NEWPORT, R.I. — Perhaps the most well-known football coach in the Big East has made a rather loud exit, quietly replaced by a coach you had likely never heard of before December.
West Virginia is a nearly unanimous pick to win the conference, with a nearly anonymous coach leading the way. With Rich Rodriguez gone to Michigan after a contentious breakup, the challenge of guiding the Mountaineers and Heisman Trophy candidate Pat White falls to longtime assistant Bill Stewart.
Who, you ask? Stewart, 56, had coached at nine colleges and the CFL before joining Rodriguez's staff in 2000, working with the quarterbacks until shifting to tight ends last season. He was named interim coach in December. He led West Virginia to a 48-28 upset of No. 3 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl and, hours later, was announced as the team's new coach.
West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong said he saw Stewart as a potential successor before the Oklahoma win, on the day he told Stewart he got the interim job, with assistants already deserting with Rodriguez to Michigan.
"I said, 'Billy, I'd like you to take over this team, get it ready to play Oklahoma,' and he said, 'Okay,' " said Pastilong, who hired another West Virginia native in Bob Huggins last year. "I was expecting a bunch of questions and discussions. He simply said okay, and that impressed me. It showed me he had confidence and was not one bit hesitant to take on that responsibility."
Pastilong visited his practices and saw not only discipline and organization, but players enjoying themselves.
"It could have been a complete disaster, but he grasped it and demonstrated a leadership ability that was extraordinary," he said.
Pastilong understands that the hire might be perceived as an emotional response in the wee hours after perhaps the school's biggest victory. He gathered board members at about 2 a.m., told them what he had seen, cited the wide approval of West Virginia's players and recommended Stewart, "very strongly."
Just like that, Stewart was hired.
His only experience as a head coach was from 1994-96 at Virginia Military Institute, where he went 8-25. The real experience that has endeared him with West Virginia fans? He was born in the state, in tiny New Martinsville, started his college career at West Virginia and now holds the hopes of an entire state of fans. He can appreciate their fanaticism.
He grew up playing basketball on a neighbor's court, dreaming he was Jerry West or Rod Thorn. "It got to the point where I didn't knock on the door anymore," he said. "I'd hit the door, flip the light, shovel the snow, and we'd play basketball all winter."
He listened to football games on the radio, sitting with his grandparents, his uncle Bill telling him to get quiet or get outside and play.
"That's how we grew up as Mountaineers," he said, remembering the "little old ladies" in his hometown who know only two things: bingo on Wednesday nights and West Virginia football on Saturdays.
"That's how powerful it is to a native West Virginian," he said. "Some people don't understand that. Some people maybe don't get that. I really don't care. All that matters is the pride I have in the old gold and blue."
Rodriguez's awkward departure — he recently agreed to pay West Virginia a $4-million buyout — has quickly drawn the wrath of his home state. But the mild-mannered Stewart, quick with a smile, looking a bit like Lou Holtz with wire-rimmed glasses and short, graying hair, has shifted the attention.
Stewart, the league's lowest-paid head coach at $800,000 a year, won't say a single ill word about Rodriguez, but his new conference colleagues certainly have given him their unabashed support.
"He's got a great reputation because he is who he is," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "He's a down-to-earth, good person, loves the game. … The people who wonder on how he will be (compared) with Rich are nuts. This guy's probably better than Rodriguez. I'm worried about him. We beat Rodriguez. We haven't gotten this guy. This guy worries me. I wish Rich would have stayed. But he didn't, so we'll have to go play Michigan now."