As West Virginia's football team reassembles in Phoenix on Monday afternoon, it will be coming off a break that it sorely needed. Despite players' comments to the contrary, it was obvious that the Mountaineers were still reeling a few days after being knocked from the pinnacle of the college football world. The sorry Rich Rodriguez debacle didn't help any, even though that took some of the attention away from the players themselves, but the resulting search for a replacement coach may have helped even more.
While most of the attention around WVU football during the last week was focused on that search, the team was able to get in a couple of practices, then get away to their homes for Christmas visits with their families and friends. That, in and of itself, was likely a major relief, and although the players were certainly involved in the speculation surrounding the identities and candidates involved in the process, the pressure wasn't on them. There weren't dozens of articles speculating on how WVU would match up with Oklahoma, or how the loss on Dec. 1 would affect them mentally. And while some say that such attention shouldn't affect players once they get on the field, there is little doubt that constant negativity or attention to an issue invariable leads to bad feelings and emotions. Exhibit A: WVU's coaching search.
Interim head coach Bill Stewart has done an excellent job in handling the team. He has kept a light touch on the reins, and cut the pre-Christmas practice schedule short to allow the players more time at home. That was a very smart move, as past WVU teams have resented the heavy hand of Rodriguez in similar circumstances -- twice the team was forced to regroup for its bowl game practices on Christmas Day.
True to his nature, Stewart also has been more mentor that whipcracker during WVU's practice sessions. While he can yell and get upset, like any coach, he knows that now is not the time for such actions. He is concentrating on putting the team back together, healing any fractures caused by the Rodriguez departure train, and doing all he can to repair the team's mental state.
The situation will change Wednesday evening as the team arrives in Phoenix, of course. The focus will turn back to how the team will bounce back, or if it can. The national media will play that angle for all its worth, as it really hasn't had the chance to do so yet, and won't look beyond the obvious storylines. However, West Virginia, having had the break it needed, just might be prepared enough to withstand that next assault. Whether or not it will be enough to defeat the Sooners remains to be seen.