|WVa football team moves on after Rodriguez|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 07 August 2008 08:32|
There he is, riding his players' shoulders in a crafty wall photo montage after the Fiesta Bowl win in January. Looming just as large right around the corner is the team's latest photo with Stewart front and center.
Nope, no sign of Rich Rodriguez here.
After the exit, the fallout, the lawsuit and the $4 million settlement, West Virginia - at least the players and holdover coaches, including Stewart - have long moved on.
It's all forward thinking as the Mountaineers prepare for another season of high expectations in the Big East and hopes of a third BCS berth in four years.
``When we took this thing over from the bowl, it was a passing of the guard,'' Stewart said. ``It wasn't a loss of life. It was just a change of life. I'll forever be grateful to those coaches for what they did for this school and the bowl game. They let me live the American dream and I wish nothing but the best for Rich and all the guys.''
Two weeks after West Virginia lost to Pittsburgh and blew a chance to play for the national championship, Rodriguez was gone to Michigan, opting not to coach the Mountaineers in the bowl.
After months of legal wrangling, Rodriguez agreed to pay WVU the entire $4 million buyout in his contract. Michigan paid the first $2.5 million of the settlement in late July. Rodriguez is scheduled to pay the rest in three annual installments.
``There are definitely some fans that hate him. That's their opinion,'' WVU linebacker Reed Williams said. ``What's done is done.''
The spotlight is finally back on football, although some players admit they peeked from time to time at the drama.
``I think we all got caught up in the mix of what was really going on there. We kept on eye on what Michigan was doing a little bit,'' defensive lineman Chris Neild said. ``But that stopped real quick.''
Stewart was the interim coach for the 48-28 win over Oklahoma on Jan. 2, then was picked as Rodriguez's replacement hours later. The questions about his own credentials haven't gone away.
Stewart's only previous head coaching experience was an 8-25 record at VMI from 1994-96. Under Rodriguez he coached special teams, tight ends and quarterbacks.
To defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich, Stewart proved himself long before the Fiesta Bowl.
``The proof in the pudding that he should be the next coach was getting them to the game,'' Kirelawich said. ``He calmed them down, which they needed calming down after getting shellshocked like they did. He got them focused. He got them prepared to play that game.''
Whether Stewart can do it over a full season remains to be seen. But at practice, there's already a different atmosphere.
Where Rodriguez was known to be vocal and skimpy with praise, Stewart is the outgoing, hug-happy coach who spent half of a recent practice smiling up a storm.
``It's very different coaching styles,'' wide receiver Tito Gonzales said. ``Even though Coach Rod preached a lot about having a family atmosphere, the guys feel that it's more like a family atmosphere and Coach Stewart is a father figure to them.''
And sometimes dads have to scold. He normally prefers an observer's role, but his raspy voice was an indication he'll pull on the reins when necessary.
``Coach Stew is laid back. He's nice and he's funny. And he knows when to be serious and he knows when to joke,'' running back Noel Devine said.
And, they believe, will know how to win.
``Coach Rod, he's a good coach. I don't have anything bad to say about him. I enjoyed four great years under his tutelage,'' Gonzales said. ``We can't live in the past. We can't live on last year's Fiesta Bowl victory. We've got to look forward to what's next.''
So thanks for the memories, coach Rod.
``We closed that chapter a long time ago,'' Williams said. ``We'll take it from here.''