The seven-year assistant, a former VMI head coach, is trusting his years of experience and upbeat, uber-positive personality as he leads the No. 11 Mountaineers against No. 4 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3. Stewart has two weeks to ready WVU, rocked a bit by the recent resignation for former head coach Rich Rodriguez. Stewart's first assault was on the mental game; his second will be physical prep.
"This is not a tragic situation; it's just life-changing," Stewart said. "The young people are tough. … I will give you the best I have and can give. When it gets too tough for others, it's just right for Billy Stewart."
When West Virginia had several defensive linemen refuse to practice immediately after Rodriguez announced he was leaving, Stewart did not pressure them to play. His veteran instincts told him to let them go, give the players a chance to cool and calm down. They regained composure after a vent, and Stewart then had position coach Bill Kirelawich speak with them. Stewart saw them the next day.
"Some young people get a little frustrated," Stewart said. "They came right back. They are ok. Cooler heads have to prevail. I did not say anything, I let Bill Kirelawich talk to them. I winked at them and asked how they were. They said fine, and I said ‘let's go get ‘em.'"
Stewart said his time at VMI would help with the transition, and that he, along with Calvin Magee – who Stewart said might stay at WVU depending upon who is hired as head coach – and quarterbacks mentor Rod Smith would call plays. Under Stewart, the Mountaineers have been running through very similar practices to those held under the former coach. West Virginia has drilled zone plays, red zone work, two-minute offense, inside runs, passing work and other aspects.
"I do like I do when (VMI) played (favorite) Ole Miss," Stewart said. "You try to call the best plays and let the little fellas play. The thing is that when you go out there with VMI, you don't have as many bullets. At West Virginia, you have a few more bullets. I told 5 and 10 and 35 to get ready, get lathered up because they will carry the load. We will get the ball out to No. 2 and have some fun. There are some more things we want to do. I just worry about how the Mountaineers block and tackle. I can't worry about Oklahoma. We will have some wrinkles as they adjust to us."
The numbers refer to quarterback Patrick White, superback Steve Slaton, fullback Owen Schmitt and wide receiver Darius Reynaud. The foursome joined several other Mountaineers as the team distributed presents to needy children. It was not only a way to bring a bit of joy and fun to youth, but also reestablish team unity. Stewart said that was a main focus, at least in the early portions of his tenure.
"I work on a handshake," he said. "I am so proud to be interim head coach at West Virginia. It's an awesome responsibility and I am busting at the seams. Because the last time the Mountaineers played, the nation did not see us at put best. I want people to know what we can do and what we are all about and how we play. We want to get out in the desert and hit those guys straight on."