Awkward year of transition lies ahead for Stewart, West Virginia
A bowl loss raises more questions about a touchy situation at West Virginia
Bill Stewart remains coach in 2011, while successor Dana Holgorsen joins the staff
West Virginia may be better off buying out Stewart to avoid a mess next season
ORLANDO -- West Virginia coach Bill Stewart sent a mass text late last week.
"What Lies Behind Us... and What Lies Before Us...Pales Compared to What Lies WITHIN US...LEADERSHIP... 2010 WEST VIRGINIA FOOTBALL," Stewart wrote.
Behind Stewart is a decision by his new boss, athletic director Oliver Luck, that Stewart isn't the man to lead West Virginia to the promised land. Ahead is an awkward year of transition, with Stewart remaining the head coach while anointed successor Dana Holgorsen builds the offensive staff and runs the offense and Jeff Casteel continues to run the defense.
Does Stewart have enough within in him to endure the awkwardness and the professional humiliation? After all, he has known for more than a month that Luck wanted Holgorsen to replace him, and he has gone along with the plan.
Tuesday's 23-7 loss to NC State in the Champs Sports Bowl (RECAP | BOX SCORE) raised even more questions. To whom should the Mountaineers look for LEADERSHIP in 2011? Stewart, the head coach? Or Holgorsen, the coach Luck believes has the stuff to lead West Virginia to new heights?
After the loss, Stewart gamely fielded questions about the bowl, but he didn't seem interested in talking about the future. Someone asked about the transition. Stewart shot down the question. "We just got done playing a bowl game," Stewart said. "I'll see them Jan. 9 and we'll start preparations for 2011."
Certainly Stewart has given this some thought. After all, he met Dec. 9 with Holgersen in Houston to discuss the transition. Even before that, on Nov. 14, Luck gave Stewart the option of resigning after this season or serving a year in head-coaching limbo.
Luck's offer probably has its roots in the fit of passion during which Stewart got his current job. After Rich Rodriguez bolted Morgantown for Michigan in December 2007, interim coach Stewart guided the Mountaineers to a Fiesta Bowl win against Oklahoma on Jan. 2, 2008. That night, Stewart was hired as Rodriguez's permanent replacement. We'll let former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Chuck Finder pick up the story from here. "The original offer sheet contained a $1 million flat-fee termination clause that was scratched out and initialed by athletic director Ed Pastilong before Stewart ... signed it early Jan. 3, the morning of his post-Fiesta Bowl hiring," Finder wrote in September 2008. That act by Luck's predecessor put West Virginia on the hook for essentially the full value of the contract if the school chose to fire Stewart. Stewart now has three years remaining on his contract, and the school would owe him more than $2 million under the terms of the deal if he was fired now.
Here's guessing Luck's offer of a resignation did not include the full amount. Needless to say, Stewart chose the latter.
A former West Virginia coach was presented with a similar set of options a little less than a year earlier. Bobby Bowden refused to make the choice Stewart did when then-Florida State president T.K. Wetherell offered an eerily similar deal. "He said, 'You have two options: One is to stay on as an ambassador coach for one more year. You can still be the coach, but we don't want you to go on the field.' I'd get paid for doing nothing," Bowden told The Sporting News earlier this year. "That's stealing from FSU. I said, 'That's out, forget it. What's the other option?' He said, 'We don't renew your contract.' "
Obviously, Stewart's deal included an on-field role -- and it's tough to fault him for trying to bleed every cent he's owed from the school. But realistically, what will his role be? Stewart is an offensive guy, and Holgorsen will run the offense. Will Holgorsen defer to Stewart? Should he?
Tuesday offered few reasons for Holgorsen to follow Stewart's advice. The Mountaineers couldn't hold on to the football, fumbling five times and losing four. With senior tailback Noel Devine still nursing an injured ankle, Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen elected to rely on the right arm of quarterback Geno Smith. But a recently revamped offensive line struggled at times against the blitz-happy Wolfpack, and the Mountaineers couldn't find the end zone.
As it has for most of the season, Casteel's defense played well. NC State's final touchdown came after Jock Sanders muffed a punt and gave the Wolfpack the ball on the West Virginia 7-yard line. Otherwise, the Mountaineers would have held a very good offense to half its season scoring average.
West Virgina's offense had every reason to be distracted Tuesday. After all, its coordinator (Mullen) had been fired and was coaching his final game at the school. Ditto for offensive line coach Dave Johnson, who was supposed to be informed of his firing by Stewart but didn't learn until earlier this month, when he called his former teammate, Luck, to inquire about swirling rumors.
Just how distracted was the offense? Sophomore back Shawne Alston posted to his Facebook account at halftime. Sure, he only sent a generic message about the second half being the "best half", but that's not the point. He posted on Facebook at halftime. "My phone was right beside me," Alston told reporters after the game.
At least he didn't have to go looking for it.
The Mountaineers talked a lot Tuesday about not making excuses, and, to their credit, they didn't make any in spite of the giant elephant that has been standing in their locker room for much of this month. They also didn't have much idea about what the future holds. "That," defensive end Bruce Irvin said, "is up to Oliver Luck and the front office."
Irvin's choice of words -- though probably unintended -- is perfect. Prior to his hiring, Luck had not served as a college athletic director. He had worked in the front offices at NFL Europe and Major League Soccer's Houston franchise. (Also, as CEO of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, Luck oversaw the development of all of Houston's current pro sports venues.) So Luck brought a pro-franchise attitude to the position. He identified an area of need, and he didn't allow sentimentality to sway him.
But because of the buyout situation, Luck got forced into a decision that could create an absolute mess next season. Luck might want to put in a call to Florida's Jeremy Foley, one of the trailblazers of the CEO-as-AD movement. In 2002, Foley explained to The Associated Press why he had run off successful baseball, men's tennis and gymnastics coaches in a relatively short time. "I'm a big believer in the saying that if something needs to be done eventually, it needs to be done immediately," Foley said. "We have a responsibility to be as good as we can be."
Luck has made it clear something has to be done eventually. If money is the only thing keeping him from doing it immediately, it might be best for everyone involved -- including Stewart -- to pass the hat and raise enough to make a clean break.
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