The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

November 28, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN - Stewart got through to Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN — This is not something that anyone thought they’d be reading a month ago. Not after that ugly night in Connecticut, not after their West Virginia Mountaineers had lost a 16-13 overtime victory to the Huskies, a team that was winless in the Big East and was coming off a shutout loss to Louisville.

It was WVU’s second consecutive upset loss, following an inexplicable 19-14 home loss to Syracuse.

If ever a season of promise had appeared to have become a lost cause, this was it on that dismal October evening.

Bill Stewart, who was living the dream as West Virginia football coach, seemed destined to land on the junk pile of former coaches, a man who had given it the old college try in a sport that has evolved into a cut-throat, win-at-all-costs profession.

Stewart, at that moment, had the look of a loser.

Who knew that a month later he would be standing on the top of the majestic mountains he likes to speak about, winner of three straight games, two of them on the road, conqueror of the hated Panthers from the north and sitting a victory and a break away from a Big East championship and a trip to a BCS Bowl, probably one played in the shadow of mountains even more majestic than West Virginia’s?

The “Fire Stewart” campaign that had gained so much momentum from alumni and students was now on hold while, instead, Dave Wannstedt of Pittsburgh must fear for his job, losing five times this season, including the Backyard Brawl by a 35-10 score after fielding a team that was ill-prepared to play an important football game.

Ron Cook, the columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ended his Backyard Brawl column with these words:

“Regardless, one final question needs asked: Are those fears about what might happen with the next coach so great that Pitt should continue to live with the mediocrity of the program under Wannstedt?

“I don’t think so.”

And Kevin Gorman ended his column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this way:

“The final chapter should end with an expression Wannstedt likes to use about making cuts in the NFL.

“Pitt didn’t fire you, Dave.

“You fired yourself.”

Harsh words, to be sure, but don’t think for a moment those same kinds of words would not have been written from Morgantown to Bluefield and Martinsburg to Fairmont had the canary-colored shoe been on the other foot this week.

The fact of the matter is that it wasn’t, that Stewart somehow found a way to dig deeper than anyone has any right to dig, to do in the Backyard Brawl what he did during the season.

In some ways, the coaching job done by Stewart has been difficult to accept by anyone, putting half a team on the field far too often, his offense soft and unorganized, much as it was in the first half against Pittsburgh.

The three losses this season, even the one at LSU, could be dropped squarely on the offense, each by less than a touchdown, each without any sign of life with the football.

But, as it was in this Pitt game, where the defense allowed them to survive the first half, Stewart held his team together at a time when it well could have unraveled. If it could not win with offense, it would win with defense and character.

This team did not quit on him when it could have, and he did not quit on the team. In truth, the team grew with each week and now must face hapless Rutgers on its home field to claim at least a share to the Big East championship, if not the BCS bid.

That is in the hands of Connecticut, who must win at South Florida, to land the bid.

Still, there are detractors, fans and the administration Stewart simply rubs the wrong way.

But, it would appear, he does the most important thing. He gets through to his team when he must.

And, for those who feel that he just doesn’t get this coaching business, let us offer the approach he has used with this team.

He understood his defense was what would win games for him and so, whenever his team had the lead by halftime, he turned the game over to the defense, shortened it as best he could while protecting a sophomore quarterback who could possibly make mistakes at the wrong time.

Going into Saturday’s second-half rally against Pitt, the offense had scored one second-half touchdown in its first four Big East games. One! The Mountaineers would take the lead by the half and sit on it, the defense and the running game making it stand up.

Entering the Pitt game, quarterback Geno Smith was 66 of 98 for 589 yards in the second half of games and 114 of 171 in the first half for 1,378 yards in the second half, obviously running wide open in the first half and playing close to the vest in the second.

Against Pitt it was really more of the same, as Smith threw only six second-half passes, but he completed each and every one of them for 153 yards.

So here’s the deal: if West Virginia beats Rutgers and wins the Big East and goes to the BCS, finishing with a 9-4 or 10-3 record, do you really think Athletic Director Oliver Luck can — or should — fire him?

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

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