'Totality of Innuendo'

Oliver Luck's stated reasoning for the engineered resignation of West Virginia University head football coach Bill Stewart points out the power of public (and private) perception in today's world.

Even though Luck made it a point to say, both in a released statement and in a Friday night press conference, that "the University was not able to substantiate any of the rumors and innuendos out there", both Luck and WVU still believed it necessary to work out a deal that removed Bill Stewart from his position as the leader of the Mountaineer football program. In the two days since all this played out, I've received many questions on this topic, and also several theories as to why it occurred. One holds that there may have been evidence to support the allegations, but that it was not publicized in order to secure Stewart's quick dismissal. Another blames other potential 'leaks'. A third holds that Luck had been trying to balance the wishes of big donors (and perhaps some other corporate entities) supporting Stewart against those of ones that wanted him out, and that the awkward coach-in-waiting solution was an attempt to placate both sides. There are certainly more theories, some plausible, and some ridiculous. While each pointed the finger of blame in different directions, all combined in the public consciousness to form the generally accepted opinion that a change had to be made.

Before we go any further, let's get one thing straight. I'm not attacking Luck's decision here. Nor am I defending Bill Stewart and saying that he should not have been forced out. My point in all of this is that public perception, whether right or wrong, often forces decisions to be made on the basis of that factor among all others. That's a state of affairs that I truly despise, but I may be a voice in the wilderness in opposing it.

Let's take just the latest example of perception contradicting statements from multiple sources. In a column in Sunday's Huntington Herald-Dispatch, Chuck Landon claims that the last time he spoke with Stewart was Sept. 22, 2010 – well before the events began that ultimately resulted in Stewart's departure. He also claims that he as never met and spoke with Karen Stewart. Granted, Landon has no love or tolerance for West Virginia University. But when combined with the direct statements of Luck, they make a strong argument against the belief that Landon was fed information by Stewart. Still, the public perception, and widely held belief, is that Stewart was the culprit.

Granted, that's not a direct refutation of all of the charges that eventually combined to bring Stewart down. The statements from a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat writer concerning Stewart's alleged request to "dig up dirt" on offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen have been neither confirmed nor denied publicly by the two people that apparently have direct knowledge and are a position to do so. With this incident now passing, they likely never will. I have no reason to disbelieve those claims, but nothing to substantiate them either. At this point, Luck's statement that he released in announcing Stewart's departure is the only thing in the public domain, and it was adamant on that point:

"Let me make this clear, the University has not substantiated any allegations of wrong doing on the part of Coach Stewart or his wife Karen Stewart."

Again, this is not meant to attack or cast doubt on the statements of any particular party. It's simply to point out that, even though conflicting statements and claims are made, observers often choose sides early on, and its rare for them to change their minds, at least in the short term.

This phenomenon certainly isn't limited to sports. Take Richard Jewell, the security guard who found a pipe bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and helped usher people away from it before it exploded. At first, Jewell was hailed as a hero, but later the media turned him into a prime suspect, dogging him and ruining his life. Public perception turned against him, and even though he was officially exonerated when another person was convicted of the crime, if you bring up the name today, there are probably as many people that would identify him as the 'Olympic bomber' as those that would know the real story.

Jewell's case is more extreme than this one, of course. There wasn't any threat of criminal prosecution, and Stewart certainly leaves with sufficient money to support himself and his family for the remainder of their lives. However, that doesn't lessen the impact on him or his family. It's going to be very difficult for Stewart to be hired as a coach again, at least on the college level. His family members will also bear the stain of this entire debacle. Is it fair that all of this has happened without the determination of any wrongdoing? Or that the decision to end a career was based mostly on public perception?

'Perception is reality' is a common refrain heard today, and it is nowhere better illustrated than in this case. Of course, perception is often aligned with the truth, but sometimes it's not. Put into a position where he believed he was in the right, Stewart dug in his heels for a while, but in the end, was convinced or pushed into the decision to step down.

Again, I'm not defending Stewart's actions. As Patrick Southern detailed in his excellent piece on Stewart, the veteran coach certainly changed in his time at the helm of the State's premier football program. West Virginia may have had more information than it chose to reveal in deciding Stewart's fate. But at this point, it certainly looks as if the decision was made largely due to the public firestorm resulting from the allegations.

Luck himself brought that up in response to a question about why the decision was made to pull the plug. "The totality of the circumstances, the totality of the innuendo and all the things that were being said, the distractions that I believe would not come to a close prompted me to sit down with Coach Stewart," he said. Combined with his other statement concerning the lack of any evidence of wrongdoing, it clearly points out that ending the drama of the entire sequence of events was one of the biggest factors in the decision. West Virginia was being cast in a negative light, and the call to "do something" was growing stronger by the day.

Luck did that on Friday, and perhaps in today's environment, he had no choice. The "totality of innuendo" trumped all other considerations. However, if you think that state of affairs, whether at West Virginia or elsewhere, is 100% o.k., you might want to ask yourself this question: What if it was your job security and your family being impugned by perception?

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