Thursday, January 03, 2008

And the Bill Stewart Era Begins

Bill Stewart in now 1-0 as head coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers thanks to some unbelievable plays by Pat White, Noel Devine, Owen Schmitt and a much-maligned defense that somehow withstood the barrage the Oklahoma Sooners threw at them. In arguably the biggest game in West Virginia history (oh, how we like superlatives), the Mountaineers answered so many questions: Is there life after Rodriguez? Were there too many distractions to play a good game? Where did that defense come from? Who is the next WVU coach? All decided on the play of White and the other Mountaineers.

The first thing is obvious. Life definitely does continue after Rich Rodriguez. Did Coach Rod ever have a game like we saw in the Fiesta Bowl? Outside of a win over Virginia Tech and the massive first quarter against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, have we ever seen WVU play four quarters of dominate football like they did against Oklahoma? The team played loose and opened the playbook a little and allowed our athletes to play ball. Sure, Slaton was injured but White, Schmitt, Devine, Reynaud and even Tito were allowed to make plays on the offensive side of the ball. White's arm wasn't perfect, but he threw enough to keep the Oklahoma defense honest.

There were distractions. The players and coaches admitted to it. Losing your coach and dealing with the State of West Virginia melting down could distract some people. McAfee was trying to figure out why people were destroying his car. Slaton was deciding whether to go to the NFL. And other players were trying to determine whether they were staying at WVU and, if they did, for whom they would be playing. But WVU took all the nervous energy and refocused and put together a game for the ages and didn't worry about the future. For 60 minutes, the Mountaineer focused solely on the opponent and all the distractions melted away, for both fans and players. And it was phenomenal.

Jeff Casteel may have saved his job with the dominate performance of the WVU defense. Did anyone expect West Virginia to stop Oklahoma and their freshman quarterback? While the special teams struggled on kickoff and punt coverage, the West Virginia defense stood tall against the vaunted Sooner offense. Sure, West Virginia was one of the top ranked defenses coming into the game but most people felt those numbers were somewhat disengenuous given the opponents. But Casteel's defense was faster and stronger than the Oklahoma defense. I was reminded of the days of the dominate WVU defense during the Nehlen era when West Virginia always did have one of the strongest defenses in the nation. Something I would enjoy seeing return.

Probably the biggest consequence of this win over Oklahoma is the fact that Bill Stewart is now coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers. Pat White and the gang basically laid down the gauntlet for the University following the game by proclaiming Stewart their first choice and challenged the administration to do the same. Stewart obviously is highly respected but the questions are going to come about his ability to recruit and to put together a national championship caliber staff. While I have never enjoyed watching a coach on the sideline more than watching Stewart last night, questions will abound about his ability to keep this program at a high level.

But those are all questions for the future. For today, Bill Stewart is the 32nd coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers and West Virginia has won their 3rd bowl game in a row. The Mountaineers now add a Fiesta Bowl trophy to the archives and fans can look forward to what may be next year. Today, it truly is a great day to be a Mountaineer wherever you may be.


Neal said...

Today, Mountaineer fans everywhere (to quote Jack Fleming) are smiling.

Chris said...

It truly was a magic week for WVU Football. I got to spend the entire eight days leading up to the game with the Mountaineers at the team hotel in Scottsdale, and experienced Bill Stewart first hand a lot.

You're right - there are plenty of questions to ask. And those will come in time. But I can tell you that Bill Stewart is the most sincere, genuine human being I have ever met. And if there was EVER a coach to take a chance on, he deserves one.

I wish him the very best in the future. And you can rest assured that if it's not working and he can't pull it off, he will handle it with humility, and as he said this morning, will step aside gracefully. And if you haven't noticed, Stewart means what he says.