Dec. 17, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – It didn’t start well for Doc Holliday at Marshall.
But what a difference four years can make!
It was four years ago Tuesday – Dec. 17, 2009 – when Holliday was announced as the Thundering Herd’s new coach – 19 days after Mark Snyder resigned from the Herd sideline after five seasons (22-37).
It was the first head coaching job for the man whose recruiting Rolodex had overflowed many, many years earlier.
“There isn't one negative to this hire,” said retired College Football Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen, who previously was Holliday’s boss at WVU for two decades.
At 52 and just “turning green” after leaving the associate head coaching job at WVU, the start of his first Marshall season was anything but auspicious.
The Herd was routed at No. 2 Ohio State, and then Holliday’s debut at Edwards Stadium was an excruciating, 24-21 overtime loss to No. 22 West Virginia, a game the Herd had led 21-6 with six minutes left in regulation. Then it was off to Bowling Green, where Marshall fell to a Falcons’ team that went on to finish an ugly 2-10.
“We took a look at a lot of coaches,” Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick said that 42-degree Thursday of ‘09. “There were a lot of coaches out there, but we just kept coming back, just kept circling back to Doc. And you kept asking yourself, ‘Why not?’ Not ‘Why?’ ‘Why not?’ And I could never answer that. That's where it went.
“You've got a West Virginia native. You got a man who grew up 20 miles away (in Hurricane). He's well-known in the state, well-known all over the East Coast recruiting, Florida, where we have to recruit from to get the players we need to compete in Conference USA. He's been around (coach) Urban Meyer, who I admire tremendously.
“He's been at West Virginia, at a great program, he's been at NC State, at a great program. They've won; he knows the formula for winning. You have to get players, and I think he can get players.”
Holliday has done that. It’s been a struggle at times, and he only pushed his record above .500 late this season (26-24), but the Herd has more than a Dec. 27 Military Bowl date with Maryland to feel good about these days.
“I think, No. 1, it’s just amazing how fast it’s gone,” said Holliday, sitting in his Shewey Building office before Tuesday’s bowl prep practice. “I can’t believe I’ve been here four years now. It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of tears, lot of emotions have gone into it. But I’m happy where we are and where I am.
“There’s no doubt that this program is going in the right direction. I think to get to the point where you want to win the conference (USA) championship, that’s the ultimate goal and we got there (to the 2013 title game), but we haven’t won it yet, so are we satisfied? No … in no way shape or form are we satisfied.
“But we’ve made good progress. We won the East Division, got an opportunity to play in the championship game. For the second time in three years we’ve gotten to a bowl game. We’ve got a shot at 10 wins. You look out there, and we’ve got a large majority of our kids back next year, and we expect to be very good.”
There’s more to consider, too, the Herd coach said.
“We’re graduating our players, we didn’t have one senior that has not graduated,” Holliday said. “We have not had any academic issues, everybody’s eligible for the bowl game and I just feel really good about the direction the program is heading.
“I like our coaching staff. We had to replace a bunch of coaches a year ago, and we haven’t missed a beat. We brought great guys in, eight of them (including two strength coaches), and that’s a lot in one year. But I feel really comfortable where our staff is concerned. There’s no question this is the best staff I’ve had here, and I like what these guys are all about and what they bring to the table.”
The 9-4 Herd has Marshall’s best record since the 2002 team finished 11-2, winning a Mid-American Conference title and the GMAC Bowl. It hasn’t been easy getting back to that level. Holliday’s first three teams were 5-7, 7-6, 5-7, with much of that success based in late-season refusal to throw in the towel. His four teams are 15-5 in games played after Oct. 28.
“When I got here, I felt there were a lot of guys (players) who didn’t like football, didn’t have a whole lot of … ,” Holliday said, leaving the thought unfinished but obvious in its intent. “I like to surround myself with kids who are tough, that love football, that football’s important to them.
“And the first couple of years that was hard, because there were a lot of guys who were here because they were on scholarship and they didn’t want to work, weren’t concerned about winning championships and living right and making good decisions.
“It took a long time, it seemed like, to get the culture changed. I think, to be honest with you, that this year is the first time we’ve gotten the culture changed where these kids are having fun playing ball, like ball, and it’s important to them. And it’s important that we play for and win championships to them now.”
Holliday, 56, said the attitude adjustment had to come in tandem with aggressive recruiting to get where he wanted to go.
“Like I’ve said earlier, I think we’re finally learning how to win, instead of how to lose games, because of leadership,” the Herd coach said. “I see a lot of the positive things that have to happen to get you to that goal of winning a championship. I feel happy about where the program is, and with the number of players we have coming back.
“Three of our (2013) captains elected by the players will be back next season. We have our three-year starting quarterback (Rakeem Cato) back, and that’s where it starts. We only lose a couple, or three, on defense, so I think the improvement that the defense made – from one of the worst in America to No. 1 most improved defense (by 20 points per game; Tulane was No. 2 at 17 per game) in the nation – that’s tremendous.
“We’ve got a great bunch of kids who work extremely hard, and the exciting thing is they’re almost all back. Look at all the freshmen (five) we had on the All-Freshman Team (in C-USA). All are positives, and there are many.”
Holliday pointed out his window at the steel structure that in nine months will be the Indoor Athletic Facility and its additional components.
“There are a lot of programs standing still right now, but we are not, thanks to (Athletic Director) Mike Hamrick and Dr. (Stephen) Kopp (university president),” Holliday said. “Our program is moving forward. We’re going to have the nicest indoor facility in the country, a hall of fame, a large student-athlete academic center, a sports medicine research center with doctors and trainers right here next door.
“We just keep growing. That’s what has me excited … I feel so much better than I did when I took this thing over. We’ve got the players in place, the coaches in place and the facilities are being built. We’re going to become even better as we go down the road.”
The Military Bowl at Navy Marine Corps-Stadium can be another “statement game” for the Herd, just as the C-USA East Division rout of East Carolina was. And while Holliday looks forward to the date with the Terps (7-5), he has clearly a kind of farsighted vision.
“I would have never come, absolutely not, if I didn’t think this could happen here,” Holliday said. “I had other (head coaching) opportunities earlier in my career I didn’t want because I felt I couldn’t win at those places.
“I might be the worse loser there is. I hate to lose in anything, and I just didn’t want to put myself in position where I didn’t have that opportunity to win every Saturday and to compete every Saturday, and to win championships.
“And I knew that opportunity was here at Marshall University because I’ve seen that happen, and because the support Mike and Dr. Kopp will give me to make sure that does happen. No doubt … I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think it could happen.”
The Military Bowl will be the 23rd postseason game in his coaching career, a run that started with a 1981 Peach Bowl upset by WVU over Florida, when Holliday was a part-time aide. Two years ago, in his first bowl as a head coach, he led the Herd to a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl win over FIU.
Before that, he’d been to the Gator, Hall of Fame, Bluebonnet, Sun, Fiesta, Sugar, Carquest, Insight, MicronPC, Tangerine, Outback, Capital One, Meineke Car Care bowls and a BCS National Championship Game – some of those multiple times.
This is the 12th team he’s been with that has won at least nine games. He’s been with a 13-game winner – the Florida 2006 national title team, and three 11-win teams (two at WVU and one with the Wolfpack). Never, however, a 10-win team.
Evan at age 56, Holliday wants a first.
“No doubt, the opportunity to be on national stage, to play at a historic stadium at the Naval Academy, and to play an ACC opponent that’s a good football team with a lot of winning tradition, and one that’s going to the Big Ten, is a chance for us to make a statement,” he said. “There’s no doubt Maryland an excellent program.
“As a player and a coach, I’ve had the opportunity to play against them 27 times. They’ve got good players, good tradition and Randy (Edsall) is a good coach, so they’ll be well-coached.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for us. But I like challenges.”
Over four years, that’s been evident.