By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Bill Stewart’s future — or, to be more precise, lack thereof — was decided on Nov. 14, the day after his team had turned its season around with a 37-10 victory over Cincinnati, although it probably was sealed the day his West Virginia Mountaineers lost to Connecticut.
It was on that Sunday that Stewart and his advisor met with Athletic Director Oliver Luck, who has proclaimed his goal is to win a national championship at West Virginia and did not believe Stewart could take the team to such heights, and the university’s senior counsel.
“At that point Coach Stewart was informed that I was not satisfied with the direction the program was going in and that changes were going to be made,” Luck revealed Thursday in a brutally honest, revealing press conference outside his office on the second floor of the Coliseum.
It was on that date that Stewart signed an agreement that called for his resignation as coach either at the end of this season or after coaching next year, the decision to be made by Luck. And, as the lower case luck would have it, Stewart ran the table through the final four games of the season, tied for the Big East championship and finished with a 9-3 regular season record, earning him the right to stay on and coach in 2011.
“The decision (of which option to take) was mine,” Luck said. “He did a marvelous job toward the second half of the year and put together a great winning streak and I thought he deserved the head coaching position in 2011.”
Both Luck and Stewart kept the new agreement a secret from both the assistant coaches and the players. In fact, one source said that offensive line coach Dave Johnson, whose job already was in jeopardy, told Stewart he had a chance to a lower division job and Stewart told him that he didn’t have anything to worry about.
Stewart’s fate was obviously already sealed when, before the Rutgers game, he addressed published rumors that he was considering “retirement” with this statement:
“First and foremost, let me begin by saying that reports of my retirement are greatly exaggerated,’’ Stewart said. “In fact, you’re hearing it directly from me, Bill Stewart. So here we go:
“One, I have absolutely no intention of walking away. Two, I am not focusing on retirement. And three, lastly and most importantly, I am focusing on Rutgers.’’
In retrospect, the statement offers the truth, for he is not retiring. He is being forced out as head coach in favor of a hot, young coaching commodity from Oklahoma State, Dana Holgorsen, who moves into the staff as a “coach in waiting” this year as offensive coordinator on the first year of a six-year contract, then becomes head coach in 2012.
Holgorsen has signed a letter of agreement on the contract but the details have not yet been worked out. It will pay him $800,000 the first year, then $1.4 plus bonuses as head coach.
Stewart, at that time, will move into an as yet undetermined job in the athletic department at a reduction in pay from the $950,000 he will get in 2010.
“We have an agreement to talk and see what Coach Stewart might do, what his interests might be, what services we may need within the department,” Luck said.
Of course, there is the matter of an NCAA report that comes out next spring that could give WVU an out on the contract, for they could terminate it if found guilty of major violations under Stewart. More likely, however, Luck would have to defend Stewart in such a case.
In many ways what happened to Stewart was inevitable. He was not Luck’s hire, having been brought into the football program by Coach Don Nehlen and having been named head coach following an emotional victory over Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
The hire came in the wee hours of the morning and involved then President Mike Garrison and then athletic director Ed Pastilong.
It was a highly controversial hire, one challenged strongly by many of the school’s top donors, the most vocal of which was Ken Kendrick, an alumnus who runs the Arizona Diamondbacks among his many interests.
“He is so overmatched it is not even funny,” Kendrick said, among a lot of other things.
Luck apparently agreed, at least in taking the program to the level he wants to reach. However, Luck denied that he was pressured into making the change by Kendrick or a group of powerful donors.
At that point, Luck had to go out and find a new coach, unless he wanted to promote defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who had taken the defense to the edge of the top of the college football.
While in Houston, however, Luck had come to know of Holgorsen, who was making a name for himself at the Texas Tech, the University of Houston and then this year at Oklahoma State. He took over an offense in Stillwater that ranked 61st in the nation with a first-year quarterback and a young line and turned it into the top offense in the nation, the Cowboys going 10-2.
As Luck would have it — this time an upper case Luck — he attended Jerry West’s induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City on Nov. 22, then the next day “made a side trip” to Stillwater and met Holgorsen for the first time.
Asked if it was coaching recruitment trip, Luck hedged.
“I made a trip to visit someone I thought was one of the great offensive coaches in the nation,” he said.
When it was decided that Holgorsen would be Stewart’s eventual successor, Holgorsen flew into Morgantown secretly.
“Coach Holgorsen was here to get a look at the campus and the facilities and to get a feel for Morgantown and the state,” Luck said. “I can’t remember exactly when. They met when he was here.”
At the time the two discussed the transition period, which will be tricky to say the least.
“Bill Stewart is incredibly smart, sincere person who loves the school,” Luck said. “Coach Holgorsen is a very smart, aggressive young coach. I expect nothing less from those two and others on the staff to handle it very professionally.”
Still, you have a lame duck coach and the coach of the future, a situation that could divide loyalties on the staff and confuse the players. Asked if it came to fourth and 2 in the season’s final game needing to score on that play to go to the national championship game, would Stewart get the call or his offensive coordinator, Luck didn’t give a straight forward answer.
“Those are decisions mutually agreed upon during the week,” Luck said. “I’m reluctant to get into hypotheticals. Bill Stewart is the head coach, no question about that. Dana Holgorsen is the offensive coordinator, just like Jeff Casteel is the coordinator.”
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.