Born and raised in the small (and I mean small) town of Bruceton Mills, WV, I practically came out of the womb with a fur hat and a musket. Saturday football was always in the air, even in the mountains high above Morgantown.
In a state with no professional team, all eyes are on the West Virginia Mountaineers. I grew up in the Don Nehlen era, back when Miami, Virginia Tech and Penn State were conference rivals. I remember jumping up and down as a young lad when the Mounties pulled off unprecedented upsets over superior opponents; but I also remember the agony of defeat, mostly in soul-crushing bowl game losses.
Fast forward to 2003. I enrolled as an undergraduate student at West Virginia University, just as Rich Rodriguez's short-lived stint as WVU head coach was kicking into high gear. I graduated cum laude from WVU in 2007, in between two defining seasons—one capped with a tight win over Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl, and another with an unexpected (unless you live in WV) win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
Yes, I was at Mountaineer Field for the 2007 loss against Pitt. Yes, I was glued to the television and interwebs during "Rodgate". And yes, I believe in Bill Stewart.
I wasn't initially a Coach Stew fan. He was to me the stepfather of Mountaineer football—he came in after the ugly break-up, played Mr. Nice Guy, and ultimately got the job, whether any of us wanted him to or not.
I called him a "honeymoon pick" following the win vs. Oklahoma, a "child of Nehlen-era football," and most regrettably, "the wrong man for the job." I retained these opinions for quite some time, and even now, as a rabid football fan, I find myself regressing to my seat on the Stew-bashing bus. But in this era of coaches' polls, power rankings, and computer picks, one simply can't ignore the numbers.
In Rich Rod's first two seasons, he went 12-12; Stew has gone 18-8. Rod's third season was 8-5; as of this writing, Stew's well on his way to outdoing that one as well. There's one thing Bill Stewart lacks that Rich Rodriguez was able to overcome in his second season, and that's a big win on the road.
Rod clinched his at Virginia Tech, which led to several more throughout his time at WVU. Stew has faced off against Auburn and LSU—arguably the toughest teams to face in unfamiliar territory—both games ending with tough fought losses.
Was Rich Rodriguez a better coach than Bill Stewart? Maybe so. But to his credit and despite his age, Rodriguez had a much more impressive albeit shorter resume before taking the helm at WVU. It included conference championships at Glenville State University, and working under Tommy Bowden at Tulane, where he perfected his spread offense before following Bowden to Clemson.
Losing seasons at VMI and time in the Canadian Football League were bullets on Bill Stewart's resume, the largest bullet being his time under the wing of the aforementioned Don Nehlen. Despite all that, Bill Stewart clearly learned a thing or two from Rodriguez before his departure. Stew could stand to learn a thing or two more, but as all coaches suffer in their first few seasons, he hasn't done half bad.
Rich Rodriguez revitalized Mountaineer football, and when Bill Stewart stepped in, he had big shoes to fill. With another year or two of growth, he might just be a size too big.