With three games remaining in the regular season, West Virginia University's football team has a chance to accomplish a feat that two weeks ago seemed impossible -qualify for a 12th consecutive bowl.
"There's been some talk of that," head coach Dana Holgorsen admitted during Monday's Big 12 Teleconference. "I know the seniors gathered the team around and said that they didn't want to be the first team, in a long while, to not have a winning record or qualify for a bowl."
That ominous distinction belongs to the 2001 squad-Rich Rodriguez' first at the helm of the Mountaineers. Hall of Fame head coach Don Nehlen had elected to step down after 21 years at the helm and none of his assistant coaches were selected to take over the program.
Instead, Director of Athletics Eddie Pastilong elected to go with Rodriguez, who had been the offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson.
His only head coaching experience was at NAIA-level Glenville State College. Fans couldn't understand how Pastilong could turn over the Mountaineer program to a virtual unknown.
Making matters worse was a first year that, to put it simply, was horrible. Blowout losses to Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami (Fla.) had the locals wondering if Rodriguez had what it takes to lead a team in the NCAA's top division.
The off season was one filled with speculation surrounding whether or not he should be given a second year at the helm. Even winning seasons that culminated in bowl losses in 2002 (9-4, 6-1 Big East), 2003 (8-5, 6-1 Big East) and 2004 (8-4, 4-2 Big East) didn't seem to accomplish enough to squelch the talk of needing a more experienced head coach.
Then came 2005, 2006 and 2007, seasons that witnessed WVU climb into the elite of Division 1-A football. Huge bowl game wins over Georgia and Georgia Tech and a shot at returning to the national title game until a heartbreaking loss to arch rival Pitt in the final regular season game of 2007.
Then came Bill Stewart. A native West Virginian to fill the void left when Rodriguez departed for Michigan.
Back-to-back-to-back 9-3 seasons were not enough to quell criticisms about his coaching ability and even forced Director of Athletics Oliver Luck to bring in Holgorsen, an offensive coordinator from Oklahoma State to try and return the program to level it enjoyed during 2005-07.
A 10-3 first season that culminated in a throttling of Clemson (70-33) in the Orange Bowl had fans thinking the glory years were about to return. Those dreams continued last season when the team won its first five games and was ranked in the top 5.
Since then, things haven't gone the way fans wanted. This year's team needs to win two of its final three games to earn a bowl bid.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it's that fans need to enjoy the moment. A win over Texas could lead to a four-game winning streak to end the season. Add a bowl victory and WVU?returns a team that will be both experienced and confident entering its third season in the Big 12.
Contact Jim Butta at firstname.lastname@example.org