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Nations: Stewart not given loyalty he deserves







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jnations@nvdaily.com

Just flipping through the channels over the holiday weekend, when I came across one of my all-time favorite sports movies. "Jerry Maguire" was one of those instant classics when it came out in 1996, full of memorable quotes repeated ad nauseum by sports fans for years to come.

The part I caught between channel surfing came when Tom Cruise's title character learns that his prized client decided to sign with his biggest rival, whose father (played by the great Beau Bridges, no less) had earlier assured the flaky agent that "my word is my bond, and that's stronger than oak" (there's a quote for you).

That got me thinking, strangely enough, about ... Bill Stewart.

The soon-to-be former West Virginia football coach never used that particular phrase, as far as I am aware, but it sounds much like the sort of homespun, folksy homily that might well have escaped Stewart's lips over the past couple seasons.

Stewart, the native son of West Virginia who captured the hearts of his fellow Mountaineers by stepping in for the formerly loved, now thoroughly despised, Rich Rodriguez on the eve of the 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and led WVU to a stunning 48-28 victory over Oklahoma.

Then just the interim coach, Stewart's victory in that bowl game was widely seen as the predominant reason why he landed the full-time job a day later. It was a home-run decision, at the time, for a fan base shocked by the "disloyalty" of Rodriguez, who built the Mountaineers into a national power before ditching his contract to take the job at Michigan.

Loyalty was Stewart's true appeal, and the Stewart phrase I do recall in particular was something like this: "I'll be head coach at West Virginia for as long as you want me."

Turns out, WVU wanted Coach Stew about, oh, four seasons. And really just three, if you can judge by West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck's characterizing the outgoing coach's swan song season as transitional. In effect, Stewart gets the "privilege" to lead the Mountaineers one more year (and that's what it has always been for the affable coach) for a final season before learning where he'll be reassigned within the athletic department. Presumably, it won't be on the sidelines. That spot is now reserved for WVU's coach-in-waiting, Dana Holgersen, the soon-to-be ex-hotshot Oklahoma State offensive coordinator and incoming offensive coordinator for the Mountaineers.

Stewart will technically be in charge, but the offense belongs to Holgersen and the defense remains the domain of successful WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. So where does that leave Stewart, exactly? Besides training his replacement for a year, Stewart largely becomes a figurehead in the mold of a Joe Paterno.

It's not that the move is unwarranted, really. Stewart was a surprise choice, probably even an impulsive pick based on the relatively quick search for Rodriguez's replacement. And Luck didn't have a hand in that choice, having come aboard as WVU's athletic director in July as Ed Pastilong's replacement.

Stewart as won, just not enough for WVU's liking. After getting a taste of BCS riches under Rodriguez, the Mountaineer faithful have been less than enamored with Stewart's 27-11 mark in three seasons at WVU with zero BCS appearances. The Mountaineers' formerly high-powered offense has often sputtered, making Holgersen an attractive option.

West Virginia is hardly alone in ditching coaches for purely competitive reasons, not to mention style points. Maryland let Ralph Friedgen go, despite his winning the ACC Coach of the Year honor -- this season.

In both cases, it's really more a matter of how the deed was done. In Friedgen's case, really Maryland could not have had worse timing for making such a move. True, the Terrapins had lean years under "The Fridge" during his decade-long tenure, but 2010 could hardly be considered one of them. Friedgen had his own coach-in-waiting, but when Ron Franklin decided to forgo the eventual succession and take the head coaching job at Vanderbilt instead, Maryland AD Kevin Anderson took the opportunity to make a move.

Stewart's fate was sealed by back-to-back Big East losses to Syracuse (19-14) and Connecticut (16-13, OT) despite rebounding with four straight conference wins to close out the regular season.

So no, nothing was ever promised to Stewart then or now. He got a dream opportunity to lead the Mountaineers for three seasons, and one more to go. If it were up to him, Stewart would not be contemplating next season being his last. It's not.

One of Bill Stewart's biggest attributes has always been his undying loyalty to West Virginia, his home state and the flagship university. It's a pity, but a sad fact, that loyalty, character and consistent winning without BCS money just doesn't cut it these days.

Lack of loyalty, questionable character, consistent winning and BCS money works just fine -- see Rodriguez, Rich, if you're a WVU fan. The former WVU coach was reviled in the Mountaineer State for just those issues when he left town -- a mere opportunist ready to grab the most dollars.

That cold-hearted mentality works both ways these days in college football. Just ask Coach Stew.






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