Mullen, Johnson to finish job with West Virginia

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Even if West Virginia's offense has its most fruitful performance in history, scores 80-some points and dismantles North Carolina State in the Champs Sports Bowl tonight, the outcome for coordinator Jeff Mullen remains -- this is it; he has been fired.


Today

Game: No. 22 West Virginia (9-3) vs. North Carolina State (8-4), 6:30 p.m., today, Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium; Orlando, Fla., West Virginia is favored by 2 1/2.

TV, radio, Internet: ESPN; WBGG-AM (970); MSNSportsNet.com.

West Virginia: Third in the country in total defense (251.3 ypg) and has held opponents to less than 100 yards in eight games. ... Senior WR Jock Sanders (64 catches) and sophomore WR Tavon Austin (53) are school's first pass-catching tandem since '99 to have more than 50 catches each. ... Junior defensive end Bruce Irvin is third in the country in sacks with 12.

North Carolina State: Led by junior quarterback Russell Wilson, who is 11th in the country in total offense (306.8 ypg). ... Offensive line has eight of 10 players on the two-deep roster weighing more than 300 pounds. ... Defense is fourth nationally in sacks (3.25 per game) and tackles for a loss (7.83 per game).

Of note: This is third postseason meeting -- the teams split Peach Bowl games in 1972 and '75.


Even if the Mountaineers' offensive line blocks like it never has before, punches divides in North Carolina State's defensive front and allows running back Noel Devine to have his greatest day in his final game for the Mountaineers, the outcome for line coach Dave Johnson remains -- this is it; he has been fired.

Both men face the same strange fate -- Mullen from his perch in the booth, Johnson from his traditional vantage on the sideline: They have been caught up in a restructuring of the coaching and been told their services won't be needed beyond this game.

Both also have handled their firings of a little over a week ago with more grace and dignity than anyone would have imagined.

"This game is going to come and go for me," Johnson said. "And, really, I owe it to these seniors to put everything that I can into winning this game. There will be time to think about all the other stuff later."

As for Mullen, who was named offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach before the 2008 season and had the intricate task of having to coach a different starting quarterback in each of his three seasons in Morgantown, he does not want this game to be about some swan song for him.

"No, we are just going to try to help these kids," Mullen said. "I am real disappointed that more people aren't talking about the kids because they are the ones who are caught right in the middle. I just feel bad for them. We are just going to do what we always do, and that's give them the best opportunity to win."

West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck decided the best opportunity to win, moving forward, will be without Mullen and Johnson on the staff, as Dana Holgorsen will take command of the offense next season and then be elevated to head coach for 2012. Holgorsen also has been given the latitude to hire an offensive line coach for next season.

Mullen, 42, married with three children, has spent time coaching at Wake Forest and at Ohio University after serving as a graduate assistant at Hawaii and coaching high school in his native Ohio for a year each in the early 1990s.

Rising a such a young age to playcaller at a school in a BCS automatic-qualifier conference is, undeniably, a mark of his tremendous offensive knowledge.

Mullen was asked what he does from here; where he goes when this game is over.

"No idea," he responded.

He also was asked where the players go.

"I appreciate you asking, because that's the only thing that matters," Mullen said. "We as grown-ups have choices, and they don't. So, let us worry about them. I think, for the most part, it will be fine. I pray they are going to be fine. They are tough kids and resilient kids."

As for Johnson, a Penn Hills native who played for the Mountaineers and was the starting center on the 1981 and '82 teams, he also doesn't know what happens next for him, his wife or four children.

Johnson, 49, coached at Shippensburg, IUP, Marshall and Georgia before getting a job at West Virginia in 2008 and has been in coaching for more than 25 seasons.

Still, like Mullen, he didn't want talk to center around him and his job loss, saying: "You've just got to cherish every moment and take it in and enjoy it. That's what you want to do with every bowl. Because it is a payoff for the hard-fought season and the hours you put in all year."

Asked what advice he gave the Mountaineers players whose careers will continue, even as his days coaching them in Morgantown will not, Mullen quickly said, "I just told them to keep playing hard."


Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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