Out of all the questions I’ve been asked over the years about my playing time at West Virginia, one of the most common is that of the coaching while I was there. This is always a fun question for me because when asked, a lot of people never realize that I was amongst the small handful of players who were there to be coached by all three recent head coaches. Coaches Holgorsen, Stewart and Rodriguez all played a very significant part in my career and in the advancement of the WVU program. To witness and experience it first hand was something I’ll always cherish when thinking about my days in Morgantown.
Back in 2006 before my senior season in high school I was already committed to WVU. Coach Rodriguez had been calling me often throughout the season to make sure my commitment would hold true until the February national signing day. I would always assure him that I was coming to WVU, but during that time it was just as much important that he assured me that he would be there to coach me in the fall. During this time rumors had been going around that coach Rodriguez had been offered the Alabama job and was considering taking the offer. It took a personal visit from him to my school assuring me that he wasn’t going anywhere for me to solidify my choice in playing in the gold and blue.
During my freshman season on campus I began to realize how fiery of a coach Rodriguez was. I often heard stories before I arrived from my high school coaches, but I had only known the laid back recruiting politician who lured me to his program. Just like any new recruit to a school, you find out all that changes once you arrive on campus. I can honestly say Coach Rod wasn’t the most approachable coach at times. When things were going good he seemed to always be in an upbeat mood. But when times were troubled you didn’t want to be on his bad side. One thing that I admired about Coach Rod was how he approached the little things with the team. He was the first coach to make practice fun for me. He would always preach that we compete against each other and would reward us and our efforts of playmaking with candy bars and gear at the end of each and every practice.
His preaching of “hold the rope” and the passion he put towards practice and in games, really made me respect him more as a coach. Unfortunately, just as soon as I had settled in and became one of coach Rod’s favorite young players to watch chase around Pat White and Steve Slaton and become scout team player of the year, coach Rod chose to accept a job at the University of Michigan. It came as a surprise to us players, and to say we were disappointed was an understatement. Till today I still respect and understand his decision to leave, but as a player of his last recruiting class at WVU I will always wonder what could have been.
The aftermath of coach Rod leaving led to the hire of one of the most loved men to ever lead the Mountaineers, Coach Bill Stewart. Now even though Coach Stew was a part of Rodriguez’s staff already I had only had one real conversation or interaction with him before he was named the head ball coach. It was during a night practice towards the end of the 2007 season and I was helping out the scout team defense and playing really well. Coach Stew began to cheer me on that night as I was able to disrupt the first team offense and make some big plays. He then went on to tell coaches and players around that I was going to be a great player one day. That night will always resonate in my mind when I think of coach Stew.
Now coach Stew may not go down in history as one of the greatest coaches of all time, but in my book he should go down as one of the greatest leaders of men. I say that because during his tenure as head coach he was more of a leader and disciplinary than he was a guy who focused on X’s and O’s. He would hold us accountable for when we made mistakes and he would always make sure we learned our lesson so that we wouldn’t repeat what we had done. In the beginning it was difficult to adjust to that new coaching style because I was used to having a head coach who was more hands on. But what I admired of Coach Stew was that he allowed his coaches to coach and his players to play, all while adhering to his many philosophies that made him and his coaching style unique. Coach Stew taught me so much as a young man, and as a 19-21 year old the lessons I learned from him have helped me be a better person, husband, son and brother. His words of wisdom and catchy phrases will always be some of the best parts of coach Stew that I’ll miss. I think he’d be proud to know I use a lot of them today as a high school coach to my players. One that will always stand out to me was when he would tell us as players to “Be thumb pointers, not a finger pointer”. This quote even today lets me know that you need to be accountable for your actions and own up to your mistakes. Do not point fingers at others when you are at fault. I thank coach Stew for everything he did for me and all that he’s taught me and wish I could let him know in person today, but I’ll send a prayer up his way, that’s my cub and Boy Scout honor.
Coming into my senior year there was much skepticism surrounding the program. We had just hired a new coach out of Oklahoma State of whom none of us players had ever heard of. Being that it was my final season I was nervous to see how things would pan out, as I didn’t want my last year at WVU to be a rebuilding year for the new head coach. I’ll never forget the first team meeting of the coach Holgorsen era. It was scheduled for 6pm on a Sunday I believe, and as we had been accustomed to during coach Stew’s time as well as coach Rod, we were present and ready at 5:45pm. 5:55 rolled around and we were still awaiting the arrival of our new coach. At exactly 6 o’clock coach Holgorsen walked in and introduced himself and his expectations for the team. He then went on to say that if he schedules a meeting for 6pm, then we as players and the staff, don’t have to be there until 6pm. This brought a large sigh of relief as well as joy among us players as we had been stuck in this 15 minutes early to everything sort of limbo for the past two coaching regimes. This was the fist sense that change was in the air and it was something we as players were looking forward to.
Coach Holgorsen brought about a more laid back and player friendly approach to the team. He had a vision for his first year as head coach and wanted us as seniors to be apart of it. Still it was difficult at times to get a feel for him as the head coach but eventually we all settled in amongst each other. Throughout my senior year I learned much from coach Holgorsen. One thing was to enjoy the here and now and to live in the moment. Life really is too short to be miserable and we all have to live a little. What other way to display that, than to go skydiving before the season? Totally seemed to be out of the norm for a head football coach, but it let me know that he was human like the rest of us, and was willing to enjoy his life by any means. Outside of that you couldn’t get pass the fact that he always, and I mean always had a red bull in hand. Hard to find too many characters like coach Holgorsen around.
Now as the season went on he would go through the ups and downs like any normal new head coach but we would go through them just the same. In all though he led us to an amazing and historic season, one that I’ll never forget. The last three games were all challenging and fun but are what I believe helped him realize he could be a good head coach, as well as helped our team truly come together that year. Another Big East championship, a trip to the Orange Bowl and more importantly a win in the Backyard Brawl on my birthday/senior night, and you could say I felt as if Holgerson’s first year was pretty successful and as a senior I could appreciate it. The night of our record setting bowl performance down in Miami I thanked coach after tha game for coming to West Virginia and providing me with the best experience a player could have in his final season. That year will always for me be the highlight of my playing career.
Now that it’s 2016 and the Holgorsen era still goes on at WVU, I continue to have respect for him. I also still admire coach Rod who’s now at Arizona, if it weren’t for him I’d never of become a mountaineer in the first place. And how could I forget the late Coach Stew. Though he’s passed, his lessons are forever apart of my way of life. Playing for three head coaches was fun and not as a burden as one may think. I learned many things from each man, and feel those lessons will help me be a better leader as I transition into the coaching field myself.
Editors Note: Julian Miller played for the Mountaineers from 2007-2012 and is second all time in WVU history in tackles for losses and sacks. He is currently a football analyst for BlueGoldSports.com and a high school football coach in Florida. All opinions in this article are those of Julian’s and do not reflect the opinions of any other players.