Handling Matters

West Virginia head football coach Bill Stewart has faced some challenges and tough decisions in the discipline arena over the past few months, and for those he has received both praise and criticism for the manner in which he has handled them. How then, to evaluate his first five months in this all-too-critical area of the program?

Viewed from the outside, Stewart's handling of the incidents, which have involved no fewer than ten players, might seem to be a bit inconsistent. He has dismissed five players (James Ingram, Ed Collington, Charles Pugh, Evan Rodriguez and Johnny Holmes). He then allowed that Holmes could return to the team, albeit while paying his own way. Eric Rodemoyer, C.J. Matthews and Derek Long are no longer members of the team. Noel Devine and Jock Sanders were involved in an altercation outside a club and were disciplined.

On a lesser note, Max Anderson and Sammy Morrone served running punishment tours during parts of spring drills. Put all of them together, and several questions occur. Do they constitute a pattern? Or is it just a bad stretch? Did Stewart handle them correctly? Is it a signal of things to come?

First, and foremost, is the importance of the manner in which Stewart has addressed each of these incidents. While some have praised Stewart for being tough on offenders, others have said he didn't go far enough. What's important to realize in understanding how and why Stewart made the decisions he did is to know that he uses a page from former head coach Don Nehlen's book in dealing with players.

That cornerstone reads something like this: Each player will be treated fairly, but that doesn't mean he will be treated the same as everyone else. With the belief that each player is different, and acknowledging that each transgression is different, and attended by a different set of circumstances, the response to each incident could be different. Obviously, there are some guidelines in place. Criminal misconduct involving drugs will be dealt with harshly (see Collington and Ingram). Circumstances can come into play (Holmes) that mitigates punishment. Repeated incidents will be met with more severely (Pugh, Rodriguez). The incident with Devine and Sanders carried many mitigating circumstances that dictated far lesser action. There is always room for consideration of all the facts of an incident, with the final punishment being Stewart's determination.

In many ways, this approach mimics our justice system. After being found guilty, the judge in a case has wide discretion in most instances to issue punishment as he sees fit. Of course, the model doesn't fully apply to a football program, because a judge isn't faced with the prospect of potentially hurting his job by sentencing a defendant to jail – with the equivalent being dismissal from the team.

While this approach seems the most fair, it is also open to potential abuse. Cynics will be quick to point out instances where key performers are kept on the team while backups or walk-ons get dismissed. However, Stewart did much to dispel that notion by releasing Pugh, who was primed for a starting spot in the defensive backfield this fall. Still, the perception remains, and as all have clearly seen in the case of former WVU president Mike Garrison, perception can trump reality.

In reality, discipline is a no-win situation – and not just for athletics coaches. No matter what the punishment, some are going to deem it too light, others too heavy. There's no way that everyone is going to agree with the decisions that are made. So, in that sense, Stewart (or any coach) can't get involved in debates over why decisions are made. It's a fruitless exercise, and one that will never have a winner. That's one reason why, in announcing punishments and dismissals, coaches always add the phrase, "there will be no more statements concerning this matter".

The important thing for Stewart is to be fair, if not identical, in the treatment of his players. If they believe that, then a big step toward team harmony and chemistry is achieved. That was obviously one of the big factors in WVU's Sugar Bowl win (combined with a game plan that wasn't strapped tighter than Jennifer Lopez' pants), and is something that has to stay in place for WVU to have high-level success.

In the end, it's not overly important for the fans to believe in Stewart's methods or approach. That's not to say that fans aren't important. However, in this area, the key is for the players to buy into it. If they believe that the punishments, suspensions and dismissals are fair and warranted, and that Stewart is handling them in the right way, then there shouldn't be any team issues arising from the rash of problems that have cropped up since the Sugar Bowl win. That's his primary goal -- to be fair to each player, help them learn from mistakes, graduate, and become good members of society. However, if the reverse is true, it could be an issue that wrecks West Virginia's high hopes for the 2008 season.

Unfortunately, there's no way to say right now whether Stewart's approach is right or wrong. Only the outcome of the season will be the final judge of that. While that is by no means a fair assessment to make, it's the one that will be used to make the final call.

And you still say you want to be the coach?

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