth in the Big 12 and at 41st overall, 30 spots behind OU.
  • Houston’s ranks third in the AAC, just five spots behind Cincinnati and two behind UCF.

5. Moving from the Power 5 to the Group of 5 doesn’t mean abandoning hopes of winning big games.

Houston can win at nearly the highest levels, at least based on recent history. Applewhite predecessor Tom Herman beat Oklahoma, beat other Power 5 teams, and won the Peach Bowl.

(Joining a non-power conference is, of course, to make yourself a very long shot to make the Playoff, but Holgorsen’s West Virginia hasn’t exactly been in contention for that anyway.)

UH also maintains its dream of eventually making it into the Power 5 itself, but that’s another story.

6. Holgorsen and West Virginia had also reached a natural separation point.

His teams have been competitive. This year’s remained in the Big 12 race until the final weeks of the season and was a New Year’s 6 contender for a while. He was not an immediate firing candidate in Morgantown, with a 7.6-win average and about a $7 million buyout.

But the Mountaineers were not making great progress. They finished 8-4 in 2018 despite having one of the country’s best quarterbacks in Florida transfer Will Grier. Heading into 2019, the program has a lot of unresolved issues: no one has yet emerged as Grier’s obvious successor, the defense lacks playmakers, and recruiting still lags behind Big 12 powers.

The Mountaineers’ young 2019 roster will also face a brutal schedule, including a non-conference slate of Missouri and NC State as well as FCS power James Madison.

In other words: Holgorsen wasn’t about to lose his job at WVU, but there were reasons for both sides to be ready for a change.