"Welcome to the beautiful hills of West Virginia! ... We're glad to have you." -- Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart to me at a post-practice press conference last Tuesday.
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- It was not my intent to spend much of the past seven months bashing the West Virginia Mountaineers. It just kind of happened. In light of the program's controversial coaching change last winter, readers have been repeatedly asking my opinion about West Virginia's future -- and my honest answers have been admittedly pessimistic.
But as the hate mail from the Mountain State began piling up lately (Andrew's happened to be one of the cleaner ones), I decided I ought to look into the situation more closely. I wanted to get a first-hand look at the Mountaineers, in particular their improbable new head coach whose hiring touched off all this negativity in the first place. If nothing else, I'd heard he was a super nice guy. Bill Stewart did not disappoint.
Last January, following Rich Rodriguez's abrupt departure for Michigan, Stewart, the Mountaineers' jovial, 55-year-old tight ends and special teams coach, filled in as interim coach for West Virginia's 48-28 Fiesta Bowl upset of third-ranked Oklahoma. The even bigger stunner came several hours later, however, when school officials -- having previously pursued at least six high-profile candidates for their head-coaching vacancy -- suddenly reversed course and handed over the full-time reins to Stewart.
It reeked of other short-minded or spur-of-the-moment hires I'd observed in the past -- Miami promoting Larry Coker following Butch Davis' sudden departure; Michigan State retaining Bobby Williams after a Citrus Bowl upset of Florida, Indiana turning over Bob Knight's basketball program to assistant Mike Davis. None of those situations ended well. I said as much at the time.
Upon my arrival at West Virginia's Milan Puskar Center following the first of two Mountaineers practices on Tuesday, Stewart greeted me and another out-of-town reporter with the exceptionally warm welcome referenced above. I cringed just a little when he then said, "I know exactly who you are" -- but it turned out he was offering a compliment.
As best I could tell, Stewart (or "Coach Stew," as he's known here) had not the slightest idea he was greeting a writer who initially described his hiring as "a fitting and, most likely, disastrous end to ... one of the most dim-witted coaching searches I've ever witnessed," or later predicted that "the chances of [Stewart] maintaining the program's recent level of success are about as high as leaving a party at Lindsay Lohan's place with your fur coat in tact."
I could also tell by the end of our lunch together that Stewart's friendliness would not have diminished one iota even if he had read those clips. He's just that sunny. In response to a general question about his "naysayers" -- including several big-wig WVU boosters who publicly ridiculed his hiring -- Stewart offered the following assessment:
"We're in the greatest country in the world, one where [a critic's] opinion is not only welcomed -- it's almost expected and wanted," he said. "So if there's a booster here or there that doesn't like me being named coach, he's got the right to say that. But I also live in this same country, and these players and this staff live in this same country, and we have every right to prove the naysayers wrong."
This was not a case of the coach "spinning" a reporter. Nor was he going out of his way to be polite. It doesn't take long into a conversation with Stewart to realize his gleefully cheery demeanor is 100 percent genuine -- and extremely unusual for a major college football coach.
In a profession increasingly ruled by controlling, ego-driven multi-million dollar coaches, Coach Stew could easily be mistaken for a '50s TV character. He's an honest, blue-collar, West Virginian who spent the better part of 30 years bouncing around the coaching spectrum -- as an assistant at eight different schools, as the head coach at VMI for three seasons and as the offensive coordinator for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers -- who suddenly finds himself in charge of a BCS-caliber program (while being paid a MAC-level $800,000 salary). It's surreal, yet undeniably refreshing.
"People say I'm like a grandpa, I'm such a nice guy," said Stewart. "Well ... I am a nice guy. I've got emotions, too, and I get pissed like everyone else. But you can't let [the players] see that. You've got to be in control."
It was Stewart's ability to maintain control of the Mountaineers in those chaotic weeks following Rodriguez's Dec. 16 departure that earned him his self-professed dream job. While he deflects all credit for the Fiesta Bowl victory to the players, pointing to the fact only one player violated curfew during their seven-night stay in Scottsdale as a testament to their focus, West Virginia's star quarterback, Pat White, insists Stewart was "a great motivator." His chilling pregame speech quickly became the stuff of legend in Morgantown. ("LEAVE NO DOUBT TONIGHT" he bellows at its crescendo.)
On the practice field, Stewart's demeanor is more subdued. Whereas Rodriguez was known for bouncing from drill to drill and getting in players' faces, Stewart is more of a Bobby Bowden-type (complete with the straw hat), content to stand back and observe from a distance while his assistants do the heavy lifting.
Those assistants, mind you, are one of the primary reasons Mountaineers fans feel their program is in safe hands. With the financial backing of the school, Stewart assembled what many believe to be an all-star staff. The most recognizable name is former Don Nehlen aide and renowned recruiter Doc Holliday, most recently a member of Urban Meyer's Florida staff. He initially interviewed for the head-coaching job vacated by Rodriguez.
The man who figures to be the center of attention this fall, however, is new offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. The innovative Wake Forest import has been handed the keys to one of the nation's most explosive offenses the past few years -- and he's under orders to change it.
Led by the electrifying tandem of White and former running back Steve Slaton, West Virginia rode Rodriguez's spread-option offense to nearly 300 rushing yards per game the past three seasons, amassing a 33-5 record in the process. However, in last season's two losses to USF and Pittsburgh -- the latter a 13-9 heartbreaker that knocked the Mountaineers out of the BCS title game -- opponents stymied WVU's largely one-dimensional attack by putting as many as nine defenders in the box.
Mullen, 40, spent the past 14 seasons as an assistant to Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe (formerly at Ohio), known for his use of motion and misdirection. Stewart calls Grobe his "best friend in the coaching profession" and had hosted visits from Mullen in the past. Mullen's directive is to diversify West Virginia's offense -- without screwing up what already works.
"The actual offense we're running is a Pat White offense -- we do not want to change what he's been doing so well for four years," said Mullen. "The biggest change is instead of staying static, to add some shift and motion with the same plays that he's done. And a little more balance in the passing game is something that will help us."
It's the latter part of that statement that's piqued the curiosity of not only West Virginians but also coaches across the Big East. Are Stewart and Mullen really attempting to turn White, the nation's most dangerous running quarterback, into more of a passer?
"I put that Pitt film in, and I want to vomit," said Stewart. "Patrick White cannot carry that damn ball every ... single ... time."
There's no question White is an underrated passer -- though he averaged just 16.6 attempts per game last season, he ranked ninth nationally in pass efficiency (66.7 percent completions for 1,724 yards). The X-factor is whether he'll have the supporting cast to make it work.
With the return of speed demons White (1,335 rushing yards, 14 TDs last season) and sophomore tailback Noel Devine (8.6 yards per carry as a backup last season), as well as all five starting offensive linemen, it's easy to forget that WVU lost three players -- Slaton, fullback Owen Schmitt and receiver Darius Reynaud -- who accounted for 2,630 yards of offense last season.
Watching practice Tuesday it is clear that the coaches have yet to identify their replacements. The Mountaineers' leading returning receiver, Dorrell Jalloh, had just 272 yards last season. With the exception of 6-foot-2 former juco transfer Alric Arnett, most of White's other targets are of the smallish, slotback variety, dangerous on underneath routes but questionable in their ability to gain separation downfield.
Meanwhile, the main candidates to back up Devine -- sophomore Jock Sanders, juco transfer Zach Hulse and freshmen Mark Rodgers and Terence Kerns -- have been so maddeningly inconsistent that Stewart only half-jokingly said Tuesday he'd rather move White to tailback and insert backup Jarrett Brown at QB than "put in a guy who's going to fumble."
A day earlier, it had been West Virginia's previously stout defense that drew the ire of Stewart -- causing him to direct a rare display of anger at his players. He planned to make it up to them by taking the team on a swimming outing the following night.
"Just because I don't get in peoples' faces and call them vulgar names or berate kids doesn't mean I'm not a disciplinarian," said Stewart, who prefers using stadium steps and gassers as motivational tactics. "If it's short and sweet, and they know you care, they'll be all right."
"He shows us such respect," said White, who endorsed Stewart for the job live on national television moments after the Fiesta win. "You can't help but give it back."
It seems Stewart, White and the Mountaineers are on the verge of testing an intriguing hypothesis. Can a nice guy finish first for a change?
"The public perception is I'm this grandpa, father-figure nice guy -- that I'm like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," said Stewart. "Let me tell you: The Mountaineers will be physical, we'll be tough, we'll be mean and we'll be disciplined."
But will they still be Big East champs? Personally, I'm still on the fence. But one wrong prediction would be a small price to pay to see the good guy get rewarded for a change.