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The little Mountaineers who could and their lessons for the guys

Submitted by on Thursday, 28 August 2008 No Comment
Bill Stewart

Bill Stewart

“What’s that say, Mommy?” Big Guy asked, pointing to the banner a West Virginia fan held during the Fiesta Bowl tonight.

“It says, ‘We’ll never leave you,’” I replied.

“Who left?”

“The Mountaineers’ coach. He got another job, so he’s not at the game tonight.”

“So who’s taking care of them?” he asked, because when you’re 4, that’s what coaches do. Pick you up, dust your little fanny, tie your little shoes and send you back out with a hug.

“They have another coach to take care of them. A very nice coach,” I said.

Big Guy, losing interest, dismissed me with an “oh.” There were Christmas toys to play with, and he’d tired of Mommy’s prattle.

But come tomorrow morning, he’ll hear a fuller version of the story about the “very nice coach.” And the guys will keep hearing it again and again and again, because it bears repeating ad nauseam until it’s burned in their brains.

It’s a story of a group of young men who regrouped to do what no one thought possible, and it’s a story about the coach who led them there. Coach Bill Stewart, a man I am so madly in love with at this moment that I’m ready to email him a marriage proposal.

Coach Stew started the season as the Mountaineers tight end coach and ended it riding on the players’ shoulders after WVU kicked Oklahoma around the Fiesta Bowl. A short trip geographically – I doubt he even moved to a different office – but an odyssey emotionally for a man whose football ticket’s been punched more times than a BART pass.

A native West Virginian, Coach Stew has walked the sidelines at small colleges, big colleges, high schools and in the Canadian Football League. But even when he left his home state, he was never far away mentally.

That was him 19 years ago, the last time WVU played in the Fiesta Bowl, sitting in the stadium with tears in his eyes as Notre Dame destroyed the Mountaineers’ national title hopes.

What can I say? I have a soft spot in my heart for fellow West Virginia refugees.

Just weeks ago, Coach Stew became WVU’s “interim” head coach, charged with piecing together a shattered team for which December was the cruelest month.

First there was the Pitt butt-whooping that ended the Mountaineers’ national title hopes. Then head coach Rich Rodriguez walked out.

The University of Michigan came calling with marginally more money and heaps more prestige. Long-rumored to be at loggerheads with the WVU athletic department – and, knowing the players, I’d side with Rodriguez in that dispute — R Rod said yes.

I do not blame Rich Rodriguez at all for leaving. Big-time college athletics is, after all, a business, and R Rod closed quite a deal. His new paycheck is rumored to be $2.5 million a year, a half-million more than he made at West Virginia, though WVU could have come close to matching the Michigan offer. He’ll need the extra change: He owes WVU $4 million for leaving early.

I do, however, hold the timing against him. Now, really, wouldn’t a person of integrity have put Michigan on hold until Jan. 3? Wouldn’t a moral person have honored his commitment to a group of wounded young men, knowing that if Michigan hung up this time, an equally attractive suitor would call soon?

And that’s where Coach Stew came in, taking what he described as his “dream job.”

Dream job? More like a kamikaze mission. Two weeks ago, players were refusing to practice. The offensive coordinator had left with Rodriguez. And the NCAA was looking into potential recruiting violations Rodriguez allegedly committed just before he left.

Anyone who can smile in the face of that mess is a pretty squared-away man. Anyone who can inspire a team to do what WVU did to Oklahoma tonight is a true leader.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the players said after the game:

Defensive MVP Reed Williams: “I’d go to war for that man any time.”

Quarterback Pat White: “He needs to be our head coach.”

As far as I’m concerned, that settles it.

There are some high profile names rumored to be in the running for the job, including former Auburn coach Terry Bowden. And Stewart does have his weaknesses. His last head coaching job was a spectacular failure, and it’s unknown if he can recruit at the big-time level.

I don’t care. Hiring him is the right thing to do. Making him head coach would reward loyalty and recognize terrific work under crappy conditions.

Besides that, I really want this story to have a truly happy ending for the guys.

“This, my sons, is what happens if you keep trying. You might get kicked around a bit and the world might quit believing in you, but if you hold onto that dream and believe in yourself, you can get there.”

At which point, they’ll roll their eyes and say, “All right, Mom. We’ve been hearing about the 2008 Fiesta Bowl for 15 years now. Will you just give it a rest?”

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved

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