The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

June 12, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: The USS Mountaineer hit an iceberg

MORGANTOWN — There really wasn’t much to laugh at in the Bill Stewart saga, save for the work of some of the “journalists,” which is why the email that arrived from a friend in the midst of a long-distance email discussion of the situation was so welcome.

“I saw that movie “Titanic” – it doesn’t end well. That iceberg is a lot bigger than the captain bargained for,” the email read.

Certainly, Oliver Luck, captain of the USS Mountaineer, underestimated the size of the iceberg that stood in his path when he opted to shake up the West Virginia University football program.

Luck saw that iceberg as so many potential ice cubes to help fill the glasses with which he would be toasting his genius in revitalizing the West Virginia football program, something that surely would have occurred had we been existing in a world made of ice cream and candy.

Our world, of course, no longer exists of lollypops and rainbows, not since Shirley Temple hung up her dancing shoes and Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow.” It is neither as simple a world nor as innocent.

Today we have congressmen sending what we once called “dirty pictures” to women they don’t even know via something caller “Twitter” and we have football coaches and players twisting the rules whenever it seems to fit their needs without us so much as batting an eye.

And when people in the public eye do such things, they become the property of the social media and the blogosphere, areas that have no rules and often are run by people with no training. The rumors rage like wildfire across the landscape, spread by winds that are not restrained by editors or ethics courses taught in a journalism school.

We tend today to dehumanize things and turn them into ESPN bits where some wise guy commentator makes a funny crack and we move on to the day’s 10 most bizarre plays.

Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann and the Boomer revolutionized sports reporting by turning everything sports into an irreverent joke or a snide remark. Woody Hayes punches a linebacker from the other team? Fine, here it is in high definition slow motion, over and over, until it is a comedy act, not an unsportsmanlike loss of sideline sanity.

Everything is an impersonal video clip, there only to serve the purpose of filling SportsCenter’s round-the-clock airing.

It is the game for the game’s sake, forgetting that real people are coaching it and real people playing it and those people have imperfections and emotions. They have, as Jane Austen would have put it, both pride and prejudice.

Here in West Virginia, it became a dragged out comedy of errors that began with the best of intentions, Luck believing he could improve the what was becoming a stale West Virginia football program.

Even if it is an inarguable fact that Dana Holgorsen is technically a better coach than Bill Stewart, it doesn’t mean Stewart should or will accept that and go quietly into the night. Being a great football coach doesn’t necessarily make you the only or the solution to the problem that Luck perceived.

Indeed, it is safe to say that over the course of time many a great coach fell to personal or moral or ethical failures, even coaches capable of winning national championships such as Hayes or Jim Tressel at Ohio State.

That USC just recently was stripped of its championship shows that somewhere there is an understanding that simply being good at the game of football does not excuse all other failures in the game of life.

These people we worship as cultural idols are in no way perfect. They are you and I or our next-door neighbor with a longer vertical leap, a more liquid bankroll and, most likely, a better looking lady on each arm.

But they make the same mistakes, the big difference being that the blogosphere is not peering into our lives, our mistakes reported with a line or two in the daily report or in an inner-office memo, not with a 60-point headline in the local rag or a line streaming endlessly across the bottom of the television screen.

Our mistakes may have the same magnitude as that of a football coach or a player in our limited community, but they can have far-reaching effects on a city or a state if they are done by a sports idol.

In the case here in West Virginia, whatever it was that forced Bill Stewart to the end of his coaching stay at WVU also affects so many people around him … people who may wind up with their lives disrupted like Mike Kerin, the director of football operations; maybe Danny Nehlen, the former coach’s son who has served as equipment manager; maybe secretaries or graduate assistants or players who were recruited by a coach no longer there.

We laughed at much that was Stewart because of the way he came across as the homespun philosopher with an endless supply of corny stories, just as we laughed before him at Rich Rodriguez and his butchering of the English language and as we already have laughed at Dana Holgorsen over his late-night antics.

“Irregardless,” as Rodriguez would put it, these are men who hold many people’s fate in their hands and who have been put under new standards in a social media world that carries with it an unblinking eye.

Holgorsen is now the West Virginia coach, about to write his history just as Rodriguez and Stewart wrote theirs. He comes in with one black mark on his ledger and with people closely looking him over. The hope is he learned from one indiscretion and, rather than feeling invincible because it did not destroy his career here, he now understands he must take a clean, moral and ethical path forward to avoid his own iceberg.

Happy days well may be here, but let us keep the celebrating down to an acceptable level so that another media circus can be avoided here in Morgantown.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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