It seems as though everybody has a strong opinion on the head Mountaineer. Most either love him or hate him, there are very few in-betweens.
I, like most WVU fans, was anything but thrilled with the loss to The Orange, but I held back when asked about my opinion of Stewart's performance at that time, making sure that logic, not emotion, guided my thoughts.
The best way to evaluate the job that Stewart has done in 2 ½ seasons on the Mountaineer sidelines, I decided, was to do it the way most companies prefer, a performance evaluation. Following the basic form that most of us have seen so many times on those dreaded evaluations, I sat down to evaluate Stewart's performance as the head football coach at West Virginia University.
In what areas does this coach excel?
- Personality: Although some may find him to be a little phony and his answers aren't always straight to the point, most people who have a conversation with Stewart - from national media personalities to the casual fan - can't help but like him. The man knows how to make people smile, and his sincere love for the Mountaineers, West Virginia and his players are endearing qualities. The image that Stewart puts forth for WVU and the state of West Virginia is a positive one.
- Vision: Although many would argue that his strategy hasn't exactly worked to perfection, Stewart's overall plan when he was handed the keys to the Mountaineer football kingdom was solid. He saw that WVU could win a lot of games with Rich Rodriguez's run-first spread offense, but he also saw contests like Pitt (‘07) and South Florida (‘06, ‘07) where West Virginia had no answer when the opponent loaded the box and had the speed on the edge to take away the outside run. Stewart believed , correctly, that WVU could achieve many of its goals with such an attack, but the ultimate destination of a national championship was not reachable without a few changes. That's when he went to work finding receivers that were good enough to help give the Mountaineers a vertical passing game to offset such a defensive attack and quarterbacks who could push the ball down the field.
Stewart also knew that the easiest way for him to succeed was to surround himself with quality coaches. That's just what he did by bringing in guys like Steve Dunlap, David Lockwood, Doc Holliday, Lonnie Galloway, Chris Beatty, etc., and keeping the best coaches already on the staff like Bill Kirelawich and Jeff Casteel. Stewart didn't worry about hiring people with resumes that may challenge his own. He went out and brought the best people he could find to Morgantown.
- Recruiting: Just look at the national rankings. West Virginia has finished in the Top 25 with each of its last two classes, something it had never done before Stewart took over. Players like Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Bruce Irvin and Josh Jenkins are making major impacts on this year's team thanks to the recruiting efforts of guys like Beatty, Galloway, Kirelawich and Stewart, who may be the best salesman of them all. There are also plenty of promising talents in the fold waiting to make their mark on the program.
There is, of course, some worry that some of the recruiting will suffer because of the departure of Holliday, but the other Mountaineer coaches seem to be working hard to assure that no drop-off occurs.
- Confidence: No matter how many people tell him he can't, Stewart firmly believes that he can take West Virginia to the top of the football mountain, and nothing anybody says will keep him from continuing to try to make that climb. The Mountaineer coach doesn't second-guess his decisions, and he won't deviate from his plan, no matter what outsiders are telling him. Without a belief in himself, no manager can ask his team to believe, and Stewart has that part covered.
- Player loyalty: Most West Virginia players love their head coach. That's why Pat White, who worked side-by-side with Stewart when the WVU head coach was his quarterbacks coach, endorsed him for the job, and that's why Sanders and Noel Devine chose to return for one more year before trying their hand at the NFL.
The opposite is true as well. You will never hear Stewart throw a player under the bus, and he is always there for any current or former Mountaineer whenever he is needed.
- Experience: Although most of Stewart's coaching days have been as an assistant, he had the opportunity to learn under some of the game's best. He played for Bobby Bowden. He was an assistant at WVU under the school's two most successful head coaches, Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez, and he also tutored under Dick Crum Fisher DeBerry and others on his way up the ladder. Stewart has seen a number of different approaches and can pull from the best of them.
In what areas has this coach improved since obtaining the job?
- Personnel: Stewart has done a great job of bringing in the men to fix WVU's personnel weaknesses. He has brought in bigger backs to fix problems his team was having in short yardage situations. He has found receivers who can stretch the field and go up and make catches. He has found tight ends that can catch and block, and he has found kickers who can kick the football high and deep on kickoffs. That, along with some coaching and scheme changes, has greatly improved the Mountaineers' kick return coverage.
- Public relations: Stewart is still far from being the best interview in college football. When he's in a good mood, he often rambles and jumps from topic to topic. When he's in a bad mood, he has a tendency to be sarcastic and standoffish, and he sometimes even refuses to answer questions.
But he has gotten better than where he was when he started, and, especially in interviews with national media, he usually does a great job of representing the program in a positive light.
What are this coach's weaknesses?
- In-game adjustments: West Virginia has scored 69 points in first quarters this season, while scoring no more than 41 in any other quarter, that number coming in the third quarter after there has been a little time to make some changes at halftime. The Mountaineers almost always come out with a good game plan, and points on their first few possessions have been a common trend all season. But as teams make adjustments, it seems as though Stewart and his staff rarely come up with successful counter-adjustments. Production drops off dramatically after the opening quarter, and often the Mountaineers are left trying to hang on for dear life. The Marshall game, of course, was the one exception. But against Maryland, USF and Syracuse, what looked like an unstoppable force in the early going turned into a group that provided more frustration than thrills the rest of the way.
This isn't a new phenomenon in 2010, either. Last year, the Mountaineers blew a sizeable lead against Pitt and had to scramble for a late field goal to pull off the upset of their rival. The story was the same early in the season at Auburn, where WVU blew a big advantage to erase what would have been a huge road win in SEC territory. They also held the upper hand at the half in the Gator Bowl against Florida State, only to see the offense go missing in action in the second half.
- Rabbit ears: Stewart likes to claim that he has thick skin, and, as mentioned above, he doesn't let criticism change his plan of attack. That, however, doesn't mean he ignores it. If you read, hear or watch anything that casts Stewart in even the slightest negative light, you can bet you'll hear more about it in his press conference later that week. Stewart can't let anything go by without stepping up to defend himself, often coming off as standoffish in the process.
Any coach at a major college football program is going to get some negative press from time to time, and fans are never going to be completely happy. If those coaches don't learn to let it roll off their backs, they can often worry themselves to death. Stewart has to learn to turn off his radar, stick to the plan and worry about what is happening between the white lines, not on message boards or in newspapers.
The situation with Holliday - not shaking hands and the jabs each took through the media - was disappointing to me as well. If Marshall wants to get into that battle because of an inferiority complex, that's one thing. But West Virginia has no business stooping to that level. Keep those disagreements behind closed doors and out of the newspapers.
- Sideline demeanor: This one, Stewart probably can't help. He is who he is. I don't think he is really clueless on the sidelines. In fact, he is far from it. Stewart has probably forgotten more football than anybody reading this website has ever known. But his facial expressions do often give the impression that he is off in his own world, and that only fuels the fire for nay-sayers that believe Stewart is in over his head.
- Killer instinct: This goes back to the first weakness. Very rarely - UNLV is probably the only exception - is West Virginia able to put a team away and get to the point where it can relax down the stretch. And too often, as mentioned above, it ends up costing the Mountaineers dearly.
There are instances where this criticism is invalid. Against South Florida, for example, the only way WVU was going to lose that game, the way its defense was playing, was through turnovers. That's what had cost them against LSU and Marshall, and Stewart wasn't going to let it happen again. The objective is to win by any means possible, and that's just what he did. There are other cases, though, where getting too conservative too early has been costly.
> What outside factors are impacting performance?
- Breaks: Bad bounces, officials calls and injuries are a part of college football, and good teams and coaches have to be able to overcome those setbacks. But when evaluating performance, you just can't ignore them, either. Stewart has certainly caught some bad breaks during his time with the Mountaineers.
We can start with this past Saturday. The interference call that negated a WVU interception was one that could have gone either way. If the flag had stayed in the official's pocket and the Mountaineers had taken over deep in Syracuse territory just before the half, who knows how the game could have been changed? Maybe they would have put the ball in the end zone, opened up a little cushion and given Geno some confidence. We'll never know.
Then there's the game at LSU. Noel Devine was running well before he was hit out of bounds and injured his toe. He was never the same after that, and neither was the WVU offense. In a game that the Mountaineers were one score away from winning, a healthy Devine could have changed the outcome.
How about the 2009 season? An overturned fumble took the ball away from the Mountaineers and gave No. 5 Cincinnati a touchdown in what was eventually a 24-21 Bearcat victory. I have watched the play probably 50 times since then, and I still see no evidence that the call on the field should have ever been overturned. If West Virginia had gotten the ball back there and gone on to win the game, it would have won two contests in a row against top 10 teams - the Mountaineers defeated No. 8 Pitt the very next week - won the Big East and gone on to a BCS bowl game. How differently would we look at the season then?
As it was, WVU still finished with a respectable 9-3 record and received a solid bowl bid to take on Florida State in the Gator Bowl. The Mountaineers held a 14-13 halftime lead in that one when starting quarterback Jarrett Brown, a senior, was injured. Smith, a freshman, was brought on to play the rest of the game, and WVU fell 33-21. Would the result have been different without the injury? We'll never know. But you certainly like your chances a little better with a senior running the show instead of a freshman with only one game of experience under his belt.
- Expectations: WVU should always set its goals high. I completely agree. The Mountaineers have reached the highest level of college football before, and there's no reason they can't get there again. But to expect Big East championships and BCS bowl appearances every season is just not realistic in today's college football climate.
Nobody is on top every year. Look at Texas, Florida, USC and others. Today's college football is more balanced that ever before, and upsets, even big upsets (you listening Virginia Tech) are going to happen, even to quality football teams. I realize WVU isn't playing in the SEC, Pac 10 or Big 12, so the competition isn't quite the same. But that doesn't mean there has always been bad football in the Big East either. Cincinnati was a very good, if not great, football team last year before it lost its coach. Its performance against Florida wasn't indicative of the type of team the Bearcats had. Pitt was also a top 10 team for much of the 2009 season, and Connecticut had a solid team as well - just ask South Carolina. Still, WVU was just a whisker away from winning the league. I don't consider that a failure.
This year may be a little different. There's no question that the Big East is down, so now is the time that the Mountaineers need to rise to the top and carry the banner. Demanding a league title this year probably isn't an unrealistic request - although I do think Cincinnati, Louisville and Pitt have taken major strides in recent weeks - but demanding a championship every year is unfair. The other teams are working just as hard as the Mountaineers, and some have some advantages that WVU doesn't possess. I expect Stewart's club to be in the mix each and every season, but the season isn't necessarily a failure if they come up short.
- The nature of his hire: There are many Mountaineer supporters who were completely against hiring Stewart from the start, especially in the midst of the emotion that was created after the Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma. Some of those fans were going to be against Stewart no matter what he did on the field. In their eyes, Stewart has never been able to do any right, and no matter what move he makes, they are going to be vocal with their criticism. There isn't much the West Virginia coach can do about those detractors.
Whether WVU fans like it or not, Stewart, at least for now, is the head coach of the Mountaineers, and he still has a chance to do something special this year. There isn't a game left on the schedule that's a guarantee for the Mountaineers, but there isn't a game that they can't win either. If WVU can win out, it should win the conference, and that will equate to a special season, even with the Syracuse loss.
I don't expect Oliver Luck to make any coaching moves anytime soon, but I know for a fact he won't do anything in the middle of the season. So calling for Stew's head at this point is pointless.
From now until the regular season finale on Dec. 4, Mountaineer fans need to put their full support behind Stewart and his staff. After all, what does criticism do for you at this point? It's not going to change the current state of the program, and it could have a negative impact on current players or future recruits who certainly hear or read plenty of the criticism. If we, as WVU fans, just give our full support for the next two months, then we can sit back and evaluate where we stand at that point.
For now, I see no reason to make a change at the top of the West Virginia coaching staff, but there are some areas that must be addressed. The Mountaineers have not been strong on the offensive line in any of Stewart's years as the head coach, and that has to change. I don't know if the solution is a change in philosophy, coaching or simply personnel, but WVU has to get better in this area to reach its ultimate goals.
The offense also has to develop more consistency and some sort of identity. As Stewart admitted in his Sunday press conference, this WVU offense isn't mastering any one area. It has to find something that it can hang its hat on when the game is on the line.
It's not time to give up on Stewart yet. But, depending on what happens over the next few month, the offseason may be a time for the coach to make a few changes of his own to keep the program moving in the right direction. He is the CEO of the Mountaineer program, and sometimes that position brings with it some tough decisions and uncomfortable moves. But the direction of the WVU football program should always be priority No. 1.