Between head-coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen getting kicked out of a casino after 3 AM and head coach Bill Stewart leaking inaccurate information to the press and asking them to “dig up dirt” on his successor, it’s been an embarrassing month for West Virginia football and athletic director Oliver Luck. But in the end, Mountaineer fans actually have reason to celebrate.
Let’s cut right to the chase with this: Bill Stewart was not a good head coach. Sure, he won nine games in each of this three full seasons in Morgantown, but the team perennially underachieved.
There was the 2008 team with Pat White that started the season ranked in the top 10 and with national title aspirations which got blown out in week two by East Carolina and lost to Colorado in overtime to start the season 1-2, dooming WVU’s title chances practically before they started.
There was the 2009 team that finally looked to have things figured out until a hideous bowl game against Florida State in which Bobby Bowden went riding off into the sunset with a mediocre team while Stewart looked like the one who’d let the game pass him by when FSU finished the game on a 30-7 run.
And then there was last season in which the offense was wildly inconsistent despite plenty of playmakers in QB Geno Smith, RB Noel Devine and WR Tavon Austin. A season-long, Jekyll-and-Hyde act finished with a thud in the Champs Sports Bowl when the Mountaineers almost had as many turnovers (5) as points (7).
The question was raised: If Jeff Casteel was basically running the defense by himself and the talented players at Stewart’s disposal were mostly recruited by former coach Rich Rodriguez, what exactly was the long-time quarterback coach doing aside from overseeing an underwhelming offense?
In his first year as the athletic director, Oliver Luck was put in an uneviable position: Having a coach that wasn’t good enough to play in BCS bowls but not bad enough to warrant firing – at least not without a massive outcry from the media about how unfair the dismissal was (see: Frank Solich, Nebraska). So Luck did the next best thing: Cleared house with the offensive staff including O-coordinator Jeff Mullen, brought in Holgorsen and his “Air Raid” offense from Oklahoma State and gave Stewart the illusion of leaving with dignity.
That clearly wasn’t the case since Luck played hard ball with Stewart toward the end of the season, giving him the option to resign immediately or coach one more year with a head-coach-in-waiting looking over his shoulder. If he didn’t like either option? He was going to be fired immediately with cause for a minor NCAA investigation, meaning Stewart would leave with his pockets empty.
Further insulting Stewart, Luck was already conducting his search for Stewart’s 2012 replacement while the 2010 season was still in progress.
So much for Stewart’s edict during his 2008 introductory press conference that, “If I’m not getting it done, they won’t have to tell me, I’ll tell them.”
But in order to avoid the bad PR from firing Stewart after a relatively successful season, Luck was basically sacrificing the 2011 season in which the team will be loaded with Smith at quarterback and a Heisman Trophy candidate with a stable of wide receivers for Holgorsen to run his offense. Yes, the defense needs to replace a lot of key parts like DT Scooter Berry, CB Brandon Hogan and S Robert Sands off to the NFL, but Casteel always finds a way to make West Virginia’s defense one of the Big East’s bests.
The Mountaineers were still already predicted to win the Big East and play in a BCS bowl, but there was a general feeling that the Mountaineers would find a way to blow it like they did in 2010 with a loss at home to Connecticut when the ‘Eers fumbled the ball seven times and lost four of them.
With Stewart out and Holgorsen in? Well there’s not only talk of a Big East title, fans can even dream of being a dark horse candidate to play in the BCS Championship Game.
Yes, it’s a little far-fetched. But with the Big East looking like Conference USA entering this fall, WVU should be favored in all but two contests – Sept. 17th at Maryland and vs. LSU the following week; and West Virginia has absolutely owned the Terrapins in recent years while LSU will have to win in Morgantown in what will most likely be an extremely intoxicated night crowd at Milan Puskar Stadium.
If Casteel can cobble together at least a solid defense and Holgorsen can have just a fraction of the success he saw at Oklahoma State last year, there’s no reason West Virginia fans can’t at least fantasize about a season for the ages.
Of course, there are still plenty of questions:
Furthermore, will someone with such a laid-back attitude instill discipline into a team that has constantly shot itself in the foot during the Stewart era or will it be more of the same?
Charlie Weis can tell you the difference between calling plays and running a successful program.
Oh and of course, will Holgorsen be able to stay out of trouble off the field? Let’s not forget that he’s one more drunken incident away from likely joining Stewart on the unemployment line.
That being said, West Virginia fans would much rather face those questions instead of “How will Bill Stewart screw it up this year?” and “How is our offense so clueless?”
Luck certainly would have preferred avoiding the public embarrassment of Holgorsen acting like a college kid and Stewart sabotaging his own staff, but at the end of the day, Luck’s man is now the head coach one year in advance, the A.D. isn’t being criticized for canning Stewart and the athletic department forked over only a fraction of the buyout Stewart would have received if he was fired before this mess ($600,000 instead of $1.125M).
And as crazy as it sounds, if West Virginia wins 11 or 12 games this fall, Luck and Mountaineer fans might look back on this fiasco and say it was all for the best.
Jim Weber is the president and founder of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each Monday.