The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

November 29, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN - Stewart: Retirement reports false

MORGANTOWN — It began at a moment when Bill Stewart was finally off and enjoying a moment of peace, a time away from the constant turmoil that has invaded his life from the day he was named Rich Rodriguez’s replacement as head football coach at West Virginia University.

Here he was in the stands in Martinsburg, freezing because he does not like to wear heavy winter clothing, a leftover from his childhood when he had trouble throwing his snowballs accurately with gloves on.

His son, Blaine, is the holder for the Morgantown High School football team and Stewart was there as a spectator, the huge victory over Pitt now in his rearview mirror and Rutgers not yet in his headlights.

So what if Connecticut was playing Cincinnati in a game that had a direct bearing on the Big East race?

He was a father and his son had a football game and, he swears, he did not see a snap of the UConn game, although he did accept more than one text message on its progress from his public relations man, Mike Montoro.

“I got 10,000 witnesses that saw me there at Martinsburg,” he said when someone questioned how he could possibly not watch the UConn game, even though he could do nothing about its outcome.

He understood that in the real world, family has its place alongside team and the new American religion, football.

And so he was there, not even second-guessing Coach John Bowers as he dropped the decision in the state semifinal, the way fans second-guess him.

“I don’t do that,” he said. “In fact, if someone is doing it near me, I move. Sometimes I even go sit on the other side.”

It was, he thought, a great day away from the heat of being West Virginia’s football coach, but there was a plot being devised right then, a fan website that will go unnamed so as to not bring even the curious to it to increase its hit count, was preparing a report that Stewart was going to retire as Mountaineer football coach, according to sources.

The inference, of course, was that athletic director Oliver Luck was forcing him out, which may or may not be true considering that Luck has said nothing on the subject, but at this time Stewart was thinking of anything but retiring.

So it was, as the word spread across the Internet, Stewart addressed it head on during his Sunday media call, the media at least having the courtesy to ask him if there was any truth to the story, a small matter the Internet site overlooked.

“First and foremost, let me begin by saying the reports of my retirement are greatly exaggerated. In fact, you’re hearing it directly from me, Bill Stewart — I have no intention of walking away. I’m not focusing on retirement. Lastly, and most importantly, I’m focusing on Rutgers.”

Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, he said, that is the only focus for him, his staff and his players.

“I’m very proud of my team because we are working as one — one pulse, one heartbeat, one team,” he said. “Lastly, and most importantly, no player on this team has any intention of being the team’s weak link.”

It was, quite obviously, the right thing to say and is the right thing to do.

But if there is a distraction like rumors of his retirement or questions about his future hanging over the entire program, it could be devastating. No one likes to exist in a situation that is uncertain, where you don’t know where you as a player or you as a coach stand in the future.

Yet that was exactly what was happening and Stewart was trying to redirect attention — his, his team’s, his staff’s, the media’s and the public’s — to the game, a game that was so important that he didn’t even have any interest next week in watching UConn and South Florida play, even if his team took care of business.

That UConn-South Florida affair, which comes on hours after WVU and Rutgers, only would be carrying a victorious WVU’s bowl fate with it.

“I don’t really care if I see one snap of the UConn-USF game Saturday night. If we beat Rutgers, we are BIG EAST champs, and that was our goal. The rest of that stuff is for others. My focus is Rutgers,” he said.

And when a member of media pressed him on it, asking in essence if he knew what he was saying, Stewart stood by what he had said.

“In all honesty, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I can tell you what I did this past Saturday, and I did not watch one snap of the UConn-UC game. It doesn’t matter to me,” he answered.

“The only thing that matters to me, this staff and these players is worrying about Rutgers and our business. We can’t worry about others’ business. I’m going to keep pounding that into these players’ heads, and I will run them up Law School Hill if I hear any talk come out of that locker room.”

So there it is, just another day in as bizarre a West Virginia football season as has ever been played, and certainly in a coaching career that is as unique as the man who is experiencing it.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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