Chuck McGill: Luck hires have many similar qualities

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Oliver Luck stood behind a podium twice in nine days in May to introduce a new head coach of one of his athletic programs at West Virginia University.

The two latest additions — wrestling coach Sammie Henson and men’s golf coach Sean Covich — are the seventh and eighth hires made by Luck since he took over as WVU’s athletic director four years ago. Henson and Covich, like the previous six hires, have dovetailing characteristics.

They were top assistants in their previous positions, Henson at Missouri and Covich at Mississippi State. Those are programs in power five — or highly visible — conferences. Both are known for their recruiting acumen. Both are first-time head coaches at the Division I level.

Familiar, isn’t it? Dana Holgorsen took over the WVU football program as a first-time head coach in 2011 after being an assistant at Oklahoma State. Randy Mazey had previous head coaching experience, but he was a top assistant at TCU before moving to Morgantown. Even WVU volleyball coach Jill Kramer, Luck’s first hire, fits the mold. She was an assistant at Virginia and Alabama before getting her chance to lead the Mountaineers.

So, is there an archetype Luck seeks when making head coaching hires?

“There probably is to a certain degree,” said the AD, who was hired four years ago this month.

The philosophy applies to revenue and non-revenue sports alike. Young coaches are hungry, and hungry coaches are willing to devote more to a program, and those willing to devote more to a program will recruit harder and longer to bring talent to Morgantown. That’s a sure-fire formula for success at WVU, whether the sports involves a ball, bat, racquet, mat or track.

“There are similarities with our Olympic programs,” Luck said. “There were so many that we weren’t funding fully, a number that didn’t have much history of success, so we needed people to have the energy. It’s hard to recruit. It’s really hard. You’re not flying around in private planes; you have got to get in the car and drive to eastern Pennsylvania and drive back home that same night.

“That takes a lot of energy. You’ve really got to be committed.”

That’s the type Luck targets in coaching searches. He knows WVU’s new men’s golf coach, for example, isn’t going to be able to sell the history a program that has been dormant for 32 years and had few noteworthy achievements in the 50 years before the program was shelved.

“A lot of the Olympic sports, like volleyball or baseball, didn’t really have a whole lot of success over the years ... there were very few highlights,” Luck said. “As I looked at those programs I knew there wasn’t much of a legacy to build on, so we need somebody who is going to be energetic, going to have to spend a lot of time and energy recruiting.

“West Virginia University is better served with a coach who has incredible energy and wants to put his or her fingerprints on a program,” he added.

Luck is doing the same as WVU’s athletic director. Once he steered the school’s athletic program into the Big 12, he studied the landscape of the new league and developed the archetype.

Youthful. Energetic. Lead recruiter. Major conference ties. Frequently linked to a winning tradition.

The move to the Big 12, a league that draws more fans to women’s athletics than any other conference, enhanced the need to lift the profile of all athletic programs.

One doesn’t have to dig deep to find the recent team champions in all Big 12-sponsored sports: baseball (Texas, 2005), football (Texas, 2005), softball (Oklahoma, 2013), men’s basketball (Kansas, 2008), men’s golf (Texas, 2012), men’s swimming (2010), women’s basketball (Baylor, 2012), women’s gymnastics (Oklahoma, 2014), men’s tennis (Baylor, 2004), men’s cross country (Oklahoma State, 2012), women’s outdoor track (Texas, 2006), wrestling (Oklahoma State, 2006), women’s cross country (Colorado, 2004), men’s outdoor track (Texas A&M, 2011) and women’s outdoor track (Kansas, 2013).

The Big 12, which started play during the 1996-97 school year, has 53 team champions. Seventeen titles have been won in the past five years. The non-revenue sports are heavily represented in that figure.

“The other Big 12 schools spend a lot of time and effort fundraising on their Olympic sports,” Luck said. “It’s a different culture than the old Big East.”

Luck’s pursuit of the next big thing in coaching is part of his objective to deliver the best to all student-athletes, not simply the ones who draw the paying customers.

“I always thought, as a student-athlete, those kids playing soccer or kids getting up at 5 in the morning to get in the pool, they’re working as hard as the football players,” Luck said. “At WVU, we want to be student-centric. Every student-athlete who is on scholarship or paying for their scholarship, whether they’re in volleyball or rowing, we want to provide them the best coaching they can get and the best facilities that we can afford so their four or five years is really meaningful.”

It all, however, comes back to winning. Luck is trying to foster that culture from the star quarterback to the backup goalkeeper.

“Look at the great athletic programs: Stanford, UCLA, Ohio State, Florida. I think you need to expect a high level of success in all of your sports,” Luck said. “There’s some synergy there ... and it feeds itself.”

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