Sports Illustrated college football columnist Stewart Mandel wrote the following in his mailbag column last week:
“Sure, other successful programs have survived the loss of their architect just fine. Miami kept winning national titles long after Howard Schnellenberger put the Hurricanes on the map, starting with Jimmy Johnson. It took two tries, but Florida eventually found a worthy heir (Urban Meyer) to the legacy left by Steve Spurrier. And Les Miles has obviously kept the ball rolling at LSU since Nick Saban bolted.
But notice, all those schools went out and hired an experienced, sought-after head coach. West Virginia hired Bill Stewart. He seems like a good enough fellow, and he did lead the Mountaineers to that big win over Oklahoma (though with Rodriguez's now-departed offensive coordinator, Calvin Magee, calling the plays), but the chances of him maintaining the program's recent level of success are about as high as leaving a party at Lindsay Lohan's place with your fur coat in tact.
As I wrote at the time, Stewart's hiring was a foolishly impulsive decision made by an already suspect set of West Virginia administrators still high off the emotional Fiesta Bowl win just hours earlier. They took a now-nationally prominent program and put it in the hands of a guy whose only head coaching experience was a three-year, 8-25 stint at VMI that ended in his resignation over the use of a racial slur; and a guy who, of the nine assistants on West Virginia's staff, was the only one Rodriguez did not feel compelled to offer a job at Michigan. (As a result, the only remaining holdovers from Rodriguez's regime are Stewart and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.)
I'm sorry to say it, but this is not going to end well.”
I actually don’t think Mandel is sorry to say it; I think he enjoys saying it. But we’ll get to that later. Let’s look at the facts first:
—VMI has not had a coach with a winning overall record since John McKenna left in 1965. End of story. It’s a red herring to even bring this up.
—The stories on what Stewart said to his black player differ. No one argues that he used "the n-word." I can’t think of a situation where it’s socially and politically acceptable for a white person to use that word, but context here is key.
Stewart should have used another word; the lesson he was trying to impart to his showboating player—“Don’t give anyone the chance to call you a [n-word]”—should have already been imparted to this player by an older black man.
Here’s what Stewart was saying: “As a young black man, the deck is already stacked against you. Many white people are afraid of you. Those that aren’t may ridicule you. When they see a white player doing what you’re doing, they chalk it up to exuberance and style. When they see a black player do it, they say he’s acting like a [n-word]. You will have to work twice as hard because of the color of your skin. This is wrong and unfair but it is the truth.”
So to say only that Stewart “used a racial slur” without this context does him a disservice.
—Mandel has ignored the highly-regarded recruiting class Stewart has assembled out of the wreckage Rich Rodriguez left behind for this year, and the blue-chip class he already is putting together for 2009.
How is he able to do this? By taking a tiny slice of the coaching salary pot and using the rest to lure high-level recruiters, such as Doc Holliday from Florida and Chris Beatty, who already is luring top talent from his Hampton Roads area.
Stewart has something Rodriguez never developed: humility, the sign of an educated mind. Stewart knows he doesn’t have to be the smartest man in the room—he just has to fill the room with them, which he has done.
He knows he’s not an innovator so he hires a virtuoso of the spread-option zone-read offense (Wake Forest’s Jeff Mullen), who just happens to have a better passing attack than Rodriguez did. This just might come in handy when defenders are putting eight men on the line of scrimmage against WVU, like Pitt did last year.
Now, on to my surmises.
Mandel is a fan of Rodriguez and his youthful, in-charge, high-octane, charming ways. To Mandel, Rodriguez is the future and Stewart is the past. Rodriguez is an innovator; that is true. And he was a good enough recruiter to see talent that others didn’t in Pat White and Steve Slaton—but it’s worth noting that the innovator’s offense didn’t really take off until White and Slaton started playing regularly in 2005.
Great talent can make a coach look like a genius.
But like most innovators, Rodriguez has a huge ego, and it hurt his team. I feel pretty confident saying that Stewart’s ego will never hurt his team. Rodriguez’s ego and inflexibility, I believe, lost the Pitt game last year.
Put in business terms, Rodriguez is an product-developer and Stewart is a manager, much like an adaptable CEO. You don’t put the product-developer in charge of the company. He believes in his product, and should, and believes it is the best application for every situation, even if it isn’t. He cannot think otherwise; he has too much of himself invested in the product.
In Rodriguez’s terms, this means trying to win games with his system to prove its, and his, superiority.
The CEO, meanwhile, is product-agnostic. It is his or her obligation to find the correct application for a problem, regardless of who invented it. His interest is not himself; his interest is his obligation to the shareholders.
In Stewart’s terms, this means trying to win games any way he can.
Because of Rodriguez’s controlling ways, which have become evident in the depositions over the $4 million buyout owed WVU by Rodriguez, there was never any space in the room for anyone else. He had to be the smartest guy in the room.
Mandel notes that Stewart was the only coach Rodriguez didn’t ask to accompany him to Michigan. Mandel interprets that as a sign that Stewart is sub-standard. Sure, if you’re only taking Rodriguez’s word for it, as Mandel seems to.
I have said it before and I will say it again: When Rodriguez left and Stewart took over the team, it was like the windows had been flung open in a musty, tension-filled, claustrophobic house and fresh air could flood in for the first time in years.
Here’s the irony to what Mandel writes: I actually think WVU has a higher upside now with Stewart than it had with Rodriguez. I think the Pitt loss was Rodriguez’s ceiling. In the biggest game of his career at WVU, an opposing coach devised a game plan that flummoxed Rodriguez.
Instead of conceding temporary defeat and adapting, Rodriguez stuck to his game plan and his system he invented, which he rode all the way down to defeat.