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Bill Stewart is gone, but don't expect that to hurt West Virginia's chances of a Big East crown.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Bill Stewart wasn’t the most popular hire when he was promoted to head coach after the 2008 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma. Although Stewart was a West Virginia man and a respected assistant, many thought he was overmatched as a head coach.
Remember booster Ken Kendrick’s comments after Stewart was promoted to head coach? “He is so overmatched it’s not even funny. He’s a nice guy and a father figure. But they had a wonderful architect and they hired a painter to build the next house. I want Bill Stewart to win and I want our program to be successful. But I feel bad for our future. I’m very concerned.”
However, the Mountaineers’ victory in the Fiesta Bowl, combined with Stewart’s good-guy personality after a rough breakup with Rich Rodriguez, earned him the head coaching gig.
Stewart’s tenure at West Virginia was a mixed bag of success, but was often a source of frustration for Mountaineer fans. The offense struggled after Pat White finished his eligibility, and Stewart’s teams never seemed to realize their potential in the Big East. The Mountaineers had arguably the top team in the conference last season, but finished with two conference losses – two games West Virginia gave away due to turnovers.
Despite winning nine games in each of his three seasons, Stewart was essentially forced out in December when Dana Holgorsen was named offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting. Stewart was supposed to spend 2011 showing Holgorsen the ropes, but he resigned as head coach on Friday. Stewart’s resignation capped an interesting couple of weeks in Morgantown, which included a casino incident with Holgorsen and Stewart supposedly the source of rumors involving his offensive coordinator.
The head coach-in-waiting model has been hit or miss, but in this case, clearing it up before 2011 could actually help West Virginia. The players now have no doubts about who is calling the shots and any tension that existed between Stewart and the staff is gone. Although Stewart seemed willing to do whatever the athletic department asked with this arrangement, the head coach-in-waiting situation may have been a recipe for disaster had it stayed in place for 2011.
The Mountaineers were Athlon’s pick to win the Big East this season, largely due to the returning talent, along with the addition of Holgorsen’s offense. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel is one of the nation’s most underrated assistant coaches and despite the loss of some key personnel, should remain one of the conference’s best defenses. West Virginia is also regarded by some to be a sleeper pick to play for the national title, if they run the table in the Big East and knock off LSU in a key non-conference game.
Holgorsen has been an assistant his entire career, so there’s some concern about how he will handle being a head coach for the first time. With greater responsibility comes more scrutiny, and Holgorsen will be under the microscope in 2011. However, Holgorsen has passed the test at each of his stops, giving offenses at Houston and Oklahoma State an instant boost.
With quarterback Geno Smith returning and a cast of talented receivers, the Mountaineers should have no trouble putting up points on the scoreboard this year. However, what happens on the first fourth down call of the year, and Holgorsen must decide whether to go for it or punt? What happens if any of the players run into problems off the field - how will he handle the discipline?
There’s certainly some concern anytime a new coach takes over, but Holgorsen’s background and Casteel’s return on defense should keep West Virginia as the Big East favorite in 2011.
Don’t forget to circle the calendar for Nov. 25 in Morgantown – the first Backyard Brawl for Holgorsen and Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham. Holgorsen and Graham have some history between them, dating back to their days in Conference USA. There’s not a lot of love between the two coaches, which should add some more spice between one of the nastiest rivalry games in college football.