The Times West Virginian

January 12, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Kirelawich’s move leaves void at WVU

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Normally, when a coach moves on, it’s worth a handshake, a slap on the back, an offering of good luck and then, like the neighborhood barber, turning toward those waiting for the seat and shouting, “Next.”

Coaching, like sports writing, is a migratory profession. For every Connie Mack, who managed the Philadelphia A’s for half a century (if you are wondering how he kept his job, he owned the team), there is a Dick Williams, who managed six teams in baseball, or a Wade Phillips, who has been head coach at five different NFL franchises.

I see a sports writer every day – looking back from the mirror – who has worked at no fewer than 11 different newspapers in 11 different cities, his journalist tour having taught him that moving on is not always to be taken as a sad moment.

Yet this morning there is a certain void that has been created by the decision of Bill Kirelawich to follow the sun and join West Virginia University defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and secondary coach David Lockwood in moving on to Arizona to join their former boss Rich Rodriguez at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

One look out the door at this time of year can certainly make you want to pack up the family and relocate in the Valley of the Sun, the sun being that big, bright, warm thing that occasionally shows up in the sky over West Virginia.

The reasoning why there is a feeling of loss with the departure of Kirelawich as compared to so many other managers and coaches and players who have crossed paths during a sports writing career is because he is so atypical of what you expect to get in your football coach.

This observer of both sports and people has always been drawn to the character rather than the dedicated athlete or coach, someone who thought outside the game and outside the box.

To spend an afternoon talking with Sparky Anderson in his days managing the Cincinnati Reds was far more stimulating than to talk with Walter Alston, and a day spent with the Pirates’ Andy Van Slyke was far more entertaining than a day with Eddie Murray.

These men had interests that stretched far beyond their sports and expressed themselves in such a unique manner that only they could have made the statement.

“They wanted me to play third like Brooks, so I did play like Brooks — Mel Brooks,” Van Slyke once said.

“The players make the manager. It’s never the other way around,” Anderson observed.

Kirelawich was no different than the likes of Van Slyke or Anderson, for what he said could be humorous or insightful, on football or on military history. An interview with him could wander anywhere, given it wasn’t in a group setting, for he despised the routine question as much as Van Slyke despised giving a routine answer.

Ask Kirelawich about the Backyard Brawl and why it is important to keep it going even as WVU and Pitt head in opposite directions.

“It’s a throwback to the mills, the mines and cultural heritage of the kids who are playing the game. It has its roots in blue-collar, hard-nosed football that the working man appreciated in those days and still appreciates today,” he answered.

“Plus, it’s the generational thread because it ties the generations of West Virginia football players together,” Kirelawich said this year. “It’s the one thing Steve Dunlap, David Lockwood and Oliver Luck have in common with today’s player. And it’s something that I don’t have in common, that Jeff Casteel doesn’t have in common, that Ollie Luck’s own kid doesn’t have in common because they never played in the game. Dunlap, Lockwood, Luck, they were in it; they made their bones in this game. In a sense, they were made guys.

“And let me tell you something: If this game slips by the wayside because one administration or the other lets it go, it’s an insult to the fans who have supported it for 103 or 104 years. It would be a sin, an absolute sin.”

When you interrupt long enough to say you believe the game will survive, Kirelawich goes on ...

“Shoot, that’s their job. If it wasn’t their job, you could have Ralphie down in the maintenance department do his thing and keep it going.”

To hear Kirelawich talk about this game, to hear him talk about West Virginia University and its football history, which he has been an intimate part of for more than 30 years, and to see him walk out the door in the twilight of his career is hard to swallow.

It says far more than most coaches changing jobs, for Kirelawich is walking out on a life and a place that he truly came to love, an indication that the coaching divide between the offense and defense that existed inside the Mountaineer offices this year was wider than anyone might imagine.

That is not to place blame anywhere, for the reality is that when Dana Holgorsen was named head coach, it was his program to do with as he pleased, and he was bringing in a new culture, one that was foreign to Kirelawich and Jeff Casteel and David Lockwood.

In truth, it is a compliment to them all that they could survive and thrive in such circumstances, ending up with an Orange Bowl victory.

For Casteel and Lockwood, it certainly was time to move on, but somehow there is a sad note to having Kirelawich finish his career anywhere but in Morgantown, least of all standing out there in his sweats, a towel draped over his shoulders, a whistle around his neck in the 110 degrees of an August afternoon in Tucson.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.