What Dana Holgerson Taught Me About Leadership Change


Back in late 2011, I and many other Mountaineer fans were disappointed to see the seemingly premature outing of the late Bill Stewart from the head coach position of the WVU football program. Coach Stew had been there for WVU football for 11 years and stepped up to the plate during the 2008 Fiesta Bowl when the previous head coach had jumped ship a month earlier.

Fast forward 3 years, and WVU now had a new athletic director (who is the top boss over all of these coaches) who wanted to take WVU football to “the next level”. So in comes Dana Holgerson; first as an offensive coordinator, but who was a shoe-in for the head coach position in the very beginning. Coach Stew was given the 2011 season as a courtesy, but was subsequently fired, bringing Mr. Holgerson into the role sooner than expected.

Back then, the camp of Mountaineer fans were split. Some felt that Bill Stewart needed to retire. Others, like myself, felt that there was no compelling reason to get rid of him. Here’s a comparison of the two coaches from a 2011 perspective:

Bill Stewart Dana Holgerson
Loyal & Personable Gruff, No Rapport
A Native West Virginian An Outsider
Familiar with & respectful of the campus culture A change agent
Came into his position as a savior Came into his position amid controversy

Looking back on this list today, I am disappointed in myself that I failed to see the forest through the trees on this one. Why? Well because my judgement was based on an entire host of variables that really had nothing to do with the task at hand…which is to coach football. Thankfully, I am not the athletic director of WVU and I’m glad that I could see this fold out over time to see how my reasoning was unsound.

    1. Popularity is overrated. Just because you are a likable person does not mean that you excel at doing your job. Yes, soft skills are important. But at the end of the day, you must also have the skills to produce results. If you absolutely must choose between the two, always go with the latter.
    2. Smooth transitions are rare, so don’t expect them. While there was a change plan initially developed, it completely fell through. The was not Dana Holgerson’s fault. The key is not to let the bad feelings about leadership change influence your personal opinion of the new leader. It is easier said than done…but very important nonetheless.
    3. Being comfortable is easy, but rarely is it good for success. When Coach Stew was at the helm of the Mountaineers, I never got the impression that he was a bad coach. Sure, the team lost some games. However I am not one of those fans who gets devastated when we do not come on top. But seeing how Coach Holgerson performs; well it is like night and day! Looking back, you can tell that Bill Stewart wasn’t pushing the envelope enough in order to make the Mountaineers competitive in the Big XII conference.

Leadership change is always a challenge. It matters little if the change is a welcome one or not. What matters is that you give people a fair chance to prove themselves — apart from the past or the present situation which led up to the change. So congratulations to Coach Holgerson for getting through the past year. He’s displayed a great example how even when leadership or management transitions are rocky, things will still work out in the end.