The Error is Officially Over

The Bill Stewart Era (or “Error”) has officially ended at one of my alma maters, West Virginia University. I have commonly referred to the past three seasons in my life as “my own little personal sports hell.” The BS Era was ushered in after what can only be explained as a temporary moment of alcohol induced euphoria (“allegedly”) following one of the greatest upsets in Mountaineer sports history on January 2, 2008. Then Athletic Director, Ed Pastilong, hired Bill during the wee hours in a Phoenix hotel under the radar screen of alumni, media and quite frankly anyone possessing an I.Q. north of 85. Bill’s stature rose in prominence during the rocky and acrimonious departure of our native son, Rich Rodriguez, to perceived greener pastures in Ann Arbor. I was one of the few who never faulted Rodriguez for bolting to the Wolverines. I did, however, disagree with his arrogance and burnt bridge mentality on his way out of town. If there is one rule in college athletics it is “never crap on your alma mater”. Rodriguez’s method of departure could be equated with violating this rule with an Elephant-sized dump on a humid August day in the Deep South. It was huge, and it stunk!

Flashback: Las Vegas morning, January 3, 2008. I had flown all day the previous afternoon and arrived in my Las Vegas condo just in time for kickoff for the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. The 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl featured the No. 3 ranked and 11-1 Oklahoma Sooners against the outmanned and deflated No. 11 ranked and 9-2 WVU Mountaineers. During the course of the season Sam Bradford had emerged as a rising superstar for the Sooners. The Sooners were coming off of a dominating performance in the Big 12 Conference Championship. Oklahoma had clenched its 5th Big 12 Conference Championship after crushing then No. 1 ranked, Missouri Tigers. Many had considered Oklahoma the best team in the nation entering the Fiesta Bowl, and its Athletic Director had secretly lobbied the BCS to match the Sooners up against the No. 4 ranked Hokies in the Orange Bowl.

Entering the regular season expectations were high in Morgantown. The Mountaineers were led on offense by juniors, Pat White and Steve Slaton. After an unexpected loss to then No. 18 ranked South Florida in September, the Mountaineers bounced back to dominate the Big East. All that was left in the Mountaineers’ way to its first ever BCS Title Game appearance was their hated rival, the Pitt Panthers. The 100th Backyard Brawl was probably the worst sports night of my entire life. The Mountaineers were 4 touchdown favorites entering the game at home against the unranked Panthers. WVU played most of the game without Pat White due to a dislocated thumb, but Pitt’s defense dominated the Mountaineers and Pitt left Morgantown with an unlikely 13-9 victory. At the time little did most realize this one game held the fate of four different high-profile college football programs in the balance. Following the loss, Rodriguez left for Michigan, Pitt gave Wanny another shot at redemption, Terrelle Pryor played Rodriguez against Tressel in a recruiting war, and WVU set the bar low in its search for a replacement. Who knew at the time my “worst sports night ever” would single-handedly destroy four proud, tradition rich college football programs! With their backs against the wall and an ESPN poll revealing every state in the nation, except West Virginia, expecting a Sooner blowout, WVU rolled up almost 350 rushing yards (the most ever yielded by an Oklahoma defense in a bowl game) and easily won the game 48-28. Fox’s post-game interview with Owen Schmitt reminded everyone of the turmoil the Mountaineers had endured after Rodriguez’s departure. It also reminded everyone about what is right in college athletics. (Here’s a link to the clip: http://youtu.be/sQW80DHKLEU).

After the Fiesta Bowl , a life-long position coach at best was given the keys to a program on the rise (WVU had won 2 BCS bowls in 4 years beating SEC Champion Georgia in a Bulldogs’ home game in Atlanta and Oklahoma). Stewart’s name was not mentioned as a potential replacement prior to the Fiesta Bowl, and yet, he emerged from the moonshine haze (“allegedly”) to get the head coaching job at WVU. My initial thoughts that morning of January 3, 2008, in Las Vegas: I must have drunk too much! Here’s the problem, I didn’t drink anything that previous evening. I went to bed in a state of pride and unbridled excitement to awake to images of Gomer Pyle standing at the hotel makeshift podium on ESPN accepting the head coaching position. Was the football God’s really that cruel? I had suffered enough over the past two months. A humiliating loss to the team I had hated from childhood to one of “our guys” kicking us on the way out the door to a monumental victory in the desert to this? I couldn’t take anymore. I couldn’t believe it. We had hired Gomer Pyle to be the head coach and face of a multi-million dollar sports team? I knew one thing on that morning…this would not end well.

Over the next three seasons I witnessed the program decline in almost every aspect from recruiting to on-field performance. I wanted Stewart to be successful because as a West Virginian I was all too familiar with the national ridicule and hillbilly stereotype references. Every time he appeared on the television I would cringe. I knew he would either look like a rube in a headset or say something incredibly stupid. The first such experience occurred during a nationally televised game against Colorado in Stewart’s first season. Sideline shots of Bill with his eyes closed and arms crossed became talk radio fodder for Colin Cowherd the following morning on his national radio show. Every pre-game and every half-time interview just made it apparent this was a coach in over his head. I am not trying to take shots at Bill Stewart, but the evidence was overwhelming and undeniable unless you chose to drink the kool-aid. West Virginians are a proud bunch and to admit error when it involved one of its own was unthinkable to most.

The Mountaineers have underachieved during Stewart’s reign. Here are the facts behind the Bill Stewart Era:

2008: 9-4 Record.
• Started Pat White’s final season ranked No. 8 in the nation. Finished No. 23 after defeating UNC in the Meineke Car Care Bowl 31-30.
• Losses to East Carolina, Colorado, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
• Beat no ranked teams.
• Averaged only 24.5 PPG under Pat White (73rd in the Nation).
• Strength of Schedule: 59th out of 120.
• No Big East Title.
• No BCS Bowl game.

2009: 9-4 Record.
• Started the season unranked and finished at No. 25 in the AP Poll.
• Losses to Auburn, South Florida, Cincinnati and Florida State.
• Only beat 1 ranked team, Pittsburgh (No. 8 at the time).
• Averaged 26.2 PPG (68th in the Nation).
• Strength of Schedule: 42nd out of 120.
• No Big East Title.
• No BCS Bowl game.
• Lost to unranked, 6-6, Florida State in Gator Bowl.

2010: 9-4 Record.
• Started the season ranked 25th and ended the season unranked.
• Losses to LSU, Syracuse, Connecticut and North Carolina State.
• Beat no ranked teams.
• Averaged only 25.2 PPG (78th in Nation) while defense surrendered only 13.5 PPG (4th)
• Strength of Schedule: 67th in Nation.
• No Big East Title.
• No BCS Bowl game.
• Lost to unranked North Carolina State 23-7 in the Champs Sports Bowl.

When Oliver Luck arrived at WVU as the new Athletic Director I knew Stewart’s time was expiring as head coach. Luck had built a successful career both on the field and in the board room. Luck was not about to set back and watch his alma mater slip further into the abyss. The announcement of Dana Holgorsen’s hire was met with enthusiasm and excitement by all who knew the facts about the football program’s decline. Outsiders and Stewart-loyalists viewed the “coach-in-waiting” announcement as Luck throwing Stewart under the bus. Outsiders, mainly the mainstream media, were unfamiliar with the football plight because, quite frankly, they were ignorant. If you have followed this team and program for the past 25+ years like I have you know when things are not going well. Change was necessary. Season ticket sales were declining, bowl attendance was at an all-time low in recent years, and fan apathy increased under Stewart. All the signs were there for Luck to pull the trigger, and embarrassing regular season defeats to Syracuse and Connecticut were the final nail in Stewart’s coaching coffin.

After a week of speculation and a damaging revelation by a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Luck had no other choice than to force Stewart to resign. As early as Friday morning, at least one player tweeted the following message: “I think coach stew is a great guy but he’s not a head coach. Nothing about him says head coach.” His message was followed by a subsequent tweet: “……I like the guy but WVU is making the right decision by letting him go.” Stewart’s fate was sealed and an ugly chapter in WVU’s football program has ended. Luck’s acceptance of Stewart’s resignation on the evening of June 10, 2011, may finally begin the healing process of a fractured fan base. Let’s hope Coach Holgorsen realizes the magnitude and passion of a fan base that loves its “state team”. If Coach Holgorsen ever leaves the WVU football program, let’s hope he has learned a valuable lesson from the past two head coaches at WVU. There is a graceful way to move on.

My week began with a rumor and ended with a resignation. My personal sports hell ended on June 10, 2011. Let’s Go Mountaineers!

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Tags: Bill Stewart Dana Holgorsen Oliver Luck The Sports Dude WVU WVU Football

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