Holy hell, we have genuine confirmation. We’ve even reached talking head commentary part of momentous change. Good for us.
But before we start celebrating the arrival of a man who appears by almost any measure to be an offensive genius, there are still an awful lot of questions that need to be answered here in Morgantown, a place I’m still not sure Dana Holgorsen has ever stepped foot in.
1. How long has the planning for this been going on?
“Since the day he was hired!” seems to ugly a thing to consider, but it certainly seems there are those in Mountaineer Nation who have pined for Stewart’s departure since the night after that amazing victory against Oklahoma. There have always been rumblings that there was a core group of connected individuals who wanted Stewart gone; their influence on the Athletic Department ebbed and flowed, depending upon the situation, but according to Mike Casazza’s excellent reportage, we might be able to believe that their power was flowing after the Syracuse and Connecticut losses this season. This certainly suggests that Stewart’s performance, after a certain point, wasn’t going to matter to these people. That he won more games during his first three seasons as the Mountaineers coach didn’t matter; that he had a chance to get double-digit wins didn’t matter; that he had a genuine opportunity to lead WVU into its third ever BCS bowl game didn’t matter.
2. What were the ramifications of that planning?
Earlier this season, while a friend and I were arguing about Stewart’s coaching, he asked me if I wanted to bet against the man, a bet I refused on principle. No matter what the situation, you never cheer against your team. You always hope for the best possible outcome. But if the planning to remove Stewart had been going on for weeks, you have to imagine that this same cabal of insiders (lead by one very public outsider, Oliver Luck) must have been cheering against the Mountaineers. If the losses continued to mount, removing Stewart in the middle of his contract, and in the middle of a career that had started out better than any other football coach in the school’s history, was going to be far more palatable to the rank and file fans. There’s no denying that those fans were angry about the inexplicable losses to Syracuse and Connecticut - they were ugly performances that highlighted the worst of Stewart’s generally conservative coaching philosophy. But the overwhelming majority of those fans never thought to cheer against the Mountaineers against Cincinnati, against Louisville, against Rutgers, and against Pitt. The same can’t be said for Oliver Luck and the people he looked to for support.
3. What if Stewart had made a BCS bowl? What if he’d won?
It’s bad enough that Stewart is losing his job on the precipice of a double digit win season. But consider this: was there anything that was going to save Stewart once this decision had been made? He did win out after those two ugly losses, and he was a freshman quarterback’s airmailed fade routes away from going back to a BCS bowl game. If the Mountaineers had backed their way into a BCS appearance, would Luck still have executed this plan? The assumption has to be yes - most of the unnamed sources have claimed that Luck didn’t believe the program was “headed in the right direction,” whatever that means. (Well, except that the wrong direction is apparently the possibility of double digit win seasons and bowl appearances.) And forget the assumption: go back to Casazza’s article. He writes explicitly that this planning began weeks ago which means Luck wasn’t waiting for the rest of the season to play out. He didn’t care what happened throughout the Big East (and although UConn was in the league’s driver’s seat after beating WVU, they still had four more games to win).
Then there’s this: if Stewart had backed into a BCS game, what if he’d won it?
4. How bad is this succession plan?
It’s bad. Let’s forget, just for a moment, what the players and the coaches are supposed to do for the next calendar year without a clear leader, disciplinarian, decision-maker, etc. Let’s focus instead on the insidiousness of the plan from a fan’s perspective. (It is remarkable, before we get to the following issue, that Bill Stewart didn’t ask to be bought out entirely.) Who gets the credit for the way next season plays out? Depends who you’re asking but we aren’t going to waste our time asking everybody, because everybody doesn’t matter. Only Oliver Luck and those that support him unquestioningly matter. And what they’re going to do is this: give all of the credit for success to Dana Holgorsen and give all of the criticism for failure to Bill Stewart. (Again: it is remarkable that Bill Stewart is willing to endure something so transparently weighted against him.)
5. How does all of this reflect on Dana Holgorsen?
It doesn’t, yet. All we know right now is that Holgorsen is a offensive wizard whose schemes pile up the yards and the points. There’s a stack of evidence to that effect a mile high. Holgorsen was looking for a head coaching job and found one at WVU, albeit one a year away, one awkward, ridiculous year away. But what happens during the 2012 season if he doesn’t win his BCS bowl game? What if his Mountaineers don’t win the Big East title? What happens if his Mountaineers don’t win 10 games? Holgorsen had better not expect any more loyalty from Oliver Luck and his cronies. They’ve already indicated that they’re measuring success using some metric that the rest of us have neither seen nor would recognize. (Wins and bowl games don’t matter now, apparently.) They’re also willing to cheer for the other team if it advances their own clinical machinations. Holgorsen seems like a smart guy; surely he recognizes this situation for what it is.
6. At some point, somebody’s going to figure out exactly how important Pat White was to the program, right?
Perhaps nothing infuriates me more than this: Pat White is the reason WVU was as good as it was for four years. It wasn’t Rodriguez (he never won a bowl game without Pat White as his quarterback). It isn’t Stewart (although Stewart might get a win December 28, making this entire situation even worse). The reason everybody’s expectations are so entirely out of whack is what Pat White did for WVU from 2005 to 2008. We spent four years winning an overwhelming majority of our games, including four bowl games, to the point where fans everywhere started expecting that we were going to keep on doing that once White left. White was a once in a lifetime player. He and his contributions aren’t going to be easily replaced, regardless of who the coach is, and any assumption that they are going to be easily replaced denigrates what White accomplished here. Hearing WVU fans talk about White like he had nothing do with the team’s success is galling, especially because those fans act as though WVU started playing football in 2005.
They know, don’t they, that in the four seasons (all under Rodriguez) before Pat White’s arrival, WVU averaged seven wins per season? And that since he left, the team (under Stewart) has averaged nine wins per season? I understand if fans thought we’d be continuing the double digit win seasons indefinitely after the team’s greatest player left the team, but maybe that expectation was entirely unrealistic.
7. Do some fans understand exactly how schizophrenic their fandom has become?
As mentioned before, I’ve heard Pat White denigrated by fans who insist that Major Harris was the school’s best quarterback. I’ve heard Geno Smith denigrated by fans who insist that Barry Brunetti was better. I’ve seen Stewart’s accomplishments here dismissed as if anybody could have held the team together after Rodriguez’s abandonment, as if winning 27 games in three years is some negligible feat that any coach in America was capable of. I’ve seen the injuries that Stewart had to contend with (Jarrett Brown’s concussion and Noel Devine’s turf toe) dismissed as being unimportant. (Rodriguez and Stewart were lucky that Pat White rarely got injured, and when he did in the infamous Pitt debacle, WVU’s chances went out the window.) I’ve heard that wins and losses matter except when they don’t. I’ve even heard a revisionist history of Rich Rodriguez.
It’s that last point that’s so interesting, if only because the same fans who raged against how Rodriguez then are praising Oliver Luck now. When Rodriguez was sneaking around, it was an outrage. When Oliver Luck was sneaking around, it was praiseworthy. When Rodriguez was being disloyal, it was an outrage. When Luck was being disloyal, it was praiseworthy. When Rodriguez was walking away from his contractual obligations, it was an outrage. When Luck was walking away from his contractual obligations, it was praiseworthy. When it was Rodriguez, it was outrage, and when it was Luck, it was praiseworthy. The rules, it appears, are entirely ephemeral and depend more upon the whims of a few.
Of course, there’s nothing to be done about any of this now. Holgorsen’s the man, or will be, and Stewart is confined to history, but there exists a genuine possibility that Stewart gets the John Beilein treatment. Beilein’s contributions here have been either dismissed, forgotten, or written off, because he left the program, and because his predecessor lead the team to greater heights. (Although the writing off of Beilein occurred long before Bob Huggins reached the Final Four last year.) Regardless of what Holgorsen does, it seems clear that the Stewart years are going to be treated as a disaster instead of what they were: three really good years by any historical consideration of WVU’s football program. Could they have been better? I suppose so. But if you told me in 1984, in 1994, in 2004 that we’d have a coach who led us to a 2-1 record in bowl games and average nine wins a season over three years, I would have taken it, and you would have to. The highs of 2005-2008, a time coincidentally matched with the arrival and departure of WVU’s greatest ever player, shouldn’t change that concrete fact.