2012/09/04 8:53 am
Editor's note: Click here for part 1 of the 2012-2013 WVU Football Season Preview- Offense. This preview was a joint effort from longtime WMITC contributor Dan and Jude.
“Ah changes are taking the pace I’m going through.”
– David Bowie
What a transitional year for the WVU defense and program as a whole. No longer will be the team be busing up to Piscataway, NJ but rather flying cross time zones to Middle of Nowhere, TX. No longer will the team be a 12 NOON “Big East Game of the Week” on some online-only content provider for which nobody has access, but will be on national broadcasts on both East and Gulf Coasts.
A new era is dawning on WVU Football. And one of the most challenging changes to absorb is the Big XII offensive landscape and powerful offenses that come with that. Championship-winning offenses. Heisman-caliber quarterbacks. All-American roster 2-deeps, it almost seems.
With that change in conferences comes a complete shift from a 3-3-5 odd stack (“smoke and mirrors”) alignment to a more basic 3-4 / 4-3 (“tried and true”) alignment. Coach Jeff Casteel was a consistent rock on the defensive side of our program since Rich Rodriguez was still dragging a comb across his head. But following Casteel's departure to Arizona to join Richrod, the Mountaineers turn to a been-there-before co-defensive coordinator arrangement of Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson.
The good news is there is some familiarity with WVU's opponents’ offensives already established. But that is in the past and can only take former Oklahoma State defensive assistant Joe DeForest so far. Change is inevitable, change is constant. The question is, can WVU as a defensive unit handle the pace?
Co-defensive coordinator Joe Deforest is familiar with Big 12 defenses, plus he has a gold whistle, so you know it's good.
“What’s my age again? What’s my age again?” – Blink 182
One thing we can all agree on is that the Mountaineer defense is going to be young. This age and inexperience may take some adjustments while installing the defense, but it also provide less “unlearning” of the previous 3-3-5 defense, or aged not-so-good habits that the coaches will need the players to break.
There have been some reports of up to 8 true freshmen seeing the field this season. That's a lot of fresh-faces to be trotting out against offensives that routinely put up 40 points and 300+yard passing games. Friday night lights of the high school fields will be replaced by Saturday afternoons in stadiums packed with as rabid fans as you find in a conference not named the SEC.
(Looking at WVU's depth chart 3-deep at every position, you'll find 10 true or redshirt freshmen and only 6 seniors.)
Thankfully the young defense can rely on the fact the offense should be finding the end zone as many times as Coach Holgorsen has a sugar-free Red Bull tilted over his head. This should allow them to become comfortable with the new schemes and force enough turnovers to make up for defensive breakdowns. The defense can’t afford to play like the 18-and-19-year-olds they are, and must forget how young or inexperienced they may really be. Instead, they must focus on their assignments and ability to get after the ball and put the offense in the best position to make the refs put their hands in the air like they just don’t care.
“Yo, you best protect ya neck” – Wu Tang Clan
In the event you have never looked up the Urban Dictionary meaning of “protect ya neck,” besides the first definition of “what you need to do when the Wu comes for that ass,” you will see it means you must “respect/re-examine your vulnerability and that of other people.”
One thing top defenses are known for is exploiting another offense’s weaknesses. Whether it’s disguising a blitz against a weaker side of the line, double-teaming the best receiver and forcing the QB to look for less reliable options, or deviating from their usual defensive game plan and throwing everything including the kitchen sink at the opponent that wasn’t in their game tapes.
Although this year’s team doesn’t have the unusual odd-stack defense to catch teams off guard, it does have some savvy coordinators eager to put a mix of youthful and experienced players in the right position to defend some of the most electric offenses in the country.
2011 stalwarts Bruce Irvin, Julian Miller, Keith Tandy, and Najee Goode aren't walking through that door. But here's who is:
Losing Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller from the defensive line means that the Mountaineers are losing the players responsible for almost half of their team sacks last year. If the game against Marshall on Saturday was any indication, pressuring the quarterback may be an issue for this year's defensive line, as the Mountaineers got little-to-no pressure on the quarterback as he amassed over 400 yards of passing.
On the flip side, while Irvin was a master of creating havoc for quarterbacks, the one knock on his game was his ability as a run-stopper. The Mountaineers may improve that area of defense this season, and already showed promise by holding Marshall to just 2.9 yards per carry on Saturday.
Juniors Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell joined senior Jorge Wright as starters on the d-line. Clarke and Wright will be responsible for creating pressure from the ends, while 310-pound Rowell will try to occupy blockers and create havoc from the nose tackle position to free up WVU's stable of linebackers to make plays. Early reviews of Rowell's play have been extremely positive, while Clarke and Wright have more experience and reps along the defensive front and should provide stability to a defense needing all the stability it can get.
Those 3 starters will rotate with true freshmen Korey Haris and Christian Brown, as well as redshirt senior J.B. Lageman. Brown drew high praise from Rowell in the offseason, as reported in this wvusports.com article:
"That kid is showing me some stuff that I haven’t seen from another freshman. He’s impressed me a lot. He’s still got to get some things down, but physically, that kid is ready to play and I think he can play in any conference.”
Nose tackle and Official Large Person Shaq Rowell hopes to fill up a lot of space on the defensive line while squeezing through to make some plays in the backfield from time to time.
The main difference between the 3-3-5 and the 3-4 is that the extra defender in the box will now be a linebacker instead of a defensive back.
Senior Terence Garvin is a former safety that will be expected to create pressure off the edge for the Mountaineers and should be a disruptive force. While the Herd did keep him out of the backfield for the most part on Saturday, he still recorded the team's only sack and had 2 tackles for loss.
In a bit of a surprise, redshirt freshman Isaiah Bruce (Bruuuuuuuuuuuuce) started in front of junior Doug Rigg as the strong-side linebacker on Saturday, and rewarded the coaches for that decision by recording a team-high 16 tackles and a rumbling fumble recovery for the team's first defensive touchdown of 2012. Rigg himself chipped in with an interception later in the game.
Redshirt junior Tyler Anderson starts at the buck linebacker spot while sophomore Jared Barber mans the weakside linebacker spot.
The Mountaineers will rely on a steady rotation of linebackers throughout the game. Redshirt sophomore Wes "Honky" Tonkery (thank you, Chris Berman) backs up Garvin while sophomore Shaq Petteway plays behind Barber, and senior Josh Francis backs up Anderson.
The linebackers made a strong showing on Saturday, scoring a TD and creating another turnover while holding the Herd to limited success in the rushing game. They may be a welcome respite from a building process in the condition of most concern for the Mountaineers...
The position with the most questions for the Mountaineers sure didn't do anything to quell those concerns against the Thundering Herd, giving up over 400 yards passing to a quarterback not exactly heralded as the next coming of John Elway.
Redshirt junior Brodrick Jenkins and senior Pat Miller start at corner for the Mountaineers. Both have seen extensive snaps on the defensive side of the ball for WVU over the past few years, and should provide veteran leadership to a backfield that is young in several places. Pat Miller does occasionally create a turnover, but is seen far too often as the back of a jersey chasing some receiver that is 10 yards behind the Mountaineer defense. (Indeed, he was 4th on the team in tackles against Marshall with 8 tackles. When you're a corner and recording beaucoup tackles, that is, and please forgive the extremely technical football terminology, "not good.")
Freshman sensation Karl Joseph starts at the free-safety spot, and is known already for his thunderous hits in the secondary. Joseph turned down offers from South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and Cincinnati to join the Mountaineers. Head coach Dana Holgorsen views him as an uncommonly mature freshman capable of playing right away.
"I'm not saying he doesn't make mistakes or miss tackles or any of that - he does - but from a demeanor standpoint, the effort and the maturity and the physical capabilities of being able to handle it, he is the guy that is going to be fine," Holgorsen said in this article from the Charleston Daily Mail. Joseph rewarded the coaching staff with their decision on Saturday by making 7 tackles, including 2 for a loss.
I believe I am going to enjoy the Karl Joseph era at WVU.
Redshirt junior and Orange Bowl Mascot Abuser Darwin Cook starts at the other safety spot again for the Mountaineers, providing some stability in the secondary, although he too was seen chasing after wide-open Marshall defenders a time or two on Sunday.
He will be backed up by true freshman K.J. Dillon and Joseph will be backed up by redshirt sophomore Ishmael Banks. True freshman Nana Kyeremeh may see time at safety as well as corner this season, while sophomore Avery Williams and redshirt senior Cecil Level will back up Miller and Jenkins.
Fortunately for the secondary, a bye week and then games against JMU and Maryland give the Mountaineers some time to gel before their first-ever Big 12 games appear on the schedule. Hopefully they will have repaired the gaping holes before Big 12 offenses smash them open.
While the offensive firepower of the Mountaineers should ease the pressure on the defensive side of the ball, a propensity for high scores could leave the secondary exposed if the game turns into an air raid shootout. WVU will need to create pressure with its d-line and rushing linebackers to keep opposing QB's from sitting back in comfort while picking from an array of wide-open options in the secondary.
Again, the Mountaineers have some time to figure it out. But if they don't, expect to need every bit of the 70 points per game WVU is averaging in 2012.
2012/08/31 9:49 am
Editor's note: Every year, Wemustignitethiscouch.com provides a season preview that combines all the in-depth analysis you'd hope for from a college scout with a snarkiness usually reserved for the least mature among us. This year is no exception, as Dusty provides us with a preview of the offensive side of the ball in Part I, while Dan and I will team up to get you up to speed with the defense.
If you've been avoiding all the other hype-inducing coverage of the Mountaineers over the past 8 months and just want to get to the season, we understand. Here's the basics.
West Virginia has got offensive muscle in spades. That much is obvious.
Just look at the records not just set but destroyed last season. The team returns a bevy of talented players, including national sweethearts Geno Smith and Tavon Austin, and has an extremely talented second-year head coach/offensive guru in Dana Holgerson.
But this side of the football is a lot more than just Geno, although he gets plenty of ink in the following preview. Let's take a look at how where the offensive fireworks will come from, starting with....
Despite all the considerable hoopla surrounding his senior season, including frequent mentions as a Heisman candidate in national publications, third-year starter Geno Smith acknowledges he has plenty of room for improvement. "I made poor decisions in a lot of situations," Smith said in this AP article, bringing to mind key interceptions in losses against LSU and Syracuse.
"That's really where I've improved the most, my decision making and being able to get us in and out of good plays, taking care of the ball a little bit more and just overall being a better quarterback."
WVU finished the year No. 6 nationally in passing yards per game under the new spread offense. The QB position provided 4,509 yards total, breaking the 1998 record of 3,700 yards by more than 800 yards total.
Reports are that Smith has added upwards of 10 pounds of muscle to his frame to supplement having his nose in the books and in front of the film screen constantly studying opponents and himself. Despite all the accolades from last season, the Big 12 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year has plenty of chances remaining to pad his resume.
Smith needs 697 yards take over the top spot on the WVU career passing list, while he needs but 12 completions to become the school’s all-time leader in that category, and he needs just four TDs to take over that category as well.
A third-year starter, Smith has played in 31 games, including 26 straight for the Mountaineers. The signal-caller finished last season with 4,385 yards passing, the first WVU quarterback to surpass to break the 4k milestone in breaking Marc Bulger’s single-season record from 1998.
Smith led the way to 33 touchdowns setting a WVU record, breaking the previous mark held by Bulger (1998) and Pat White (2006) at 31 TDs. His junior campaign included eight games with more than 300 yards passing, setting both school and Big East records.
The backup spot belongs to Paul Millard, who saw limited action in four games last year. He managed an unimpressive 7-of-15 passing for one touchdown and two interceptions. But all reports from camp are that Millard has progressed considerably and will show a steadier hand when given the chance this year.
Millard took exclusive reps with the first team with Smith missing the last two days of fall camp, earning rave reviews from teammates and coaches alike.
The third spot on the depth chart belongs to true freshman Ford Childress, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound up-and-comer who will pose more than just a passing threat to Millard for the top spot next season.
Reports are that Childress has improved greatly since struggling in the spring but will still redshirt this season to continue to learn and develop in the Holgorsen’s system. Childress and Millard will then battle next spring to determine the heir to Geno’s throne.
Let it fly, Geno. Just let that sweet thing fly.
Helping Geno to pile up another stellar offensive season will be a returning cast of familiar faces. Chief among them will be all-world candidate Tavon Austin, who is coming off no less an impressive 2011 campaign.
Austin led the nation in all-purpose yards, totaling a single-season school record with 2,574 yards with an average total of 198 yards per game. Just as dangerous as the main kickoff and punt returner, Austin was No. 6 nationally in punt returns (14.1) and No. 20 in kickoff returns (26.1), taking two kickoffs to paydirt last season. He collected a 100-yard return against Marshall and a 90-yard return for a score against USF.
Impressive numbers to go along with a school record of 101 receptions while racking up 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns in his junior season. He was ranked No. 8 nationally in receptions per game and No. 23 in receiving yards per game while pulling in 10 or more catches in four games last year. He finished with 100 or more yards in five games, including a season-high 12 receptions against Clemson in the Orange Bowl and a season-best 187 receiving yards against LSU.
Austin had six all-purpose performances of 200 yards or more, including a season-high 287 yards against LSU, which included 187 yards receiving and 100 kick return yards. He offered another extremely impressive performance with 280 yards in the Orange Bowl demolition of Clemson. He also finished with 150 yards or more in all-purpose yardage in 10 games.
Tavon will move from the H receiver spot to the Y slot, which will help him continue to add his name to even more records this season. He needs 33 catches to take over as WVU’s all-time reception leader and needs just seven scores for the top spot in career TDs. Austin also needs just 485 yards to take over the career receiving throne and is 1,386 yards away for the top spot in all-purpose yardage.
All told, West Virginia finished with 15 receiving performances of 100 yards or more during the 2011 season, marking the most 100-yard receiving performances in a season in WVU history. The total is five times higher than the three times the feat was managed in 2010’s season.
Another familiar face on the field and in the record books is fellow standout Stedman Bailey, who will hold down the X receiver slot on the left side.
Bailey set the school record during the 2011 season with five consecutive games of 100 or more yards receiving. He has seven career games over the century mark, which is just two short of the school record. For the season, he finished with seven 100-yard receiving performances, also a school record, while finishing with 1,279 yards and 12 TDs, both records in themselves.
Bailey needs eight catches to earn his way onto the school’s career catches list, with 111 needed to take the top slot. With 201 yards, he will make his way onto the school all-time receiving, with 1,013 needed for the No. 1 slot, while eight more touchdowns will give him the career lead in TD receptions.
Senior J.D. Woods has reportedly taken hold of the top spot at the Z receiver, after seeing limited action in 9 games last year. Ryan Nehlen and Ivan McCartney will see plenty of action as well behind Woods on the outside. McCartney, last year's third- leading receiver, had some concerns with eligibility over the summer, and will have to rapidly make up lost ground as he doesn't even appear on the 2012 depth chart released for the season opener.
True freshman Jordan Thompson is one of two first-year players to earn his way into the starting lineup, taking over for Austin in the H receiver slot. He won’t be able to match Austin’s production, but won’t need to. He simply needs to show he can provide yet another option for the offense, which relies on giving the ball to athletes in space and watching them do their thing.
With the Mountaineers looking to throw upwards of 50 or 60 times per game possibly, plenty of wideouts will need to see the field behind the starters, and right now it's uncertain just who will step up. Look for redshirt frosh Dante Campbell at the backup Y slot on the inside, while Travares Copeland will look to provide a fresh all-purpose threat when he makes his way onto the field, which many reports indicate he will.
Freshmen Devonte Robinson, Cody Clay, and K.J. Myers are all relatively unknown but will look to step up and change that quickly.
For his part, Tavon Austin sees potential in the freshmen, as he indicated in this article from the Parkersburg News and Sentinel:
"They come in and they work hard, and they listen for the most part, they are doing what the coaches ask of them to do. One thing that I ask from them right now probably that they need to pick up their blocking a little bit."
I implore you to mute the volume on this highlight package, but another year of highlights like this one will cement Tavon Austin as one of WVU's all-time greats.
With all the emphasis on the passing game, the rushing attack was mostly an after-thought last season, finishing 92nd in the nation with a paltry 123 yards per game average.
Dustin Garrision, who led the team with 742 yards rushing, provided some bright spots but is still in recovery mode from a knee injury he suffered prior to the Orange Bowl. Reports are that he may dabble his toes in the season's first few games before the decision is made whether to redshirt him or not. The NCAA allows players to apply for a medical hardship waiver if they play in fewer than 30 percent of a team's games. That means he could actually take the field in four of the first six outings before deciding to shut it down and retain a year of eligibilty.
Shawne Alston has been named the starter this year after posting a team-best 12 touchdowns last season. "Shawne Alston will start for us," Holgerson said in this Charleston Gazette article. "He ended the season being a starter for us in the bowl game. He's a senior and had a great camp and we're looking forward to getting him out there.
"Andrew Buie's been doing some good things, as well.''
The problem with Alston and Buie has been durability. The former has been held back by knee and neck problems over the past two years, but he says he is finally healthy for the first time in Morgantown. The latter rusher missed time last year with a miriad of nagging injuries.
The depth chart contains simply a question mark after these two, as Garrison's status remains hazy and D'Vontis Arnold, a freshman walk-on from Florida's Miramar High, is the only true running back remaining after freshman Torry Clayton transferred out of town and scholarship player Roshard Burney didn't qualify academically.
Fullback Ryan Clarke has been mentioned as a possible change-of-pace back, but Holgerson seems to like him more as a blocking back. Clarke didn't touch the football once last season.
"Ryan Clarke is a guy that can do multiple things for us,'' Holgorsen said in the previously-cited Charleston Gazette article. "Donovan Miles has been a bigger guy. Cody Clay has been doing some stuff where he can do some tight end-fullback stuff. We've got quite a few bodies, but we're going to need all of them, that's for sure.''
"We've got quite a few bodies, but we're going to need every one of them, that's for sure," Holgorsen said.
Dustin Garrison emerged from the pack of WVU running backs last year, but injuries could open up the position to a number of other contributors.
With all the potential offensive dynamite, the o-line looks to finally have some quality depth for the first time in a while, returning four starters.
That lot includes three seniors, led by center-and-perpetual-Rimmington-Award-finalist Joe Madsen, who has 38 starts and is consistently considered for the award given to the nation's best center. The unit also welcomes back 24-time starter Josh Jenkins, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, at tackle and Jeff Braun at right guard. These three provide a boatload of in-game experience, while junior Pat Eger is the third returning starter at the other tackle spot.
Sophomore lineman and sometimes aircraft carrier Quinton Spain moves from guard to left tackle after playing alongside Eger in all 13 games last season.
Russell Haughton-James and Brandon Jackson make the depth chart as reserve guards. John Bassler should see time behind Madsen at center, while JUCO transfer Mark Glowinski, Curtis Feigt and Nick Kindler are also likely to log time at tackle or where needed.
The returning talent here helped the Mountaineer offense average 37.6 point per game while setting the record book on fire with heretofore unheard of offensive heroics. With the glut of in-game experience returning to this unit, plus the reported play of some of the up-and-comers mentioned, it looks like the o-line will more than hold its own while the offense runs while in Year Two under Holgs.
A rare shot of the WVU offensive line pre-game.
The offense is going to put up some points, folks. Ultimately the question going into WVU's inaugural season in the Big 12 is whether or not the offense is going to be able to match touchdown for touchdown with the other explosive, pass-first attacks that the Mountaineers are going to be meeting week after week.
The vivid memories of the 70 points the Mountaineers put on the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl last year has led many Mountaineer fans to expect no less than 50-points a game from this senior-led unit. With an unproven defense and suspect special teams, the Mountaineers might need every point of that.
2012/07/31 11:42 am
As the calendar rolls over to August and another season of Mountaineer Football is nearly upon us once again, these last few weeks of waiting can drag on forever for fans of the Old Gold and Blue.
This year, the Mountaineers are coming off of a season that saw a first-year coach take the team to a Big East Championship, an Orange Bowl berth, and a thrilling 70-33 curbstomping of the ACC Champion Clemson Tigers. Expectations are sky high among Mountaineer fans for a new season in a new conference, with the hopes that maybe, just maybe, THIS is going to be the year that finally brings a national championship to the Mountain State.
Of course, these lofty and perhaps unrealistic expectations aren't anything new in Morgantown, and Mountaineer fans counting down the days to a new season and a new beginning can pass the time by checking out the book, "Waiting for the Fall: A Decade of Dreams, Drama and West Virginia University Football" by Charleston Daily Mail WVU beat writer Mike Casazza.
The book details all the exhilarating, head-scratching, drama-filled, thrilling, heartbreaking, heartwarming, and otherwise amazing events that have shaped the Mountaineer football program over the course of the past decade. It also provides a brief history of the entire Mountaineer program before going into specifics of the Rich Rodriguez, Bill Stewart, and Dana Holgorsen eras and all of the unbelievable highs and lows in-between.
Author Mike Casazza was kind enough to talk about the book and answer a few questions for WeMustIgniteThisCouch through a few emails.
And before we kick it off, I couldn't more strongly recommend picking up a copy of the book here. You'll get your football fix, and even the most ardent Mountaineer fan will learn a few surprising details about an amazing segment of WVU football history.
(My questions are in bold. Mike's responses follow verbatim.)
- A major theme of the book is that Mountaineer fans are conditioned to heartbreak, constantly waiting on the other shoe to drop. (The double entendre in the title of the book even suggests as much.) Do you think our heartbreak just comes from unrealistic expectations for a school that really should just be happy to compete with the big boys, or do you think it's more likely that the Mountaineers have just been extremely unfortunate?
This is probably the most important and most delicate question within the book and requires constant maintenance, but I think the answer borrows a little from both.
Expectations are unrealistic everywhere, though to varying degrees. WVU is not immune to this, but it’s not an epidemic like it is at other places. Still, people invest so much into the football here and they want so much in return. That’s just not going to happen every year here and the realization stings.
I don’t think there’s any problem with aspiring to compete with the big boys, though. Not here. WVU has showed it can do just that.
As for the extremely unfortunate part? I definitely think that exists and I don’t think you can deny it. There are way too many examples from the past to argue against it. Put the combination in a canister, shake it up and you’re left with something that is pretty potent.
- You were in the process of writing this book as last season progressed. As I read about and remembered all the different times those "other shoes" dropped on us (ie. Major Harris getting injured on the 3rd play of the national championship game, Quincy Wilson's wild scamper against Miami being immediately followed by Kellen Winslow's 4th down catch and FG, etc.), I couldn't help but think that the LSU game from this previous season was the all-time example of that for Mountaineer fans.
We had about 30 seconds to fully enjoy being in a ball game with the best team in the country before having it ripped away from us again by Morris Claiborne's TD return. I know you covered it in the book, but knowing the narrative you were telling in the book, were you dumbfounded as that play happened in real time?
Uh, no. Rather than waste words or risk hyperbole about how bad WVU’s special teams sometimes were through the years, let’s just agree to say that very rarely have they been good. I don’t want to say there was always a chance for high comedy, but Yackety Sax became the unofficial theme song for whenever a ball was kicked in a game involving the Mountaineers – and I’m serious about that … check my live game blog posts through the years.
A major concern last year, and for that game in particular, was the return game. The Mountaineers didn’t have much depth and in that game had inferior sideline talent. LSU’s special teams talent was much better than WVU’s. The Tigers had better guys and more of those better guys. Maybe WVU could match its offensive talent against LSU’s defensive talent and maybe some of the physical disadvantages on defense against LSU’s brutish offense could be minimized, but special teams was different. There isn’t as much scheming and disguising there. It’s largely speed and skill mixed with some assignments and you saw a few WVU backups blow that play up on the sideline as Claiborne got free. It was the manifestation of the special teams concern.
Now, that being said, it was just brutal to watch, knowing in the back of your head there was no coming back, but realizing you kind of suspected it might happen.
- I really liked that you didn't sugarcoat that our fans haven't always been the best supporters of their teams or coaches, from a half empty Mountaineer Field at the end of the 2007 Louisville comeback, to flying a plane asking for Nehlen's firing, to cheering Brad Lewis' injury, to planting "for sale" signs in Bobby Bowden's yard. Do you think this is typical college fan behavior or do you think we go overboard?
Again, a significant and high-maintenance question. On the whole, I don’t think WVU’s fans are wildly different in their behaviors. The overboard stuff involves arson, profanities and projectiles, but the people who stay on the boat far outnumber the people who lose their minds. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leaving a stadium or booing the team or openly criticizing a well-paid coach if you don’t like what you see. That’s what fans do and today fans are too smart and asked to do too much to deny them that.
Now there are people who are neither too smart nor asked to do too much and a few of them take way too many liberties, but that’s not unusual, either. Booing an injured player on senior day in front of his parents? Impacting someone’s family? I’ll draw a line a few steps in front of that one. It seems to me WVU’s fans can bail quickly, though, and that intrigues me entering this season because I do believe the Big 12 is going to test fans in a very new way.
- Obviously a great deal of the drama surrounding WVU over the past decade has come off the field with the shuffling of coaches, and your book does as good of a job as I've seen anywhere to describe why they happened and what drove the principals. Let's start with Rich Rodriguez.
The story of Rich Rodriguez leaving is obviously very long and very complicated, but you point to a number of things that he wasn't satisfied with regarding the University. Do you think he had legitimate criticisms or do you think that he was just always going to find some reason to be unsatisfied until he left?
I’ve come to believe so many years later that Rodriguez was probably ahead of his time. This has nothing to do with his designs and success in the spread offense, but everything to do with how he conducted himself behind the curtain. That was very new to WVU, which went from Don Nehlen and his two decades of stability to Rodriguez, who wanted to a whole lot to happen and was willing to do what he had to do to make it happen.
Sometimes I wonder if I blame him. Remember, he was a Division II guy who had nothing. He went to Tulane and got a taste for a high level of success, but also saw what others had that his school did not and probably could not. Then he was off to Clemson, which wants for nothing. That’s quite a rise in a pretty short period and I think he thought it would be at WVU as it was at Clemson. More powerful than that was the he wanted it to be that way at his alma mater. He was professionally, but also personally invested and I don’t think he and his audience knew one another well enough to pull things off as he was making them happen. He got what he wanted an awful lot early on but he was outpacing the patience others wanted to preserve, all the way to the end.
There came a time, and I believe it was after the 2006 season that left a lot of people disappointed, when he realized he was going to have to be the bad guy if he wanted to have the best program. That eventually ran right into an administration that would not continually capitulate to his demands.
- Speaking of RichRod, you mentioned that you were a Cleveland sports fan. I can imagine you probably feel the same about Lebron James as the State of WV feels about Rich Rodriguez? (Local boy turns his back on the local franchise in heartbreaking fashion to chase a title for someone else.)
That’s probably a pretty fair analogy, though I’m not sure James was firing bazookas over his shoulder as he left town.
- I've noticed that when I bring up the 2007 Pitt debacle on WMITC, the instant response from our users is almost universal: "Don't talk about that. I don't want to think about it." Did you have any concerns while doing this book that by detailing the most heartbreaking moment in Mountaineer history that you might turn off some of your potential audience?
Of course. What I recognize and respect about the fans is how they will defend their teams. There was a line there I had to be super careful not to cross, which wasn’t easy because I’m a very honest journalist.
It’s funny you say what you do about that debacle. WVU fans are very aware of their past and the parts that don’t make them proud are better left beneath the unturned stone. Many of the people I come across who have read the book tell me how hard it was to read that chapter. A few take a break – and I mean, they stop at the 13-9 chapter and won’t pick up the book for days or weeks. But it had to be in the book and it had to be detailed, which, I’m sorry, meant it had to be painful.
I will say this, and I use this to defend other parts of what was included: The book is not merely for WVU fans. In fact, one of the biggest motivations I had for writing the book was so that others who see but do not know what happens here can get a better idea.
- Rodriguez was a highly innovative offensive mind who came in to revive a stagnant program, and following a surprising upset over a high-touted opponent in a BCS game, there were (perhaps) unrealistically high expectations for the team in the following season. We're doing it all over again, aren't we?
This is where you link to my book, right? Look, I have no idea how this thing will turn out, but I have probably a different set of values. If I’m a fan, I’m loving this right now because the anticipation is just too much fun. Then comes the season, which may be one of the most competitive and entertaining ever. That’s all I would worry about right now.
That said, I know it’s very different on the other side of the fence and I know people are worried about having a season that falls well below expectations. I do think WVU has a favorable schedule with regard to home and road opponents and I think WVU has fewer questions than some other Big 12 teams. I also think WVU has legitimate concerns about a new scheme on defense and the depth of players required to play it in the Big 12, though over time both might be addressed. But again, we just don’t know. WVU could finish 9-3. I think that can happen. But where are those three losses? This is why we watch and write, right?
Just when I thought I was out, THEY PULL ME BACK IN.
- So Rod bolts for Michigan, the program is in turmoil, and suddenly Bill Stewart unexpectedly leads the team to a rousing victory in the Fiesta Bowl and the subsequent coronation seems to take President Garrison by surprise. (In one of the book's most interesting back-room insights, Garrison finds himself in a suite with Athletic Director Ed Pastilong, super-booster Mike Puskar, and then-Governor Joe Manchin, who are already drawing up the specifics of a contract.)
I have 2 questions here.
1) WTF was Joe Manchin doing there, and
2) Do you think Garrison would've eventually come to the conclusion that everyone else did, that Stewart was the guy, or do you think he was stalling because he had some reservations?
Manchin was allowed to do whatever he wanted. Remember, he was involved in the coaching search. He endorsed three different candidates to WVU – Doc Holiday, Jimbo Fisher and Stewart. He was just too involved in something he obviously cared about, but didn’t really know about, and it affected things. People went to him because WVU would listen and WVU listened because he was the governor, but I think both sides should have tapped the breaks early in the process.
As for Garrison, in every conversation I’ve had with him about this, I sense he was really torn about it, that he knew the timing was not right, but that he felt Stewart was the right guy. He clearly had reservations, especially with the rush to make the hire and not honor interview appointments or shake the bush and see who might fall out, but ultimately he’s the one who has to make the call and I don’t think he does it that night without feeling somewhat good about it. That guy pulled the trigger on a few things that required certainty before activity.
- Obviously, since the book was released, Bill Stewart passed away unexpectedly and there was a great deal of hand-wringing about whether or not he had been treated fairly with regard to his place in Mountaineer history. I felt like you treated him very fairly in your book, but also that you got the same sense that he was in over his head that many of the rest of us felt. Is there anything you regret including or wish that you had?
- Not to sound cold or callous, but not really. It was an honest account of a time that could not be excluded from the story I was telling.
I believe everyone understands that and knows I was affected by his passing. If it was written now, would it be handled differently? I can’t answer that because it was written before. Perhaps this will one day be addressed in a second edition.
- You seem to indicate that Bill Stewart wasn't quite the "aww shucks" country bumpkin that he made himself out to be on a number of occasions, including lying about having a relationship with the Villanova coach, failing for months to tell coaches Jeff Mullen and Dave Johnson that they would be replaced, and obviously what we came to later find out his role in attempting to smear his successor. Were we all fooled to think that he was any different from any other college coach when it came to suiting his own interests?
If you believed he was different and that he was insusceptible to the pressure of coaching high major college football, and all the human elements that are attached, then you were fooled.
But if you were fooled, he did his job. That’s what coaches do. They land on a very small island and the beaches are beautiful, but when they see that ship approaching from the distance and realize there are angry people on board with guns and swords, everything changes. Some make friends, some make enemies, but the best ones do everything they can to keep their feet on that island.
- You point out the number of perceived flaws with Stewart, but the one that I always felt to be severely underreported was the ridiculously small recruiting classes for what a major D-I program should be pulling in. What is your best guess as to why the classes were so small?
The short answer is he didn’t get a high number of recruits and some players weren’t good.
One interesting bit of feedback I’ve gotten from the book is that the theory of undersigning was a prescription penned by a spin doctor. He made it sound like strategy, but I’m told it was reality. The Mountaineers tried to get guys, and maybe aimed a little too high, and perhaps too often, but ended up with a smaller number of players than they needed and wanted.
I think the bigger problem was the misses. The equivalent of one full class of players didn’t make it in his three or four recruiting classes – three or four depending on how you count post-Fiesta Bowl and pre-resignation. Imagine having a six- or eight-scholarship reduction across four or three years. That was a factor in Holgorsen’s first season, to be sure. They were really low on scholarships, even for a Division I team that had a sanction against it.
- Tell the truth. How pissed were you at the "2 percent fact 98 percent hooey" article? (For the record, the Couch had your back.)
Truthfully? Not pissed at all. I’m sure that disappoints, but my reaction was very different. I knew the story back to front and I knew how it was going to end.
We at the Daily Mail worked that first story for weeks, I think to the point that it started to get out the day before we printed it. But just stop and think about the implication that was being made. We were not going to rush that out there with a chance of any hooey.
But since we’re on the topic, I was very aware of the reaction the story generated. You can’t ignore phone calls and text messages and email and Twitter and all that stuff now and I happen to run a blog with a lot of traffic at times like that. I have friends who are big WVU fans and they scoured the Internet at that time to fully digest the story. A few of them would email me things that troubled them – including some stuff from the message boards in your corner of the worldwide web.
Three things bothered me then and, on some level, bother me now. First, people thought we were wrong and that a loose story would blow up in our face. Those people didn’t even consider that we’d taken considerable time and paid careful attention, or that that time and attention is standard in all the things we do. On top of that, and this is covered, I hope, in adequate detail in the book, is that WVU was on this story before I ever was.
Second, the initial story generated a very odd reaction. People were racing to take credit for the news and where and how it broke – and, fine, whatever. Who keeps score? But people were trying hard to advance the story, seemingly just to be involved, and people were freely offering up their own strong opinions without knowing what was actually happening. There were a lot of bad and dangerous moments after that first story.
And third is the role of Colin Dunlap. Without getting too much into it, because it’s also covered in the book in what is the only time Colin has discussed it with anyone, Bill Stewart was in trouble well before Colin said what he said on the radio and Colin will tell you that. Obviously it contributed to the outcome, but WVU truthfully was on this story before I ever was.
Nobody thought this would end well, but I don't think anyone thought it would go so badly so quickly.
- You provided the best, and as far as I could tell, the only plausible explanation I've seen as to what Bill Stewart possibly hoped to achieve by sabotaging Holgorsen when you suggested that maybe he thought that lightning would strike twice, that his employers would once again realize that the only guy for the job was the guy they already had. Is this anything more than pure delusion or do you think there were forces inside WVU that could have possibly been swayed in this direction?
Well, that’s my theory and apparently it’s not a popular one, but there is something to it. Again, some coaches will do anything to stay on the island.
I’m not sure he was crazy to think it, which is not to say he wasn’t crazy to actually do it. Remember, Stewart still had a lot of allies. He’d also become something of a sympathetic figure with the way Oliver Luck forced Holgorsen upon him.
It’s funny, because it wasn’t long ago, but I think people felt very differently then about how to manage people and situations than they do now. Many people didn’t like how Stewart was being treated – and remember, he was 28-12 as a head coach and people liked him personally, if not professionally. On top of that, thanks to whatever happened in that casino, Holgorsen had, at the very least, embarrassed himself and shamed the situation Luck orchestrated.
The best way I’ve found to explain the whole thing is to think of it as a prison break. You’ve got the plan, but you have to wait for the night when the clouds cover the moon and the tide is low enough to navigate the channels. When your moment comes, you go. Maybe Stewart saw his moment and pounced.
- I was surprised that the book didn't delve more into the apparently icy relationship between Holgorsen and the defensive holdovers from the Stewart/Rod era. From what (limited) sources, I have, the two barely communicated, the defensive staff didn't participate in the Man Trip, and other various uncomfortable working conditions existed in the same building. Do you have reason to believe these rumors were untrue, or was the information too late in coming out to include in the book?
There was legitimacy, so much so that the coaches’ offices are no longer set up with offensive coaches on one half of the building and defensive coaches on the other, but I think the bigger story was there were no clear signs of friction. They didn’t talk much and probably didn’t like one another, but that was in private.
Publicly, they were pretty professional about it. Even the Mantrip thing was explained away rather easily. Bill Kirelawich had bad knees. Coaches preferred to entertain recruits inside the Puskar Center. The weather was awful once or twice. David Lockwood made the trip on occasion, too.
I just didn’t feel like it was a very big deal or that it had much to do with the story. I love to barbeque. Sometimes I feel like grilling ribs. When I do, I don’t smoke a turkey, too.
- On that line of thought, is there anything that's happened since the Orange Bowl victory covered in the epilogue that you wish could've made it into the book?
Certainly the Big 12 fiasco needed further detail, but that was unexpectedly ridiculous and it was happening at a time that didn’t work too well with deadlines I had set for myself.
I’ve since come to learn and understand more about that episode than ever before and the whole process is actually very interesting and entertaining. It was a rather brief courtship that involved a few surprising characters.
And I think keeping Luck and not losing him to Stanford was a big deal. I don’t think he was close to accepting the job and I don’t even know that it was offered, but that’s something fans have grown to worry about these days. Maybe at another stage of the school’s history, the A.D. would have left and it would have fit into the pattern. This time, he stayed and kept his aim fixed at the top. That would seem to work well with how my actual epilogue went. I like it when I look smart. But again, perhaps a second edition would one day address all of that.
- I, for one, couldn't recommend your book more highly for anyone that enjoys college football in general, let alone Mountaineer football. How has the feedback been from other Mountaineer fans?
- Thanks. It never gets old hearing those words. No one’s told me they hate it. Some have said they hate me, but that’s been in a joking manner. I hope.
They didn’t like reliving all of the nightmares of the past, but they understood and some found it therapeutic. A few people said they felt redeemed and rejuvenated by the curveball I throw in the final two chapters, which makes me feel great because, seriously, the end of the season was threatening to ruin my book. Instead, I happen to think it actually made my book.
The most uplifting and, at the same time, deflating compliment I get is when someone says they read the book in one sitting. That’s flattering, of course, but also oddly frustrating because this was not written in one sitting. Not even close.
The only negative stuff I get isn’t really negative, but a number of people have said they knew a lot of what I wrote and didn’t learn a whole lot. I don’t have a counter for that, except that those people are a definitive minority, but this book wasn’t written exclusively for WVU fans. I feel strongly that a lot of people misunderstand WVU and what has happened here through the years. This seemed like a perfect time to explain it and I just hope my book did a good representing those events in a fair, accurate, sometimes funny, sometimes frightening manner.
Thanks again to Mike for taking the time to answer a few questions for The Couch. You can check out Mike's blog at http://blogs.dailymail.com/wvu/, his Twitter account at twitter.com/mikecasazza, and once again, if you haven't already, buy his book at Amazon by clicking here.
2012/06/18 11:36 am
**YOU HAVE ENTERED THE West Virginia Legends Classic football camp CHAT ROOM**
quincy_wilsombodygetthatdeadhurricaneplz: I want to welcome everybody to the 2nd annual West Virginia Legends Classic football camp. I think this year, we're really going to make a difference with these kids.
fight4urwhite2party: Hey, great to be here.
morttyfied: I HAVE TAKEN TIME FROM HUNTING QUARTERBACK FOR FOOTBALL PHILANTHROPY
majorpayne: Yeah, can someone get this guy away from me? He was gnawing on my leg earlier.
WileyCoyote: Morty, no!
quincy_wilsombodygetthatdeadhurricaneplz: How has everyone been doing? We never get to meet like this.
wes_lyonsandtigersandbears: Well, I'm still really tall.
mullen_it_over: Saaaaaay, you ARE really tall. Has anyone ever thought to just throw a ball really high in the end zone for you to catch?
wes_lyonsandtigersandbears: Nope. No one ever thought of that.
majorpayne: I have a lot of fun at these events. Makes all these young punks remember that I was the man once upon a time.
fight4urwhite2party: Wait, you're that guy they always compared me to?
majorpayne: Yeah, but I'm sure you had a lot more success in the NFL.
quincy_wilsombodygetthatdeadhurricaneplz: Yeah, Pat, what exactly ARE you doing these days?
fight4urwhite2party: Well, I put my mind to it, and I think I'm going to pursue an acting career.
morttyfied: SAY WHAT?
fight4urwhite2party: Yeah, I'm going to try acting for a while. Get some head shots and stuff like that.
WileyCoyote: Well, I certainly approve of that career path. Check this out:
morttyfied: WHAT THE EFF WORD IS THAT?
WileyCoyote: Action shot, bro. Already scored me a role as Cowboy #3 on this summer's hottest drama, "Franklin and Bash"
morttyfied: AH, WITH ZACK MORRIS.
WileyCoyote: Yes, with Zack Morris.
quincy_wilsombodygetthatdeadhurricaneplz: So are you gonna do all that stuff, Pat?
fight4urwhite2party: Yeah, I've already got an agent with WVU football connections working out all the details as we speak.
puntazgetsl8d: dem hollywood bitches gonna muss they drawls when leading man fatty pat white rolls up in dem clubs with tha kozman makin it rain with head shots and magnum xxls
WileyCoyote: Oh lord, Pat. Did you really hire him as your agent?
fight4urwhite2party: He said he had connections to all the biggest stars. Clooney, Spielberg, Scorsese.
puntazgetsl8d: yeah all them honkeys is my boys. me and clooney fly out to milan on the regular with a bar fulla 40's and a cabin fulla shawtys yafeelme
puntazgetsl8d: hey i thought there were supposed to be kids here. i feel like educating the youth
majorpayne: Yeah right, like we're gonna let you talk to kids.
puntazgetsl8d: hey who asked you grandpa? go get me some peanut brittle and stfu before i start bustin caps up in this domicile
majorpayne: /knocks out puntazgetsl8d
fight4urwhite2party: Hey, that's my agent!
majorpayne: Let me introduce you to some folks at Milan, son.
2012/05/23 12:45 pm
[Note- Segments of this post appeared in the 2011 post entitled "The Bill Stewart Era- 2008-2011". I've updated it for obvious reasons.]
On Monday afternoon, just about every Mountaineer fan around the nation either sent or received a text message conveying a message that seemed hard to believe- Former WVU Head Coach Bill Stewart passed away after collapsing suddenly while golfing at Stonewall Jackson Resort.
In this era of instant communication and social media, reactions came pouring out from seemingly every corner of the country, from former players to fellow coaches to journalists to United States Senators. Most sentiments were eerily similar. "Really, really nice guy. Molded men. Thoughts and prayers to his wife and son."
Mountaineer fans flocked to message boards like the one on this site to express their own sentiments and remembrances, and Stewart's legendary "Leave No Doubt" speech before WVU's 2007-2008 Fiesta Bowl win over #3 Oklahoma was posted and reposted again by folks who simply couldn't believe that the guy who represented the State of West Virginia like no other university coach ever before was gone so suddenly.
Bill Stewart's finest moment as WVU Head Coach made its rounds following the stunning announcement that he was gone.
And as is only human, many writers, bloggers, and message board posters wanted to find a way to put into context what Bill Stewart's legacy would be now that his own time on Earth had been cut entirely too short.
Adding to the difficulty of summarizing his time at West Virginia was the circumstances that led to his departure from the program, which, truth be told, feels like it happened a lot longer ago than it did. It feels unseemly to analyze wins and losses by a football team playing a game, or to talk the events that led to his dismissal. A man has died, and it's only human nature to want to focus on all the positive aspects of his time with us rather than dwelling on the unpleasant times.
In recent days I've read just about every piece that's come out trying to capture the essence of both Bill Stewart as a man and Bill Stewart as a football coach at West Virginia University. From articles like this one from wvillustrated.com warmly remembering time spent with Coach Stewart to this one at scout.com referring the Bill Stewart era as the bridge to the Big 12, to this one from wvmetronews.com arguing that Stew deserved better than he got from WVU when it was over, to this bizarre article from msnsportsnet.com comparing Stewart to Harry Truman.
I think it's possible to acknowledge that Bill Stewart was a really nice guy and a really good representative of both the State of West Virginia and West Virginia University without the need to lionize his time as WVU head coach and the successes and failures both on and off the field.
He wasn't perfect (and wouldn't claim to be) and wasn't the modern incarnation of Bear Bryant. He was a uniquely cheerful and kind-hearted coach in an era that seems to produce neither. He obviously had a tremendous impact on hundreds if not thousands of young men who he molded to be better citizens, scholars, husbands, fathers, friends, Christians, and Americans. His success in that regard can be found in the warm remembrances and well-wishes of his players following the news of his passing.
Stewart will be remembered more for his role in shaping lives than in molding wins and losses.
As far as on-the-field accomplishments, the Bill Stewart Era will be remembered as a period of transition for the West Virginia Mountaineer football program. Stewart possessed none of the dynamism of either his predecessor or his successor, and largely stewarded the program in an adequate, if not always satisfactory manner for WVU fans who'd grown accustomed to BCS Bowl trips during the Rich Rodriguez era. But one thing was certain- Stewart sure did love West Virginia University, the Mountaineers, and the State of West Virginia.
At the time Stewart was hired, even though everyone involved understood that he wasn't necessarily going to revolutionize any aspect of Mountaineer football, a steady hand on the tiller seemed like the right direction for the program. Some complained at the time of the hiring and even more complained after seasons that seemed lackluster compared to other recent successes. Ultimately, Stewart's 28-12 career mark included a .700 winning percentage that ranks fifth among all WVU head coaches. The desire for more success than that seemed vindicated this past January when Stewart's replacement, Dana Holgorsen, guided Stewart's players to a Big East Championship and BCS Bowl win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. (Stewart hadn't won a bowl since the 2008-2009 season.)
Off the field, Stewart graduated his players at a rate of 90%, which is exceptional in modern major college football, and was a major step up from where Rich Rodriguez left the program. Stewart understood that his "lads" were in Morgantown for more than just football, and prepared a great number of them for the life they would ultimately lead after they wore their Mountaineer jerseys for the last time.
In his 3 years as Head Coach, Stewart was a fine representative of the State of West Virginia, even while sometimes going on rants in press conferences that no one really understood. Stewart understood the importance of the program to the state in general, and also understood the pride that West Virginians have in their One True Team.
Say what you will about how he went out (we'll get to that in a bit), but we knew that being Head Coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers was just about as good of a gig as 'Ol Billy Stew could possibly imagine. WVU fans don't know yet if Dana Holgorsen has the same love of Old Gold 'N Blue deep in his heart or if his eyes start to wander at the first coaching vacancy at a Name School, but we knew with certainty where Bill Stewart's heart would always remain. When he said in his initial press conference that being Head Coach of WVU was his last job, we believed him.
Being the Head Coach of West Virginia University was Bill Stewart's dream job, and it seemed like he appreciated that fact every second of his time there.
Ultimately it was this passion for his job that led to his resignation a year before originally anticipated. While Dana Holgorsen was brought in to steer the Mountaineers in a different direction on the field after a third disappointing season, the Coach-In-Waiting succession plan was expected to work expressly BECAUSE Bill Stewart had a reputation as a high-character individual that would never put his own interests before the interests of the University.
The particulars of the events leading to Bill Stewart's eventual resignation can be found in this article from last year, but suffice it to say that in his own misguided way, it's very possible that Stewart believed he was acting in the best interest of his team, University, and state by providing information to the press that would prevent Dana Holgorsen from embarrassing the program after he eventually took over as head coach.
Maybe Stewart thought it was worth it even if he had to fall on the sword.
After news broke of his involvement in leaking damaging information about his successor to the press (and the subsequent public reaction clamoring for his head), Stewart agreed to a sizable buyout that ended his tenure as Mountaineer Head Coach. He did so in a respectable manner befitting a man who took so much pride in being a Mountaineer. While a press conference was held to anoint his successor, Stewart spoke only through a statement provided to the WVU Athletic Department:
"As I said on the day I was appointed head coach, what is best for WVU is my first priority. Today, I am doing what I believe to be in the best interest of the Mountaineer Nation."
Ultimately, Bill Stewart himself knew that his time at WVU was going to be analyzed mostly for what happened between the lines, but he judged his value by a far higher standard. As this quote from his obituary notes:
“I’m going to be judged on the wins. I know that. However, what I do with these young men’s lives, I’m being judged by the MASTER COACH. And that’s why I lay down every night and sleep very well.”
So it's possible to remember a man fondly without reconstructing history. Sure, many of us wanted more wins from our head football coach, but we also know that we can't forget that Bill Stewart set the standard for how damn proud the Head Coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers should be to hold that position.
He will be remembered for changing the lives of countless young men who, to a man, say that he made them better people.
He will be remembered as being as fine an ambassador for the State of West Virginia and West Virginia University as we will ever see.
He will be remembered for being a genuinely nice, caring, thoughtful, and gracious person and a devoted father, husband, and Christian.
And if you can say all those things about me when I shuffle off this mortal plane, I'll consider my life a success.
God bless Bill Stewart and his family. A grateful Mountaineer nation sends out its thoughts and prayers to you all.