'Rookie' Stewart Makes Debut Against BCS Veteran Stoops

The folksy figure has been an assistant for all but three seasons in his 32-year career

Jan. 1, 2008

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) - Bill Stewart considers himself a taxicab man. Limousines don't suit him much.

So all the attention that's been thrown his direction this past week as the head coach of a Bowl Championship Series team doesn't give him much of a thrill. Except that he seems to be such a natural at soaking it in.

The folksy figure has been an assistant for all but three seasons in his 32-year coaching career, but took over as the interim head coach at West Virginia (10-2) after Rich Rodriguez left two weeks ago for Michigan.

For his debut in charge of a major football program, he'll draw the challenge of No. 3 Oklahoma (11-2) on Wednesday night in the Fiesta Bowl.

Stewart is experienced enough that he was recruiting Bob Stoops' brothers while the future Oklahoma coach was still playing in college. But in this matchup, Stoops has the edge of having coached in BCS bowl games five of the past six years.

"It's been nothing out of the ordinary. I have had a few more speaking engagements. I've gotten to meet a lot of nice people. I am the same guy that will ride in a taxicab. I don't need a limo," Stewart said Tuesday.

"I am not going to change a bit. I am just an old ball coach out here with a group of ball coaches with a tremendous football team that have been on a mission."

Stewart has been anything other than ordinary since arriving in Arizona a week ago.

After the Mountaineers got off their plane last week, Stewart had a full speech prepared for their arrival news conference instead of just a few brief remarks. He shook hands with numerous Fiesta Bowl volunteers in a tent at the airport.

At the bowl's main media day, Stewart joked that two officers providing his security detail were actually monitoring him because he threw snowballs at cars and apples at tractor-trailers and also sneaked out of school to go fishing as a child.



"That's all Cub and Boy Scout honor," Stewart said, holding up two and then three fingers on his right hand while dropping his signature line that he's being truthful. "I did that. These guys are taking me back to pay for that."

He also spent about 4 minutes doing a fake interview with kicker Pat McAfee, who took over as a substitute reporter for a West Virginia TV station. Throughout his appearance, he repeatedly insisted that any attention he's getting should instead be directed toward his players.

Reaching the helm is quite a destination for Stewart, who has had a dozen stops at high schools, colleges and the Canadian Football League on his way to West Virginia. He was a holdover from Don Nehlen's staff and had been coaching tight ends and special teams for the Mountaineers before Rodriguez left.

"This is the best job I've ever had. I'm home," said Stewart, a native of New Martinsville, W.Va. "These are great young men. I'm just the lucky one that gets to sit up here and act like a puppet. The guys in the arena, they're the guys. They get all the credit."

Upon arriving at his final news conference Tuesday, he greeted Stoops with a "Hi, Bobby," and then posed for a few pictures with him and the Fiesta Bowl trophy.

"Bob is a veteran at that, but I am just learning," Stewart said in his opening remarks.

He then went to take questions, calling on a reporter who had raised his hand. Then he stopped and apologized to the moderator for being a "rookie" and agreed to let him handle his duties.

Stewart's only previous head coaching experience came at the Division I-AA level, going 8-25 in three seasons at VMI, but players say his upbeat approach has been a refreshing change from Rodriguez's intensity.

"There's nothing you can do but enjoy it. When a guy does stuff like that for you and makes you respect him, you respect him more," safety Eric Wicks said.

"It's like you have to do this for him. You have to do anything you can for him because he'd do anything he can for him."

That doesn't mean the Mountaineers are turning soft.

"I don't think we've lost our hard edge. I think the hard edge is for something different," Wicks said. "Now our hard edge is to show that Coach Stew is a great coach. ... It's kind of a different mind-set but I think guys are going to take it more because when you respect somebody, it goes a lot farther than when you fear somebody."

West Virginia president Mike Garrison declined to say who he planned to interview for Rodriguez's old job, but called Stewart a "very viable candidate" for a head coaching position. Garrison said he has begun speaking with consultants about who would be interested in the job, and hopes to have a head coach hired quickly.

Stewart squirms when the conversation turns to that subject, saying only that he is "confident the administration will pick the finest football candidate they can for the program at West Virginia University, no matter the outcome of this game - good, bad or indifferent for us."

A victory against Oklahoma might be a nice resume builder for Stewart, but he's not viewing it as an audition for the top job.

"For our seniors, we always want to win, always. For our juniors, our sophomores and freshmen as well. For me, no," Stewart said. "I don't worry about Bill Stewart."