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Ability To Reach Players, Not Play-Calling, Is Bill Stewart's Problem

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Mountaineer fans' expectations for Bill Stewart are often unfair, but his players' mental mistakes have been a major problem.

Many WVU Mountaineer fans dislike Bill Stewart, but do they dislike him for the right reasons?
Many WVU Mountaineer fans dislike Bill Stewart, but do they dislike him for the right reasons?

Ever since being named West Virginia's head football coach in the intoxicating aftermath of beating Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl three years ago, Bill Stewart has been one of the most divisive figures in Mountaineer Nation. From the very beginning, some were displeased with his hire. (Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and powerful and influential Mountaineer Booster, once called Stewart a house painter while Rich Rodriguez was "a great architect.")

Despite Stewart's winning percentage being almost ten points higher than the school's all-time percentage, there has always been a vocal faction of Mountaineer fans that has wanted him gone. He has lost three games so far this season, and right now the chorus is very loud. Whether or not first-year athletic director Oliver Luck will make a change has yet to be seen, but there are three main reasons many in the Mountain State want Ole Bill out of town. One of those reasons is better than the others.

1. Great Expectations. The fans in West Virginia are obsessed with their football program and its success, and rightfully so. The WVU football squad provides rare opportunities for the state of West Virginia to be in the national spotlight. Undefeated seasons in 1988 and 1993 and a near trip to national title game in 2007 have Mountaineer fans expecting greatness, but the real question is: Should they?

WVU is definitely in the top half of college football programs across the land, but all in all, probably not by much. While the Texases, Alabamas and Floridas of the world are able to steadily attract top-flight recruits, recruiting to Morgantown is not as easy. The Mountaineers get good players, sure, but the best players in WVU lore were all afterthoughts at the big programs who blossomed into prime-time players when they got to Morgantown.

Nothing in sports is guaranteed, but most Mountaineer fans don't feel that way. This fanbase, as much as any other, counts its chickens before they hatch. The last five years running, Mountaineer faithful has predicted undefeated seasons in August. Unfortunately, it rarely happens that way. So, while Bill Stewart seems to be a perennial 8-4 or 9-3 football coach, he's shackled with an 11-0 fanbase. While there are plenty of schools that would love to be an eight- or nine-win school every year, West Virginia is not one of them. You can't please everybody all the time, but it's hard to please Mountaineer fans even some of the time. 

2. Changes In The Offensive Scheme. The renaissance of Mountaineer football that occurred during the Pat White era is rarely credited to the presence of four future NFL players at the offensive skill positions, which was unprecedented in Mountaineer history. Instead, the only difference Mountaineer fans see is that the head coach and offensive scheme have changed. Therefore, it's gotta be the play-calling, right? This is one of the most-repeated reasons why Mountaineer fans aren't happy with what they see on the field. They saw the RichRod spread run fairly successfully (except, of course, in big games), so they think that Bill Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen must be to blame for any loss, or any unconvincing win.

I'm sorry, but of all the gripes about Stewart, that one holds the least water. RichRod's spread scheme is incredibly overrated, and can be successfully countered by any team at this point. And play-calling is easy to criticize but hard to actually do. Most fans never know what play has been called - they only know the result. Many times, the play run on the field is a product of coverage reads, check downs, and various options initiated at the line of scrimmage rather than decisions made by the coaching staff. The criticism drawn at Stewart and Mullen about play-calling can be blamed on one thing:  video games. By now, every fan has won championships on the PlayStation, so they think play calling just isn't that hard. Give me a break.

If anything, I think the current offensive regime is well-suited to WVU's current quarterback, and not its previous ones. For the first time since Marc Bulger, the Mountaineers have a pro-style quarterback in Geno Smith. I think this staff has done an admirable job putting in a scheme that best suits Geno's skill set. While the offense has sputtered at times, I think that's on the players, who have made one mental mistake after another. Which brings us to the final, and most important point ...

3. Focus, Focus, Focus. If you tell me that Stewart should be fired because WVU's not undefeated, or because its offense has changed since he's been here, I'll tell you that you're crazy. As I watch the season play out, there is one place where I think this coaching staff is failing, and it's not between the white lines ... it's between the players' ears. Right now, what is killing the Mountaineers is entirely mental. WVU has the skill players, the scheme, and the schedule to go far, but what WVU doesn't appear to have is the focus to make it happen. 

WVU's loss to UConn came because WVU fumbled the ball a whopping seven times. SEVEN. To drop the ball once, twice or even three times is a mistake made by an individual. To do it seven times, including with the game on the line in overtime, says to me that the players weren't mentally prepared to play, and that's coaching. When a kid runs a six-yard route on third and seven, that's a mental mistake. When it happens over and over, that's coaching. When Geno Smith throws an interception against Syracuse, that's a mental mistake. When he throws two more, and generally looks like he's in over his head against a defensive scheme, that's coaching. I'm not convinced that Stewart is connecting with the players on the roster. It's a hard task leading a group of over a hundred 18- to 22-year-olds, but it's the task Bill Stewart is charged with, and right now, he's failing.

While Mountaineer fans have cried for Stewart's firing since the day after he was hired, it has almost exclusively for the first two reasons. Those are bunk. If Stewart is fired, it won't be for not going undefeated, and it won't be for the play-calling or new offensive scheme. Nor should it be. That said, if this is the last year for Coach Stew, it won't be for what happens on the field, but what happens in the locker room. It's ironic, since Bill Stewart won this job based on one speech prior to the Fiesta Bowl. "Leave no doubt," he bellowed at his troops, and they responded by playing the game of their lives. I just hope we can see that kind of performance one more time before the chorus for Stewart's firing drowns it out. Because if Bill Stewart were fired today, I'd have a whole lot of doubt about whether it had been the right thing to do.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.