Let me continue here with a warning. If you are tired of hearing about former head coach Rich Rodriguez, head back to the BlueGoldNews.com message boards and put up a few more posts about how Stew is not getting the job done. If not, please read on.
Let's start with Rodriguez's arrival in Morgantown on Nov. 26, 2000. Although he couldn't have known it at the time, the former Mountaineer defensive back was returning to his alma mater at the perfect time. First, there was already some major talent in place. When Rodriguez first stepped onto the practice field, he could look out at Quincy Wilson, Rasheed Marshall, Grant Wiley, Brian King, Lance Frazier, Scott Gyorko, Mike Henshaw, Moe Fofana, Ben Lynch, James "Dirty" Davis, Avon Cobourne, Angel Estrada, Lance Nimmo, David Upchurch, Ken Sandor and many more. The best part was that none of them were seniors.
So while Rodriguez suffered through a 3-8 season his first year in Morgantown, he had some great players learning the ropes and serving in leadership roles to teach the younger Mountaineers how to perform. A year later, he had talent — most of which came from Don Nehlen's recruiting class — that knew his system, and the result was a 9-4 finish and a trip to the Continental Tire Bowl.
That success, with Nehlen's players leading the way, helped Rodriguez land some recruits to come into his program, and he caught another major break a year later when the ACC raided the Big East and took some of the Mountaineers stiffest competition — Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech — out of the mix. Suddenly, Rodriguez's path to the BCS didn't include the Hurricanes, who at that time were perennial national title contenders, the Hokies, who were one of the hottest teams in all of college football, or Boston College, which provided a difficult test year-in and year-out. Nehlen had to get by all of those teams, plus a very strong Syracuse club and a much better Pitt program to lead his team to an undefeated season in 1993, but timing allowed Rodriguez to be able to win the conference and earn a BCS bowl bid with none of those obstacles in the way. Syracuse and Pitt were way down, and the rest of those clubs were gone from the Big East.
That wasn't the only timing break Rodriguez caught during the 2005 season, the first year of the "new Big East". Facing certain defeat at home against Louisville, a loss that would have given the Cardinals the BCS berth instead of the Mountaineers, Rodriguez continued to stick with his trusty quarterback rotation of Pat White and Adam Bednarik. Midway through the fourth quarter, though, Bednarik went down with an injury. Rodriguez had not choice but to stick with Pat White, and the true freshman found a rhythm to lead the Mountaineers back from 17 points down and pull off a victory in overtime. The rest was history. That is what I call timing, and I didn't even mention the walk-on fullback that landed on his doorstep begging for a chance to play and eventually became the best fullback in school history (Owen Schmitt).
Timing, I believe, is also what led to the coach's departure two years later. Just take a look at what was going on before Rodriguez left. Two years in a row, his team had been completely shut down by South Florida, and when Pitt pulled off the 13-9 upset to end the 2007 campaign, it had become clear that other defenses were starting to catch onto the Bulls' scheme for stopping the Mountaineers.
Rodriguez knew that the rest of the conference wouldn't be far behind. He looked across the Big East landscape and saw improving teams at Pitt, Connecticut and Cincinnati. He looked at his depth chart and realized he would be losing Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, Darrius Reynaud and seven starters on defense, and Pat White, who had really helped make the Grant Town, W.Va., native look like a genius, would be gone after one more season.
Rodriguez was a hot commodity, having taken his team to a BCS bowl game two out of the last three years, but he realized he had reached his peak. If he didn't take another job right then, he would have to deal with the loss of his top offensive weapons while at the same time coming up with a counter for defenses that had figured out the secret to stopping his attack. For one season, he would have White to bail him out, but his recruiting deficits had left him without a physical runner, without play-making receivers and although their was plenty of speed, there was no size to be found.
It was clear that 2008 wasn't going to be easy, and if he stayed through 2009, Rodriguez would have to completely change his offense without a White-type quarterback to run the triple option. His offensive linemen had no clue how to pass block, he didn't have any downfield threats at receiver and if he was going to succeed against the Big East's new defensive attack, he was going to have to find a way to throw the ball.
So knowing that his stock was about to plummet, Rodriguez knew his best option was to take a job while he was hot and then have a few years at Michigan to try to figure out a new attack, with the excuse of players who couldn't run his system in his back pocket. Rodriguez's scamper from Morgantown wasn't about money, it wasn't about prestige and it wasn't about an insufficient athletic department. Rodriguez's decision to accept the Michigan job was about one thing — timing.
Enter Bill Stewart, who certainly had time on his side when he was named interim coach after Rodriguez snuck out of town in the midst of a snowstorm. What the longtime assistant inherited was an angry team ready to prove that its success was about more than its head coach and hungry to erase the bad taste in its mouth that came from a loss to Pitt. Oh yeah, it also had Slaton, White, Schmitt, Reynaud and a veteran defense to lead that attack.
All Stewart had to do was keep the team focused, add in a few downfield passes that Oklahoma had not seen on tape and all of the sudden he was 1-0 with a Fiesta Bowl win as the WVU head coach. The next day, Stewart was named permanent head coach, and he commented that he was just, "in the right place at the right time."
Little did he know, the timing actually couldn't have been worse, at least in terms of perception. WVU fans, and even many of the so-called experts, were expecting nothing less than a national title in 2008. They focused on the fact that Pat White and Noel Devine were coming back and ignored the fact that the Mountaineers were losing their top running back, and the only ball-carrier with any size, a legendary fullback, who was also the unquestioned leader on and off the field, their top receiver and the bulk of their defense.
Fans praised Stewart for trying to implement a passing attack to keep defenses honest and avoid the fate his team suffered against Pitt the year before, but they forgot how much work his linemen, quarterback and receivers would need to pull this off.
By now, you know the rest of the story. West Virginia suffered two early losses to East Carolina and Colorado, and after regrouping to get back in the Big East race, it fell to Cincinnati and Pitt, both of which employed the defensive strategy of locking down the receivers, putting an extra safety in the box and forcing the Mountaineers to beat them with the pass. WVU's progression in that area had not come far enough, and mistakes in the passing game, combined with the inability to convert on short-yardage situations — a problem that came about as a result of Rodriguez's deficiency of recruiting any size — have led WVU to a 7-4 record with just one regular season game remaining.
Call me a homer if you wish, but I am here to tell you that Stewart and his coaching staff are doing the right things, and in the long run it will pay off. Stewart is not settling for mediocrity as many have suggested. In fact, he is doing just the opposite.
Stewart, along with the rest of the coaches on staff, wants to win it all, and he realizes that while a one-dimensional offense may get you nine or 10 wins a season, there is always going to be a team that steps in and shuts down that strength, leaving no option but to take a loss on the chin. So in order to avoid that fate, Stewart has tried to make the WVU offense more multiple. He has put in an offense that has an answer for almost any defense, and he is recruiting the players to fill the deficiencies that the Mountaineers have in running this new attack. He has brought in great assistants to help him out, and it is clear by his recruiting class that some of the best high school athletes out there are buying what he is selling, even if the "fans" at home are not. Unfortunately Stewart's task is one that will take one of the most valuable assets in the game of college football — time.
In addition to his work for the Blue & Gold News, Huffman is the sports editor at the Aiken (S.C.) Standard.