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July 29, 2008

Stewart out to prove WVU made right choice

MORE BIG EAST MEDIA DAYS: Kinder's return key for Pitt | Media Day Central

NEWPORT, R.I. Bill Stewart sounds like a numbers guy.

He calls his quarterback Pat White the greatest player in college football right now, but he's just as likely to call him "No. 5." His new running back, known to most fans as Noel Devine, goes by "No. 7." He's taking over for No. 10 (Steve Slaton).

The numbers don't have to be printed on jerseys to resonate for Stewart. He knows he wasn't West Virginia's No. 1 choice when Rich Rodriguez left his alma mater and his home state for Michigan on Dec. 16.

The former Rodriguez assistant got the job because he became No. 1 in his players' and fans' hearts. His 1-0 record as West Virginia's head coach, a 48-28 win over Big 12 champion Oklahoma, in the Fiesta Bowl didn't hurt either.

Before the Oklahoma win, Stewart said he thought he had "no chance" to coach the Mountaineers on a permanent basis. The upset changed all that, and Stewart became the top candidate.

Now, he's been entrusted with a program that has won 11 games each of the last three years and won at least a share of the Big East title in four of the last five seasons. He might not have been the top candidate early, but he became the best choice for the job.

"I don't think you pluck a complete outsider and put him in that position," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "It's got to be somebody that has an appreciation to be a Mountaineer. Bill clearly understands that. You could see it in his comments after Oklahoma. It wasn't about him. It was about the state."

Stewart, whose only head coaching stint was an 8-25 run at VMI from 1994-96, will need no introduction to the pride the state takes in the athletic program at West Virginia.

As a boy growing up in New Martinsville, W. Va., he imitated Jerry West and other Mountaineers stars when he and his friends played basketball at a neighbor's house. Stewart uses the moniker "West 'by God' Virginia" with regularity and without blinking. Like many West Virginians in the mountains, he connected with the school by radio broadcast.

Staying at West Virginia as the head coach was far from his mind before the Fiesta Bowl. Instead, he said he prayed alone in the locker room before kickoff.

"I hit my knees in prayer. I never asked for victory. I prayed to keep us in the fight, keep us in the fray," Stewart said. "I thought of mother and dad, and I thought of my hometown and I thought of all the great people in West 'by God' Virginia and all those people like me who grew up in a trailer and had his bride in a trailer for the first 10 years. People think we're corny and backwards, but we got some pretty smart cats back there, too."

Though idyllic for Stewart, West Virginia can also be an unfriendly place to their favorite sons when they leave the state. The breakup between the West Virginia alum Rodriguez was a nasty one, fought between lawyers, the media and fans on message boards. When Rodriguez and Michigan agreed to pay the former coach's $4 million buyout recently, it signaled an end to the legal wrangling between the two parties, but the wounds were healed for the team much sooner.

"It ended for us when we won the Fiesta Bowl," linebacker Reed Williams said. "We had our coach. We had our win. It was on to next season."

Though public opinion in the state is firmly against Rodriguez, Stewart walks a fine line between giving credit to his boss of seven seasons and moving on without him.

"All of our friendships had to be put aside. When they went to Ann Arbor, they had a job to do just like we had job to do in Morgantown," Stewart said. "I was still friends with all those guys. I'll forever be friends with those guys. I hope it's the same for them."

When West Virginia opens the season it will have a distinct tie to the Rodriguez era by running the explosive spread option offense, albeit with a few tweaks.

One set of numbers Stewart knows he will have to watch will be how many times White and Devine touch the ball. White was injured in two games last season - against South Florida and Pittsburgh. The Mountaineers lost both.

Slaton is gone, leaving the running back position to the explosive Devine, who rushed for 627 yards and 8.6 yards per carry. As with White, Stewart doesn't want the 5-foot-8, 173-pound Devine to become a workhorse runner, either.

"Offensively, we have to get the ball in someone else's hands other than five (White) and seven (Devine) on every single play," Stewart said. "We're not trying to fix whatever's broke. Nothing's broke."

Stewart added Wake Forest quarterbacks coach Jeff Mullen to the staff as offensive coordinator with the edict to find other ways to move the ball besides handing it to White and Devine. He expects Mullen to diversify the offense in the mold of Wake's offense. In order to do that, wide receivers Dorrell Jalloh, Jock Sanders and Tito Gonzales will have to take over for the versatile Darius Reynaud.

Stewart and Mullen also look to take advantage of White's growing prowess as a passer. White has completed 66.3 percent of his attempts over the last two seasons while passing for 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

"It will still look like West Virginia football," White said. "I think we're going to spread the wealth a lot more."

On defense, Stewart's first staff got a major boost by retaining Jeff Casteel - Rivals.com's National Defensive Coordinator of the Year last season. Casteel's defense allowed 301.7 yards per game and 112.9 rushing yards after struggling a season earlier.

Seven starters are gone, including stalwarts Keilen Dykes, Eric Wicks and Marc Magro. Linebackers Mortty Ivy and Williams will lead the defense, but Casteel must address the secondary.

If the personnel is in place on defense and offense, West Virginia will have both Rodriguez and Stewart to thank. If that happens, the numbers could add up to No. 1.

"We did great things. We built a heck of a program," Stewart said. "The state has to stop and let us do our job as coaches and players and get the 2008 edition ready. It wasn't a loss of life. It was just the passing of the guard."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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