CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Through the years, I've had a wonderful opportunity to cover college football. I've covered, observed and interviewed. I've seen what works and what does not within the sport.This year, I've seen West Virginia University's team struggle mightily. I've seen Marshall University's team lose a bad one to Ohio and fall short at Virginia Tech.What I've seen missing in both teams is the most difficult attribute to obtain in college football: the confidence, the certainty, among players that they will win. Not the belief that they can win. The certainty they will win.I've seen the latter attribute many times in the Mountain State. A few of Don Nehlen's teams at WVU had it until season's very end. Some of Rich Rodriguez's teams had it. I covered MU teams under Jim Donnan and Bob Pruett at Marshall that had it.
I've seen teams that had no business having it have it.The question, though, is how do teams acquire that confidence, that certainty?"With me, I was fortunate that, when we got [to Huntington], Donnan had won," Pruett said. "We continued it. Like I said at press conferences, we play for championships. Kids buy into it or not."Sure, teams need talent. But longtime, astute observers in West Virginia have seen lesser talented teams prevail. Some of Rodriguez's teams come to mind."You get back what you put into it," Pruett said.That's definitely a key part to the secret: good, old-fashioned work. If players see their coaches putting in the hours, if they see them studying and burning the midnight oil, they're more apt to follow suit. They're also more apt to have confidence in their coaches.That extends to recruiting as well. Some have criticized Texas coach Mack Brown for leaning on the school's name rather than hitting the trail hard. No one criticizes Alabama's Nick Saban. Perhaps the man goes overboard. But if any coach is going to work - perhaps even recruit - on Christmas Day, it's going to be Saban.
When you outwork others, if you hit the recruiting trail hard for players, then you move to the second part of the equation - gaining the players' trust."When you have as good or better players, you be honest with them," Pruett said. "You tell them where you are, where you've been and where you want to go - and be positive about it."My belief is both WVU and Marshall have struggled with this of late. Since Dana Holgorsen arrived in Morgantown, he's had an aura as an offensive mastermind. His ability to handle the entire program, though, has been questioned. Now, even the confidence in his offense has been shaken. Doc Holliday is a fine recruiter, but he must show he can consistently win chess matches on game day.Also, don't create doubt in players' minds. When Holgorsen says he must do a better job of coaching, I applaud his willingness to shoulder the blame. But his players also must be questioning the coaching to this point. What was happening before?
In addition, players need to believe in their coaches' schemes. We saw this with Rodriguez. We saw it early in Holgorsen's regime. Heck, we've seen it on this 2-2 Mountaineer team - at least defensively. Holgorsen replaced Joe DeForest as defensive coordinator with Keith Patterson, who installed a new system. The kids, many returning from last season, have apparently bought in.
Finally, if you gain decent players, if you earn their respect as coaches, you put in the final piece of the puzzle."You set standards and expectations - and you hold them to it," Pruett said."You've got to get them to expect to win," Nehlen added. "If they're hoping, you've got a problem. A lot of coaches make a mistake and don't tell them you expect to win."Pruett's mantra was to win championships. I remember Nehlen telling me about the 1982 upset of Oklahoma. He said he told his team if it stayed close for the first half, it would win. It did."I told them if they were down by no more than 10 at halftime," Nehlen recalled this week, "we'd win. I told them we'd be in better [physical] shape."
Pruett told his team, behind 38-8 at halftime of the 2001 GMAC Bowl, it would come back and win. It did, 64-61 in double overtime against East Carolina."Athletics are all about mind games to some degree," Nehlen said. "If you think you will, you probably will. If you think you can't, you probably won't be disappointed."The former Mountaineer coach said great senior leadership helps. He said thorough preparation is vital. And he emphasized discipline."All these players now are strong," Nehlen said. "If you have good discipline as well, you can expect to win."Maybe some of that is lacking with Nehlen's former team. There are certainly signs. Marshall is knocking on the door, but needs someone to kick it down.Players on both teams, though, need that swagger, that somewhat elusive certainty. According to Pruett and Nehlen, that comes from hard work and preparation. It comes from respect. It comes from high expectations and accountability.And all of that starts with head coaches.Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.