The three worst head coaching hires in WVU football history

In a program with esteemed coaches throughout it's history such as Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez, who were the wrong hires for the job?

Dana Holgorsen patrols the sideline during his tenure at WVU.
Dana Holgorsen patrols the sideline during his tenure at WVU. / John Weast/GettyImages
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Sometimes, coaching hires work out. And other times, they just don't.

A good coaching hire can help shift the fortunes and culture of a program for the greater good -- for example, Nick Saban at Alabama created a dynasty that had previously had success but had been middling at the time he was hired.

A poor choice, however, and you could witness the opposite -- decades of success giving way to a consistently losing program.

For this, there is perhaps no better example than Nebraska football. Including interim head coaches, 10 men have led the Cornhuskers since 1962. 

The first five spent over 50 years setting an elite foundation, acquiring a cumulative record of 508-137-5 with five claimed national champions and three additional the school does not claim.

In the ten years since the last of that line of coaches, the program is 43-60 with just two bowl appearances and one bowl win.

These examples show clearly the importance of making the right choice at head coach as a program. In this article, we take a deep dive into the list of former WVU head coaches and present the three worst hires for the position in WVU history.

3. Frank Cignetti (1976-1979)

It would feel ingenuine not to mention the WVU head coach with the worst winning percentage of all-time on this list.

However, Cignetti only cracks the bottom of this list -- and here's why.

While Cignetti’s 17-27 record over his four years at the helm of the Mountaineer program is lackluster, there is context to his time at WVU which affects his rating.

A big thing to understand is that when Cignetti took over the program from Bobby Bowden in 1976, the team had lost 32 seniors from its previous campaign. In an era of football long before the transfer portal and NIL, it was a different monster to replenish a locker room that had lost most of its production.

For example, Frank Beamer suffered through four losing seasons in his first six years at Virginia Tech in the late 80s and early 90s. He failed to win more than six games per season for the entirety of that stretch. He would then proceed to record 10-or-more wins in 13 of the next 20 campaigns, with nine Bowl Coalition/BCS appearances and making a bowl appearance each season.

Frank Cignetti was not given a chance for a Beamer-style turnaround with WVU, though, as he was let go after just four years in charge.

Another piece of the puzzle often overlooked but looking large is that during his third season with the program, Cignetti was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. An operation to remove his spleen during the battle with cancer almost left him dead in the hospital, and he would continue to fight the disease during his remaining tenure at WVU.

And finally, Cignetti inherited facilities which were widely considered in disrepair and in need of an upgrade. He criss-crossed the state stumping for a new stadium, and eventually facility upgrades did finally come -- but only the year after Cignetti lost the gig.

Cignetti would go on to lead Indiana (PA) to 13 NCAA Division 2 playoff appearances, including a pair of national championship appearances, so it's clear he had the chops to be a head coach. However, the timing was not quite right for Cignetti to succeed during his tenure, so he does make an appearance on this list.

2. Gene Corum (1960-1965)

Things did not get off to a great start under Gene Corum’s tenure at WVU, as he posted an 0-8-2 record. It remains the program's only winless season -- provided you don't count the program's first foray into football in 1891, when they dropped their only game on the schedule to 0-1.

After an embarrassing first season that saw his team outscored 259-40, Corum did manage three winning seasons in his six years at the helm. However, two of those campaigns saw the team post just six and seven wins, respectively.

Overall, his tenure is extremely forgettable for the most part and downright ugly at its worst moments. He finished with a 29-30-2 overall record, which marks the worst winning percentage of the seven different former coaches who have led the program for more than 50 games.

Corum would not hold any other head coaching jobs over the course of his lifetime, showing that he potentially just never had quite the skillset to be the coach he wanted to be. 

However, despite the lack of on-field success, Corum made one huge impact on the legacy of the program and of college football at-large that prevented him from occupying the top spot on this list.

That impact involved breaking racial barriers in college football, as he would help integrate the WVU football team during his tenure, bring a measure of racial equality to the state, university, and sport as a whole -- an accomplishment which should never be overlooked or ignored.

1. Dana Holgorsen (2011-2018)

Some will make an argument that including the coach with the second-most wins in program history on this list is tough to justify. And that is an argument that could be made.

However, there is a lot that ought to be said about the state of the program Holgorsen inherited compared to the state of the program when he left.

Over the decade before Holgorsen’s hiring, WVU football had seven seasons with nine-or-more wins and spent 36 weeks ranked in the AP Poll Top 10. They achieved a 4-5 bowl record over that span, as well as a pair of BCS bowl wins. During Holgorsen’s eight-season tenure, the program achieved nine-or-more wins just twice, and spent only 12 weeks ranked in the Top 10. Holgorsen went 2-5 in bowl appearances, managing one BCS win in his time at the helm.

In the late 2000s, WVU football was hotter than it had ever been. They were etching themselves into a spot where they could be considered amongst the top programs in the sport, and bringing in outstanding recruits -- Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey were Bill Stewart recruits, and Rich Rodriguez before him brought WVU legends such as Pat White, Steve Slaton, and Noel Devine.

While Dana Holgorsen was able to often keep the WVU program at a Top 25 level, there was clear demarcation between the program’s on-the-field performance in the decade before Holgorsen’s arrival and the time he spent in charge. The program took a step back in competitiveness at a time when there was an opportunity to capitalize on the momentum of Stewart and Rodriguez.

Another indictment on Holgorsen is where he left the program in terms of talent upon his departure. He was clearly ready to cut-and-run for a job often viewed as less prestigious when the administration was beginning to show doubt in him. And it was clear why soon after.

Current head coach Neal Brown gets a lot of flack for his poor first four years at the helm before a nine-win 2023 season, but his cupboard was left bare by Holgorsen. Holgorsen and his three most recent predecessors -- Stewart, Rodriguez, and Don Nehlen -- all inherited seven or more NFL players in their first three seasons. Holgorsen left just three players who would be drafted in Neal Brown’s first three seasons, one of whom never took the field for Brown.

Holgorsen would go on to be fired at Houston this past season, marking his second departure from a program on not-so-gracious terms, though he at least managed to avoid termination at WVU.