Dana Holgorsen, Houston football and a decades-long vision coming to fruition

HOUSTON -- Here's a theory on Houston coach Dana Holgorsen: He's so disinterested in the approval of his peers, his fans -- pretty much anyone -- that his lack of ego actually affords him the opportunity to do things few other coaches would dare try.

Houston AD Chris Pezman considers this for a moment and then laughs.

"Well, you can start with his hair," he said.

If you know nothing else of Holgorsen, you know the hair. It's like a mullet. There's a genuine party in the back, and when Holgorsen is talking, he has a habit of running his fingers through those long, tightly curled locks. But the business in the front -- well, that business has laid off the bulk of its staff. As a result, when Holgorsen gets animated on the sideline during a game, the rogue wisps still covering the top fly in every direction, and the result is something like a hairstyle created by Jackson Pollock. It's a chaotic work of art.

The hairstyle has become shorthand for Holgorsen's entire image. His 12-year career as a head coach -- winning the 2012 Orange Bowl, shepherding West Virginia from the Big East to the Big 12, reimagining his entire recruiting, practice and playcalling philosophy mid-career, then ditching a Power 5 job for a gig in the American Athletic Conference because he believed he could build Houston into something special -- it all feels a bit like that hair, something that just goes with the breeze.

"He's not going to give you a great oration like General Patton," said Ryan Dorchester, the director of football operations and Holgorsen's right-hand man at Houston. "It's not in his nature to take credit for much, and maybe that's to his detriment. So it feels like happenstance."

And yet, if all goes according to plan in 2022 -- a plan Holgorsen conjured from two decades of study -- his Cougars will follow up a 12-2 season with another stellar campaign, win the American, push for playoff consideration (as last year's AAC winner, Cincinnati, did) and then head off to the Big 12 in 2023, ending the school's 30-year campaign for Power 5 access. And this will all have come on Holgorsen's watch after he jettisoned his own spot in the Power 5 at West Virginia to take a chance on a program he believed in, in a city he loves, when most of the rest of the college football world thought the move was ludicrous.

Surely if all that happens, people will be forced to consider the wins more than the hair or the Red Bulls or the profanity on the sideline. Finally, Holgorsen will have secured his place as one of college football's best coaches, right?


"Honestly," Holgorsen said, "I don't care what people think."

If anything, Holgorsen actively wants people to avoid giving him credit.

Last month, he was running through a laundry list of changes he has implemented to bolster the program and get it ready for the Big 12 move next year, but laying it out like that made him uncomfortable, so he pivoted to an alternate narrative. It's really about his staff, he said. Nearly every one of them followed him from somewhere else -- West Virginia, mostly -- and so they know his vision and how he wants things done, and they just ... go. It's one big machine designed by a wild-haired inventor, and if it's running smoothly, no one should notice Holgorsen behind the curtain, pulling the levers.

"He doesn't always want to be the smartest guy in the room," defensive coordinator Doug Belk said. "But he is."

OK, THE FIRST STEP on Holgorsen's journey to Houston actually was dumb luck.

It was December 1999, Holgorsen's first day on the job as an assistant on Mike Leach's first staff at Texas Tech. He was slumped in a chair in an office with the other new coaches -- Ruffin McNeil, Robert Anae and Sonny Dykes -- and no one quite knew what they were supposed to be doing.

Finally, Leach thundered into the room with marching orders.

"Go to the airport," he bellowed, "and start recruiting."

The four assistants exchanged confused glances.

Dykes had connections to the previous staff, helmed by his dad, Spike, and he'd cobbled together a list of a few top recruiting targets on a sheet of paper. That was the extent of their intel. Go recruit? Recruit who?

Leach was unimpressed.

"It ain't that hard, guys," he grumbled, unfolding an oversized map of the state and pinning it to the wall.

Leach smacked his finger on the map -- Dallas! -- and off went one assistant. Then central Texas. Off goes another. Then he pointed at Holgorsen.

"You go to Houston," he said.

And that was it. Holgorsen took a few scraps of paper with maybe four names and phone numbers, bought a plane ticket and started making calls from a pay phone.

Over the next 20 years, he'd make countless trips back.

After his tenure under Leach, he took a job on Kevin Sumlin's staff at Houston so he could call plays for the first time in his career. While there, he met Oliver Luck, who was serving as GM of Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo. Luck eventually landed the AD job at West Virginia and hired Holgorsen there -- first as "coach in waiting" and then, following the tumultuous resignation of Bill Stewart, as head coach.

At West Virginia, Holgorsen's preferred recruiting area remained Houston. He bought a house there and every few months, he'd hop on a plane and head back to his adopted hometown. When he was there, he made a habit of driving through Houston's campus and checking in with old friends. He made note of the new buildings popping up, the school growing alongside the city -- now the fourth-largest metro area in the U.S. In the back of his mind, Holgorsen began developing a blueprint for a football program he wasn't even coaching.

"You'd ask him about his time here [as an assistant]," said Holgorsen's son, Logan, "and he'd say it wasn't great, but he could see how it could get good."

At West Virginia, Holgorsen actually lobbied for the Big 12 to add Houston as a member in 2016 when it considered expansion. Ultimately, the league stayed at 10 teams, but the process convinced Holgorsen the Cougars had a Power 5 future.

A few months later, Holgorsen got his first opportunity to take the Houston job. Tom Herman had won big there, then left for Texas. The job was Holgorsen's if he wanted it.

He did. But he couldn't bring himself to take it.

He had a transfer quarterback named Will Grier ready to take over at West Virginia. He had stocked the Mountaineers' roster with legitimate Big 12 talent. He'd be walking away from too much. So he stayed.

Three years later, the terrain was different. His 2018 West Virginia team peaked at No. 6 in the AP poll but dropped its final three games. Grier and a boatload of veterans were leaving. Houston, too, had fallen on harder times, and Pezman had just fired head coach Major Applewhite.

"Chris called," Holgorsen said, "and I told him, 'I'm on my way.' It was as simple as that."

Finally, the stars aligned.

Holgorsen flew from Florida, where his team had just lost its bowl game, to Houston and got to work. Friends and family packed up his house in West Virginia. He never went back.

IF THERE'S SOMETHING other than the hair that everyone seems to know about Holgorsen, it's that he likes to have a good time.

Back in West Virginia, Holgorsen mostly shuttled between the office and his house, where he created an oasis from life as the Mountaineers' head football coach. He had a pool, an Xbox and a fire pit, and if the team had a Saturday off, the whole staff came over to watch games. Former West Virginia (and current Tennessee Titans) linebacker David Long Jr. remembered bringing his dad by the house on a recruiting trip. David Sr. was a bit of a pool shark, so he challenged Holgorsen to a game of 8-ball. Turns out, Holgorsen could hold his own.

"They went back and forth," Long said.

By the time Long was enrolled at West Virginia, his dad and his coach had become friends. Every time David Sr. came for a visit, he'd find his way over to Holgorsen's house, then down to the basement for another game.

"The best sports bar in West Virginia was in my backyard," Holgorsen said.

But Houston is chock full of sports bars, better restaurants and concert venues and a bunch of pro sports teams. Houston is a place where a guy can have some fun.

So when the pundits tried to figure out why a coach would leave a Power 5 program coming off a solid season for an upstart Group of 5 team facing a rebuild, the answer seemed obvious. Holgorsen was here for the nightlife -- to eat Tex-Mex and slam a few beers and snag tickets behind home plate for Astros games.

"That's a definite perk," Holgorsen said. "You're damn right it is, and I don't apologize for that. But my vision for [this program], in the city of Houston, I knew it could get there."

Holgorsen's first season at Houston in 2019, however, was not easy. The Cougars lost the opener to Oklahoma, then dropped two of their next three. Holgorsen decided it was time to reset. He pushed for a number of veterans, including star QB D'Eriq King, to opt out of the rest of the season and take a redshirt -- essentially tanking 2019 in hopes of a better 2020.

It was not a popular decision.

"You take a job and redshirt everybody? Who does that?" Pezman said. "It doesn't happen."

But Holgorsen didn't care. He'd seen the numbers. Houston's graduation rate was brutal, with more than a dozen players exhausting eligibility without a diploma. A redshirt year could help. And the roster was a mess. Beyond the frontline starters, there was no depth. Houston desperately needed to preserve experience for another year. Holgorsen explained it all to Pezman, and the AD backed his coach.

The Cougars finished a dismal 4-8, and at year's end, a host of players, including King, transferred.

"It didn't go quite the way I was expecting when I first got here," Holgorsen said. "The bottom line is we had a team that was used to doing things one way, and we weren't going to do them that way. And that gets you 4-8. People were pissed."

Still, Holgorsen was optimistic about Houston's chances in 2020, but COVID-19 played havoc with the schedule. The Cougars had a half-dozen games canceled or rescheduled, and while Holgorsen said it could've been an eight-win team, Houston finished that season with a losing record, too.

Two years in, Holgorsen's decision to leave West Virginia for Houston seemed to have netted him little more than better dining options.

"But the vision talk he gave when he took the job, it's the same vision he has now," Belk said. "He knew what he wanted and believed in it. Some people didn't trust the timeline but his commitment to the university is unique."

It all clicked in 2021. After losing its opener to Texas Tech, Houston reeled off 11 straight wins and played for a conference title before upending Auburn in the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl. Quarterback Clayton Tune blossomed into one of the country's most prolific passers and Houston's defense proved to be one of the nation's best -- a meaningful development for a team coached by a one-time Air Raid disciple who decided, mid-career, to embrace the merits of complementary football.

Suddenly all the seemingly haphazard choices Holgorsen had made along the way looked downright brilliant. Entering 2022, Houston has a spot in the Big 12 on the horizon and a chance to win the American on its way out the door. This offseason, Holgorsen even ponied up $1 million of his own money to help finance Houston's new football building. He's all in.

"He's brave," Belk said. "He's a risk taker. Not many people in this business would've done what he did. Sometimes you have to bet on yourself and the people around you, and he's been willing to do that."

BELK GETS THE QUESTION all the time: Why hitch your wagon to Dana Holgorsen?

It's an odd match, after all. Belk is a defensive guy. He got his start as a graduate assistant at Alabama, working for Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. He's got aspirations to become a head coach and he's viewed as one of the hottest commodities in the coordinator ranks. And yet, for the past six years, he has followed the guy who might be the poster boy for the exact opposite ethos of the defensive-minded Saban acolyte.

Seriously, what does Belk see in that guy?

"Sometimes we're on different ends of the spectrum, but we both see the bigger picture," Belk said. "For me, it's about the people. A lot of places, they're cookie cutter. We don't have robots walking around here."

Belk remembers sitting at his desk his first Friday at West Virginia, back in 2017. He had just left Alabama, where Saban was notoriously demanding, and he "was a little machine," Belk said.

Now, he was noticing it was eerily quiet in the building. He peeked his head out the door and ... nothing. It was a ghost town.

Belk was shocked. People went home at night?

It's all part of the Holgorsen culture, an idea that sometimes less is more. There are, as Belk said, "negotiables and nonnegotiables."

The hours are negotiable. Winning is not.

"Part of why Doug Belk likes it here is he's been in other systems, and it sucks," Dorchester said. "That's all you do. Maybe you win, but it ain't any fun. More isn't always better. More games, more practices, more money, more coaches -- at some point it's worthless."

Maybe this is why everyone focuses on the hair. It's so obvious, but what really separates Holgorsen is subtle. In a sport driven by micromanagers, Holgorsen doesn't watch the clock or give a bunch of rah-rah speeches. He has a habit of asking questions for which he already knows the answers, but he's curious how his staff will respond. Sometimes they surprise him with an explanation so profound he'll adopt their new ideas on the spot.

"Everybody sees the Red Bull-drinking, headset-slamming, the energy he brings to the sideline," Belk said. "But his greatest quality is how he manages people and how he galvanizes them and brings them together. He has a great feel of everything that's going on around him."

SO WHAT HAPPENS if Houston delivers on this year's expectations, packs the stands, wins a conference title, breaks ground on a new football facility and rides off into the sunset -- or, at least, the Big 12? Maybe then people will realize, as Holgorsen says, "I'm not as big of an idiot as what people make me out to be."

In the conference room adjacent to Holgorsen's office, there's a massive display of recruiting prospects broken out by position. He's waving at names in a bland assertion that, yes, he has a plan for the future. Holgorsen points at a few he has scratched off his list recently. He's aiming higher. Houston has some cache now.

There's another dozen likely headed elsewhere, Holgorsen says, but that's OK, too. They wanted to play Power 5 ball today, and he understands. He shook their hands and wished them well and, in a year or two, maybe he'll have a shot to lure them back. He helped build West Virginia through the transfer market, long before the word "portal" had entered the college football lexicon -- another Holgorsen brainstorm that's now gone mainstream -- and he could probably do it again here.

Then again, he says, maybe the high school ranks offer the most bang for the buck these days. He's not married to a philosophy on roster building, even if one approach has worked before. He's always on the lookout for market inefficiency. They zig, he zags.

"He does things his own way," Belk said. "A lot of people try to check boxes and do things a certain way because somebody else did it, but he's one of the most intelligent people I've been around."

Holgorsen would rather not talk about that though. Instead, he pulls off his hat, runs his fingers through that glorious tangle of hair, and gets to thinking about dinner.

This is Houston, after all. And he's Dana Holgorsen.

"I don't know what I'm doing tonight," he says. "But I'll do something. And I apologize for nothing."