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August 29, 2008

West Virginia happy to have Stewart

RELATED: Michigan begins new era under Rodriguez | Photo gallery: Top 10 coaching debuts

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. Just as he has for the past three years, West Virginia kicker Pat McAfee showed up at Milan Puskar Stadium last week for a workout.

Only this time something was different.

McAfee and his teammates wanted to be there.

"We used to dread coming to the stadium," McAfee said. "It's amazing how well we did the past couple of years considering how many guys we had that hated football.

"There were all-stars on our team who absolutely hated coming to the stadium every day."

McAfee smiled.

"Now," he said, "everyone is genuinely happy to be here."

Eight months after Rich Rodriguez offended the entire state by leaving for Michigan, the transition to new coach Bill Stewart appears to be going smoothly as West Virginia prepares for Saturday's season-opener against Villanova.

Because he went just 8-25 during his only stint as a head coach, at VMI from 1994-96, Stewart was considered a long shot to land the position when he replaced Rodriguez in an interim role last December. But hours after leading the Mountaineers to a Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma, Stewart was awarded the job.

The hire has been refreshing for the Mountaineers, who say they had grown tired of the screaming and vulgarity that defined Rodriguez's practices. West Virginia was winning, but it wasn't always fun.

"This is what all of us wanted," sophomore cornerback Brandon Hogan said. "Coach Stew treats us like men. He shows us respect.

"You can go talk to him whenever you want. If you tried to go up and have a conversation with Coach Rod, it felt weird and uncomfortable."

West Virginia, which went 11-2 a year ago, is hoping its relationship with Stewart pays dividends this fall.

With Heisman hopeful Pat White leading the way, the Mountaineers have a realistic shot of earning a berth in the BCS Championship Game an opportunity it squandered by losing at home to Pittsburgh in the 2007 regular-season finale.

"Our only focus right now is winning," sophomore safety Sidney Glover said. "The deal with Coach Rodriguez everyone has moved on. That situation is long gone."

A LOT OF SUPPORT

Moments after the Mountaineers defeated Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, White campaigned on national TV for West Virginia to hire Stewart as its head coach. White says the victory wasn't the only thing that convinced him Stewart was the right man for the job.

"A few weeks before Coach Rodriguez left, Coach Stewart and one of the former assistants (who ended up leaving for Michigan) got into at practice," White said. "He and the other coach were really going at it. The main thing I remember is that all of the players gathered around Coach Stew. We had his back and not the other coach.

"That said a lot about what this team thinks of him."

The biggest problem people had wasn't just that (Rodriguez) left. It was how he left. It was a tough time for everyone.
West Virginia booster Rick Pill
Just as they supported him that day, the Mountaineers ended up rallying around Stewart during the most tumultuous month in school history. It all started with the loss to Pitt.

As if the feeling of angst wasn't intense enough, Rodriguez made matters worse when he accepted the Michigan job without telling his players.

"The biggest problem people had wasn't just that (Rodriguez) left," West Virginia booster Rick Pill said. "It was how he left. It was a tough time for everyone."

Stewart, who was in his eighth year as an assistant, was named interim coach, and from the first day, he began making an impression on athletic director Ed Pastilong.

"I attended his morning staff meetings," Pastilong said. "He'd walk in that room and sit in that chair, and it was like he'd been there before. There was no stuttering or stammering. There was a confidence about him that permeated throughout the entire room.

"Each time I looked at Billy, I never sensed any fear in him that he'd be unsuccessful."

A few weeks before facing Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, Stewart approached Pastilong and told him he wanted to be considered for the permanent job but, even then, the thought was that West Virginia would go after a proven coach.

Through it all, Stewart remained focused on the game.

"I never let it be shown and I never stressed it to the staff or to the team," Stewart said. "But I knew we needed that win for this school and this state. I'd have given my life to win that game that night.

"We got to Arizona and in my very first press conference, I said in a very serious voice, 'We came out here to win. We came out here to win.' Then I went back and told our guys what I'd done. I told them I'd picked them a hell of a fight. They just laughed and said, 'Don't worry, coach.'

"From that point on, we started jelling."

The day before the game, Stewart saw an ESPN poll in which 84 percent of the country picked West Virginia to lose. Before he and the Mountaineers took the field, Stewart prayed. "God," he said, "just keep us healthy. Just give us a chance."

Hours later after the Mountaineers had carried him off the field following the victory Stewart found himself in Pastilong's suite. The job was his.

"Some people said we made an emotional decision," Pastilong said. "Quite frankly, there was emotion involved. It'd be unrealistic to say there wasn't. We'd just beaten what some said was the best team in the country by 20 points. It was our best victory ever and he coached it."

A MAN OF THE PEOPLE

Shortly after accepting the job, Stewart hung a hammer in the center of his office wall.

"It's symbolic of the lives we lead here in this great state," said Stewart, 56. "West Virginians are so blue-collar and down to earth. They're coal miners and construction workers who put in an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. That's how I was brought up."

HISTORY LESSON
How will Bill Stewart fare in his first season? Here is a look at the debut seasons of the past 10 West Virginia coaches:
2001: Rich Rodriguez, 3-8 overall, 1-6 Big East
1980: Don Nehlen, 6-6
1976: Frank Cignetti, 5-6
1970: Bobby Bowden, 8-3
1966: Jim Carlen, 3-5-2, 3-1-1 Southern Conference
1960: Gene Corum, 0-8-2, 0-2-1 Southern Conference
1950: Art "Pappy" Lewis, 2-8, 1-3 Southern Conference
1948: Dudley S. Degroot, 9-3
1946: William F. "Bill" Kern, 5-5
1943: Ira Errett Rodgers, 4-3
Stewart's West Virginia roots are one of the things that make him so endearing to the Mountaineers' fan base. The son of a World War II veteran, he was raised about 70 miles from WVU's campus, in New Martinsville. Stewart began his coaching career at Fairmont State, his alma mater.

"West Virginians have a feeling and a love for one another that's like no other," Stewart said. "It's kind of us against them, you know what I mean?

"People think we're a bunch of hillbillies that live in shacks and trailers. Well, I very proudly spent the first five years of my life in a trailer. And someday when I retire, I'll be back in a trailer. If I'm trailer trash, I'm trailer trash. If that's what people think, it doesn't bother me."

Stewart's upbringing has kept him humble.

Moments after being named coach, Stewart requested a modest salary by big-time college football standards a Big East-low $800,000 per year so that West Virginia could pay more for assistants. And when Coca-Cola wanted to make cardboard cutouts of Stewart for an advertising campaign, he declined.

"That ain't Bill Stewart," he said. "All I need is to walk into a store and see my dumb face looking back at me. I've never thought coaches should be put on pedestals. We're not presidents or governors. We're teachers of young men."

Stewart carries the same kind of attitude around his players as he does in public. At the end of August two-a-days, the Mountaineers put on a gong show featuring all sorts of skits and comedy routines. Stewart told the team that no one including coaches was off-limits when it came to impersonations. So he was hardly offended when players mimicked his occasional stutter, and he cracked up during the "lookalike" portion of the show when someone put his picture next to a photo of Jed Clampett of "Beverly Hillbillies" fame.

"Sometimes," he said, "it's good to sit back and laugh.

As well as he gets along with his players, Stewart is hardly a pushover on the practice field. He sent a player home from the Fiesta Bowl for a missed curfew and says he'd "cut his own son in a heartbeat" if he wasn't performing up to snuff.

"I like to treat people nice, but this isn't some church camp," Stewart said. "If you can't stay on-sides, if you have mental busts, if you talk back to a coach you're in the bleachers. I don't have to say anything. I just point to the steps. They know. As soon as I point, they start running."

The Mountaineers say Stewart's disciplinary style works as well if not better than the one employed by Rodriguez.

"There wasn't a day on this practice field the last three years where you wouldn't hear at least 150 swear words," McAfee said. "Seriously, there wasn't a day that went by when that didn't happen. Now, it's nothing like that. People are having fun.

"It is night and day. In the past, even the staff was walking on eggshells around here. You didn't want to do anything wrong. Now it's much more of a laid-back and relaxed atmosphere. I think it will pay off come game time."

BITTER FEELINGS

Ninety minutes from campus, Mountaineers fans are filing into the White Palace in Wheeling, W.Va., to hear Stewart speak at an event sponsored by the YMCA.

"I came to this thing last year when Rich Rodriguez spoke, and he said he'd be here for another 20 years," local businessman Dave Yeager said. "That was a quick 20 years."

As excited as most fans are about Stewart and the upcoming season, there is still a faction of West Virginia fans who remain livid with Rodriguez.

Justin McBride is a bartender at Kegler's, one of the most popular eating and drinking establishments in Morgantown. He said he continues to hear patrons complaining about the manner in which Rodriguez left West Virginia.

"Rich Rodriguez is pretty much the devil around here," McBride said. "Everyone hates him. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people that think he lost that game against Pittsburgh on purpose so he could go ahead and get started at Michigan instead of playing in the national title game."

The venom isn't just limited to Morgantown. Grant Town, W.Va., Rodriguez's hometown, has removed a street sign trumpeting that fact.

For years, a caricature of Rodriguez hung from a wall in Bunker's Sports Bar in Daniels, W.Va. The picture is still there, only now the football Rodriguez is holding has been covered up by a check.

"I'm rooting for two things this season: West Virginia to win and Michigan to lose," Mountaineers fan Luke Becilla said. "I've got friends that are going to lay down bets against Michigan every game."

But the hiring of Stewart has raised some questions among Mountaineers fans. While everyone seems to admire Stewart and his down-home personality, the book is still out on whether he'll make it as a coach.

"There's a lot of luck in life," West Virginia booster David Alvarez said. "Bill Stewart was in the right place at the right time. Now he's got to capitalize on it. I think he'll do it."

Alvarez laughed.

"He's still undefeated he's 1-0 so everyone is behind him," he said. "But you know how fair weather college football fans can be."

This season's team appears to be in great shape with the return of players such as White and tailback Noel Devine.

"But after that after Pat White is gone who knows?" WVU fan Eric Bellman said. "That's when we'll find out what kind of coach he really is."

National media members are skeptical, too. Some have said the Mountaineers made a knee-jerk hire after defeating Oklahoma. Miami (Larry Coker) and Michigan State (Bobby Williams) made similar moves when they promoted assistants, and neither situation ended well.

Coker, playing with Butch Davis' players, went 12-0 in 2001 and won the national championship in his first season. But five years later, he was out of a job. After Nick Saban bolted for LSU after the 1999 season, Williams was promoted and promptly led the Spartans to a Citrus Bowl victory over Florida. But Williams was fired in midseason in 2002 after an embarrassing loss to Michigan.

"Just elevating someone isn't the answer," said former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, who was replaced by assistant Bret Bielema. "It has to be someone that sees the big picture, someone that can all of a sudden manage a staff that he was probably friends with and very close to before.

"There's no sure-fire way to know when someone is ready to take that step. I think it's a feel thing."

Alvarez said he doesn't know Stewart, but he was impressed by the way he handled a potentially tough situation at the Fiesta Bowl.

"His players responded to him," said Alvarez, now the athletic director at Wisconsin. "That's always the first step."

But there are plenty of others that follow speaking engagements, endorsement opportunities, charity functions and appearances. Alvarez says first-year coaches can be overwhelmed.

"Bret called me after about two weeks on the job and said, 'You didn't tell me all of this stuff was going to happen,' " Alvarez said. "You've got different things coming across your desk every day that you aren't prepared for, different decisions you have to make. There's a demand on your time all the time.

"A lot of assistant coaches don't see that. They just (know) their own little world."

Pastilong doesn't think that will be the case with Stewart. High school prospects apparently feel the same way. As well as he recruited as an assistant, Stewart is off to an ever better start as a head coach. West Virginia is on pace to land its first top-25 recruiting class in history, which gives fans confidence the program will remain on solid ground in the post-White era.

"It's difficult to get a program where you're winning consistently," Pastilong said. "We're at that point right now. All of the things are in place for it to continue."

Whatever happens, WVU fans are eager to give Stewart a chance. The school has sold out its season tickets. Sports-talk shows are buzzing about Big East championships and national titles and, on campus, students are approaching players to talk about the season.

"Only now," McAfee said, "they're asking about the future instead of the past."

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.



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