Two Sides to a Top Five

If the most notable intercollegiate athletic change at West Virginia has been the resurrection of its two major sports, a minor corollary to that would be the self-labeled maturation of its head football coach, and the resulting smugness of part of the fan base.

The approach has switched. Flip-flopped really. The discipline and motivating tactics have changed; the end-game, just-win-baby attitude has overwhelmed the win-by-this-much demons that haunted sixth-year head coach Rich Rodriguez as recently as 2004. West Virginia is a better team for it, both in wins and losses and outlook. But those demons seem to have infiltrated the fans, part of which no longer focus on winning, but on winning by enough.

There were things even supporters didn't particularly care for when Rodriguez, then arguably the hottest young assistant in the game, splashed onto the Morgantown scene in 2000: His brashness, his ‘Play With Your Hair on Fire' credo, his break ‘em down style – which ended up breaking some players to the point of quitting – his explicative-ridden rants that might have been needed, but could have delivered the same message minus a few four-letter insertions.

The Grant Town native's change became most clear in the post-game interviews outside of the Mountaineer locker room last Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. No. 4 WVU has just beaten East Carolina 27-10, a solid win but not the score many fans and so-called experts imagined. The same type of game drew Rodriguez's wrath in 2004 (see: James Madison, UCF, Rutgers). This year, it drew praise and the following:

"I go back to a couple years ago when we were mad that we did not win by enough. I am not going to do that," Rodriguez said. "We got a nice win on the road and in this day and age that is tough."

That's a far different attitude than that which followed the win over Division I-AA James Madison, a team that would go on to win the title at that level. Even cornerback PacMan Jones was upset at the five-touchdown spread. And if 45-10 over the Dukes, 35-30 against Rutgers on the road and 45-20 at Central Florida in Orlando simply won't do it, well, it reads here that perception isn't reality. It's tough to tell when the realization that winning is enough – heck, sometimes just playing competitively and running a clean program are enough at West Virginia – hit Rodriguez.

Perhaps it was in 2004, when the Mountaineers, predicted by some to play for the national title and by nearly all the win the ‘new' Big East, lost their final two games, dropping a once BCS-or-Bust school into a lower-tier bowl, where it would lose a second consecutive Gator Bowl to finish with three straight losses to end the year at 8-4. Maybe it was later than that, like in 2005 when a young team played better than expected, Rodriguez having slowed the beration and upped the adulation, which led, directly or not, to an 11-1 season and a Sugar Bowl win.

"I am not as mad now," Rodriguez said. "I was really upset the way we played before (in 2004) and I took it out on the players and coaches and everybody and it was miserable. I don't know if that was because of expectations. But it was because of my own expectations. Now I am guarded against that. In (Monday's) meeting we showed the game film and reviewed it with players. They could tell I was not real happy at some points, but I wasn't nearly as mad as I would have been two years ago.

"Maybe that's just me maturing into the aged coached. A lot of people said I had to mature. I am still maturing."

Too bad the same can't be said of segments of the fan population. The coaching support was there following the 27-10 victory this year, when West Virginia played worse than expected, yet never trailed. The hard part is telling where the fan support is. So here's a check-yourself statement: Winning should be good enough every time, and there's no reason to apologize for it. East Carolina tackled well. It made plays. It's better than a 1-3 team, and though WVU did not provide fans a blowout party, it won. For the 11th time in a row. For the 15th time in 16 games. And it's still there, right in the top five, right in the national title race.

"(People) are reluctant to give the other team credit," Rodriguez said. "Let's face it: most fans are not nearly as educated as (media). Seriously, … most fans are going to read what you put out there. If you all put out there that this team isn't very good and you should beat them by 20 points (the prediction here was 13), that is all they know. They are not watching any film, they don't follow the players they have, they don't take into account that this isn't professional players, that these are kids against kids of the same age.

"How do you explain it to them if fans don't ever understand college football and the variables around it? Look at this season. There have been six I-AAs that have beaten I-A teams. Montana State beats Colorado. Montana State then can't win another game. They lose to a Division II school (Chadron State in Nebraska). Then Colorado, from what I saw, should have beat Georgia at Georgia. By that logic, then, Chadron State should be able to beat Georgia. I can't stress enough that it is a different animal. Some teams are so talented that they can go out there and screw up and not play well and still win by 25 or 30 points. We ain't one of them. I would like to think at some point in your program you could get to that, but I don't know if we ever will."

The argument here isn't that the majority of WVU fans think they should have that type program. They know they don't. What they want is a blue-collar type team that plays hard every snap, that gets the absolute most out of its talent base and wins without cheating. It has that. But one would argue, the recent success is changing the attitudes of some fans. Suddenly, we're talking numbers, not wins. How many SHOULD WVU win by. What will it take, in this particular game, for me, the fan, the donor, the alumnus, to be satisfied? Maybe that's what fans do; they look ahead and talk numbers and complain and moan and whine. But I'll write it if a maturing Rodriguez won't say it: Any win is a good one. There ain't bad wins; they don't exist. Any loss is fine if the Mountaineers gave their best effort and tried. And trying and giving a best effort often has little to do with execution.

"Sometimes you call a defense and they guessed right and sometimes you call an offense and we guessed wrong," Rodriguez said. "That's not the players' fault; that's the coaches'. We were not as sharp or crisp as we could be or need be. Hopefully we don't make as many of those because it will cost you eventually if you do it against another good team. But it wasn't like we got shutout. They tackled well, we did not make them miss as well. We had more missed assignments that game than we did in the other three. Guys made mistakes. They are 18, 19, 20 years old. They made a mental mistake once in awhile. The quarterback made a mistake. Pat (White) usually doesn't make any mistakes. But he made a few, and it might have cost us maybe a touchdown. And those guys did a nice job."

In short, sometimes, like at work, with children, in a personal life, your best just doesn't emerge like one would want it to do.

"We had a little bit of a bulls eye two years ago when we had Rasheed (Marshall) and Kay Jay (Harris)," Rodriguez said. "We were ranked in the top 10 and everybody said ‘Boy, they did not handle it well then.' I thought our guys handled it okay for the most part. I made some mistakes by putting too much pressure on them and expecting too much. We lost to Virginia Tech that year and were 8-1 with two games to go. You win either one and you go to the BCS. Up until that point, the last two games, I thought they handled it okay. We just didn't play well in the last two games and it cost us a BCS berth.

"There were a lot of things we didn't do very well (against ECU) and our guys know that. You can talk to most of our guys and they will tell you that. But we are still 4-0. You can't be any better than that. So I don't get worried about what fans' expectations are. I am not going to put the same pressures on the players that we have to win by a certain amount or that we are unhappy with an ugly win, not that the last win was ugly."

A testament to maturity. Now if only the entire fan base would even aspire to that level.

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