Visit to WVU coach’s hometown reveals what fueled his competitive fire
MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa - There is a temptation here to create the narrative, an urge harder to resist than a Friday night football game and the Iowa cheesesteak at the Made-Rite just down the road from Evans Field.
Those who spend some time in Dana Holgorsen's hometown might note the splendor and the simplicity of a place with flashing traffic lights surrounding its historic downtown area and a modest library that was once the town's high school.
It's a place where the high school and college share a football stadium and adults recall a time when kids could hop on a bicycle in the morning and park it in the evening and never sense danger in between.
They might wonder why Holgorsen would be in a rush to leave here, a calm place still with fewer than 9,000 people, in the seat of Henry County in the southeast corner of the state.
Longtime Mount Pleasant High School football Coach Bob Jensen, an assistant when Holgorsen was a player there, said Holgorsen "wanted to go out and see something bigger."
But Holgorsen's hometown had been the base for many other beginnings.
His mentor, Hal Mumme, was a high school coach in Texas before heading to Iowa Wesleyan College here in 1989.
Mike Leach was an assistant and would follow Mumme to Valdosta State and Kentucky before breaking out on his own as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and the head coach at Texas Tech.
Mumme had Minnesota assistant Pat Poore and Florida State assistant Sal Sunseri on his staff here. Bill Bedenbaugh was one of Holgorsen's college teammates before he would start his coaching career and eventually reunite with Holgorsen as WVU's offensive line coach in 2011.
And what of the homegrown talent? Arabella Mansfield was born here and became the country's first female lawyer, sworn in downtown at the Union Block building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Because of her, Iowa became the first state to allow women and minorities to take the bar exam.
She was followed in fame by space scientist James Van Allen and later Tom Vilsack, who was first mayor, then governor and now U.S. agriculture secretary in President Barack Obama's cabinet.
"That little town does weird things to those of us up there," said Marc Hill, the executive associate athletic director for internal operations at the University of Kentucky. Hill was Holgorsen's high school and college teammate and later was hired by Mumme as the strength and conditioning coach at Kentucky.
The town was founded in 1835 by pioneer Presley Saunders and remains proudly described as the destination of a National Almanac expedition to study a solar eclipse in 1869.
Promoted as a cultural center, Mount Pleasant's Union Hall drew renowned speakers such as Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna Elizabeth Dickinson and Bronson Alcott.
Today, Mount Pleasant is home to a meat-packing plant operated by West Liberty Foods and the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison housing about a thousand inmates.
And, of course, the town is home to Iowa Wesleyan College. Founded in 1842, the oldest co-ed school west of the Mississippi River is also Dana Holgorsen's alma mater.
However, there's no sign saying Holgorsen is from here. There's no name or jersey in the stadium where he starred in high school and college. There isn't a display case in the college. Apart from a line in his biography in the WVU football team's media guide, there's no indication Holgorsen was ever here, and he would be content to keep it that way.
As he is about many personal things, he is quiet about his childhood here, a time he would have most believe was unremarkable in a place that could be uneventful.
Yet he knows where he's from and remembers what the people and the place meant to him. In November, he brought his football team to Ames for a game at Iowa State, and he was asked about leading his own college program in his home state.
"From a personal standpoint, I haven't been there in a long time, so it doesn't mean a lot," he said.
The town remains at the root of his career, no matter how unusually it started. The newly hired Mumme visited Mount Pleasant High School in 1989 and met with the Panthers coach, Bob Evans, who died last year.
Mumme was an innovator of offense and promotion, and he wanted to build a buzz with his passing game and a roster of local talent whose friends and family would fill the stands. He explained things to Evans, who sent someone to fetch his best receiver from class.
Holgorsen told the messenger he would rather sit in class than think about going to Iowa Wesleyan.
He instead followed his older brother Brett to St. Ambrose University, a Catholic school with about 3,000 students in Davenport. The city had close to 100,000 people at the time and plenty of diversions along the Mississippi River and nestled among the Quad Cities in Iowa and Illinois.
The Fighting Bees played NAIA football and Holgorsen was happy playing receiver.
He was moved to defensive back before the end of the season.
"That really was not what he wanted to do," Jensen said. "He came back to Mount Pleasant that summer, and he heard about Hal Mumme and Mike Leach and those guys and got to know them, and he liked what they were doing on offense."
Holgorsen returned home to play for Iowa Wesleyan. He's been rising ever since, reaching heights he hoped to meet as a kid.
"The thing you have to remember is we didn't have the Internet and the ability to connect to the outside world like you do today," Hill said. "The guys playing on the football field Friday night were your heroes and you grew up wanting to be the next hero."
OK athlete, but driven
There's a myth, perpetuated in large part by Holgorsen, that he was an ordinary high school athlete, or "very mediocre," as he said in 2011.
Many people are willing to dispel that.
"He was a good athlete, probably better than he lets on, but he wasn't an outstanding athlete who really caught your eye," said John Kuhens, the general manager and sports director of KILJ radio in town. "He kind of blended in with the team, but he was a solid athlete.
"He was a really good football player and a good basketball player. He could have been a good baseball player, but he never went out for the team. The baseball coach tried to get him to come out all the time. He wanted him to be his shortstop."
Holgorsen ran track after basketball, which followed football, but he was always a football player. He tried to find times to play catch, ideally with his quarterback, Spence Evans, who was the coach's son. One day in the spring of their junior year, they were throwing passes at the track stadium when Mike Hampton, an assistant football coach, interrupted.
"Don't you guys know it's golf and baseball and track season?" Hampton said.
"Coach," Holgorsen said, "it's always football season."
So many years later, Hampton smiles at the memory, at the very definition of Holgorsen.
"He was not a major talker," Hampton said. "If you heard 10 or 15 words out of him, it was something. But he got his point across."
Holgorsen wasn't big or fast, but he was strong, precise and reliable. He was determined to do the things he could do to overcome the things others thought he couldn't do.
"He could run routes," said Hampton, who was the coach of Holgorsen's ninth-grade football team and is now the athletic director and softball coach at Iowa Wesleyan.
"He knew his routes and what he was supposed to do against a defense, and he could beat that defensive back."
He was always trying to prove himself, too, though maybe that had to do with being the middle child in a family of three boys. Brett was on winning high school teams and made it to college. The youngest, Nick, went to Northwestern to play quarterback.
Holgorsen seemed like he was always hungry for success.
"He wasn't blessed with the greatest size or speed, but he was not going to be outdone," said Chuck Allen, one of Brett's closest friends growing up. Allen saw the sibling rivalry up close.
"Just like being the middle kid, he was going to get his two cents in one way or the other."
Holgorsen played varsity football in 1987-88 and started as a receiver and a cornerback, but he loved then what he loves now. His game was offense, picking up five yards on third-and-four, shaking a defender with a double move, catching that pass the other team was sure had hit the grass.
He even took pride in standing next to Evans on the sideline, having his coach tell him the play call and then running to the huddle to tell his teammates, breaking stride only to high-five the teammate jogging off the field so he could take the next play call from Evans to the huddle and send Holgorsen back to the sideline.
Before long, Holgorsen realized that job kept him from doing his other job.
"Coach," he finally said, "I've always led the team in receptions. Why are you having me run in plays? I'm only on the field half the time."
Early Air Raid
In 1988, Evans was a few wins shy of 200 for his career during his final season, which happened to be Holgorsen's senior year. The Panthers opened on the road against Rock Falls, a team Mount Pleasant crushed the year before.
"It was like everyone on their team had grown 35 pounds, and they were just smashing us," said Jensen, who succeeded Evans. "Coach Evans threw the ball about 25 times a year and only if we had to. Dana came off the field at one point, and he stands there and says, 'Are we ever going to throw the ball?' "
Evans started calling pass plays, and Spence connected with Holgorsen and some others to get the Panthers within a score late. Holgorsen jogged to the sideline and past the coaches.
"See?" he said.
Mount Pleasant lost, but the point had been made - again in a succinct manner - and the season had been altered.
"The rest of the year we probably threw the ball more than any year Coach Evans coached," Jensen said. "We ended up playing late in the season at Ottumwa, the eighth ballgame out of nine, and if we win it's No. 200. We ended up winning the game."
Holgorsen wanted the ball in the air at Iowa Wesleyan, too. He pestered Mumme about catching passes. He wanted the bubble screen thrown his way so he could prove he could catch and run.
There was plenty of depth at receiver, but Holgorsen stood out by being reliable.
"They had five or six receivers, but the thing I remember is you could always count on him," Kuhens said. "If you needed a play to be made, he was the one guy you looked for. He really understood the offense and what they were doing, which was kind of unusual because nobody around here had seen it before."
He wasn't an average player, either - not judging by his accomplishments or by his role on a team that qualified for the 1991 NAIA playoffs. He caught 145 passes for 1,711 yards from 1990-92 and still ranks sixth in career receptions and seventh in career yards.
Yet his college years spent around those sharp coaches were just as much about preparing for his eventual career. It was one thing to play for Mumme and Leach and absorb whatever was available, but Holgorsen was also involved in the college's student teaching program at his high school.
Holgorsen would work with the school's football team in the fall and its basketball teams in the winter, and he encouraged kids to make use of the weight room.
"He was very good," Kuhens said. "He had coaching abilities, you could tell, at a very early age."
People saw that Holgorsen was skilled at getting through to the kids and they were comfortable listening to what he had to say.
"Maybe it was from being on that other side when he was the type of player who would do or say some of those things kids might not like, but you've got to be diplomatic and approachable to make it in the coaching world, and his maturity helped him in that respect," Hampton said.
An up and comer
It was eventually clear that returning home was a smart move. Iowa Wesleyan proved to be Holgorsen's launching pad.
"Some coaches get places because they know a lot, but you not only have to know a lot, you have to know the right people," Jensen said. "You have to make those people want you, and you have to know when to leave before you're not welcome there anymore."
Jensen thinks that knack - not All-American quarterbacks or NFL receivers - is what defines Holgorsen's career, starting with his brief stint at St. Ambrose. He then met Mumme and Leach at Iowa Wesleyan, but knew he was too new to coaching after he graduated to join them at Valdosta State.
Mumme and Leach went to Kentucky and then Leach was hired at Oklahoma.
"That whole time, Dana was at other schools and he got some experience and was working on his own and running things his way," Jensen said.
Leach then went to Texas Tech and he didn't have a position on his coaching staff for Holgorsen. Leach liked him, respected his credentials and his potential and offered him a position in skill development, which Holgorsen took rather than returning for a second year as an assistant coach at Wingate.
"Then somebody leaves, and Leach gets him on the field as an assistant and - boom - things took off," Jensen said. "He left there for Houston before things went bad for Leach. Then he hits Oklahoma State at the perfect time. His career has just fallen into place like that, but I give him all the credit in the world for that. You have to have a knack to see those things and to do that."
When Holgorsen got off the bus as his Mountaineers journeyed to Iowa State last fall, Allen, the longtime family friend, was among those in the parking lot.
Allen figured it had been 16 years since he last saw Holgorsen - maybe 18 - but there he was tailgating as a guest of the Holgorsen family, invited by Holgorsen's father.
"He couldn't have been expecting to see me standing there, but he gets off the bus and I'm just standing there so I said, 'Hey, Dana,' " Allen said.
"He walked right toward me right away. He had Logan, his son, with him and he shook my hand and said hello."
Allen went to the sideline to watch the game. Holgorsen reported to the sideline to end a five-game losing streak. At the end, everybody was content in knowing Holgorsen isn't much different these days.
"This was the trampoline to get where he's at right now," Hampton said. "He's not one to advertise that or sell that a lot, but I think that's his nature, his character. He's just a private, good person.
"Everyone thinks a coach at a big, Division I school has got to be out there in the limelight all the time rubbing elbows, but I've always seen Dana as the type of guy who'd go over there and talk to the lowest guy on the totem pole before he'd rub elbows with the biggest givers."